How the Victorians Sharpened the Lead in their Pencils

11th March 2015 — 20 Comments

Ordinary Detectorist John Higgins – © JW

I often write about hammered silver coin caches, Anglo-Saxon hoards, Roman burials and all the other magnificent finds made by detectorists. I’m privileged and very lucky to have the opportunity to relive the exploits of the finders and tell their stories. And for that I think myself very fortunate and honoured to do so. That’s how I get my ‘fix’. But my blog is a little different.

I was once challenged by a friend to write about what he described as the ordinary detectorist. The use of the phrase intrigued me; what exactly did he mean? My interpretation was that he was talking about the hobbyist commonly encountered at a rally, on detecting forums and usually not exceptional in any way and the artefacts he or she finds.

My friend’s interpretation was rather skewed. I can only conclude that he must have been reading some other magazine, because this is what I do, and especially in my blog! Anybody reading my scribblings will be aware that I love discussing and exploring the stories behind what many might consider to be quite mundane and unimportant stuff detectorists have ‘hoiked’ from the ground! Please forgive the inflammatory language at the end of the last sentence. I’m trying to keep ALL of my readers interested. Don’t want attention to waver or pall at this early stage. I’ll get to the point.

Recently, Detecting Scotland organised a rally in aid of The Scottish Association for Mental Health [SAMH]. Seventy members raised a magnificent £750 for the charity. Howard [aka Chilgrove] found something quite interesting with his Deus, a late Victorian to Edwardian pencil sharpener. In an understatement, he said, “I think its sharpening days are over but it is in pretty good condition. The steel blade is rusted but still partially there!”

I must admit that I hadn’t realised that pencil sharpeners even existed at the turn of the 20th century. Then I found several of similar design on the PAS and UKDFD that had been found by detectorists. See HEREHERE, HERE and HERE for further examples.


I suppose that knives were originally used to sharpen pencils. My research tells me that French mathematician Bernard Lassimone applied for a patent on a pencil sharpener in 1828. His friend Therry Des Estwaux invented the first manual pencil sharpener in 1847. The race to design and market the ‘best’ pencil sharpener seems to have begun in the 1880’s to about 1910 or so.

Object Lessons

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I understand that pencils were not used in schools in the early 20th century. My parents used to tell me about using a quarry slate set in a wooden frame. A slate pencil [not chalk] was used to form the letters. The advantage of slates over paper was that they could be wiped clean and used again and again, but there were several disadvantages. Work on a slate couldn’t be retained.

Because the slate was for temporary work, memorization was crucial for learning and in passing examinations. A teacher could walk around the room and review a student’s progress much like today, but assignments couldn’t practically be collected and then returned at the end of the session with a grade. There was just too much chance something would be erased accidentally. Once the work was reviewed at the student’s desk, the slate was wiped clean and new work commenced. And now you know where that saying comes from! pastperiodspress

UKDFD 14101

UKDFD 14101


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If you are of a certain age you will remember the pencil sharpener attached in a rickety fashion to the edge of the table in your secondary classroom. Probably not, but I have vivid memories of countless disasters trying to sharpen my pencils. Something starting off at a length of  five or six inches usually ended up annihilated and unusable. I hated them.


Update March 2015

Goodness, I hadn’t realised that so many of these items had been found by detectorists. I’ve been shown several sharpeners of similar design over the last 24 hours, and from far away as America and Australia. Thank you all for sharing. But one was slightly different from the norm. ‘Bodkins’, who posts on the British Detecting Forum, found one shaped like a frog, and has kindly allowed me to share it with you.

Frog Sharpener

© Bodkins

Update November 2015

Donna Babington contacted me via Twitter to the me that Brian Newton had found a lovely little sharpener found on pasture in Ayrshire. She said: “I do the historical research and acquire permission to detect and Brian does the hard work. It has been such a pleasure to spend time with these most wonderful links to our local ancestors … feel free to use the picture in your blog.”


Courtesy of Donna Babington – Click to Enlarge

Tony Bibby of the BMD had a sharpener, which was a bit of a mystery item in his ‘toot and don’t know’ box. You must agree that’s it’s a fine example. Thanks for your contribution, Tony.


Courtesy Tony Bibby

Another Update – November 2015

Celebrity Scottish detectorists Sharon McKee and Derek McLennan of Beyond the Beep are doing sterling work with veterans of Combat Stress and the Coming Home Centre. In between the rain storms during a recent dig in Scotland’s nine month Winter season, several good finds were unearthed, but FIND of the DAY went to Martin Brooks and his rather magnificent Victorian pencil sharpener. This must rank as one of the best I’ve seen. Nicely photographed too!


© Those nice people from Beyond the Beep


My friend Randy Dee can always be depended upon to come up with the goods. Here’s a fine example of the sharpener he found – in the shape of a frog:

Randy Frog

© Randolph Dee

Here’s another fine example found by ‘Teeside Runner’ on a recent Northern Relic Hunters’ dig. Thank you for allowing me to add your find to my ‘Wall of Fame’.

01 1870 Victorian pencil sharpener 16.11.2014 bishop aukland dig

© Teeside Runner


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20 responses to How the Victorians Sharpened the Lead in their Pencils

  1. I remember the table pencil sharpeners as i was an Ink moniter and had to sharpen others pencils. Many years ago.

  2. Very interesting John, thanks.

  3. Takes you some time to get to the point John 😉

  4. They used them when John was at School .lol

  5. i never liked the Victorians ,they invented the Blackboard chalk rubber ,i still have the scars on my head .via the Teacher bounching one off my head on several occasions

  6. Brian aka BAMBAM 22nd October 2015 at 9:35 PM

    Thanks John. Very interesting. Brian

  7. Great article again John keep them coming

  8. some great examples there john to enhance a already interesting blog

  9. I put up your post onto our Bpc facebook site with a question asking has any of our readers found an early sharpener here in Australia.

  10. great read John ,i always knew thoses victorians, had plenty of lead in thieir pencils

  11. Thanks John for more great information, I must have been away and missed your original post.

  12. Interesting John.. All these things were before my time and it’s too bad because my pencil is definitely in need of a sharpening.

  13. John from Ontario (AKA Geobound) 22nd April 2019 at 6:37 AM

    I know that this is an old post John, but one of our members just found one of these pencil sharpeners as first listed in this article.

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  1. How the Victorians Sharpened the Lead in their Pencils - 11th March 2015

    […] to the edge of the table in your secondary classroom. The one found by Howard was different! How the Victorians Sharpened the Lead in their Pencils | John Winter Scribbler: BRINGING HISTORY to LIFE Reply With […]

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