Scribbling and Sharpening

In the past I have often scribbled about hammered silver coin caches, Anglo-Saxon hoards, Roman burials and all the other magnificent finds made by detectorists. I was 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’ even today. Today’s offering is rather mundane.

The teacher always had an ‘industrial’ pencil sharpener attached to the desk at the front of the class.

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.

How did the Victorians sharpen the lead in their pencils?

Sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself. The catalyst for this post was a Victorian to Edwardian pencil sharpener found by Scottish detectorist Howard in 2009. 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 designs on the PAS and UKDFD databases that had been found by detectorists. Here’s one from the PAS.

An incomplete Modern cast-lead pencil sharpener of 19th century date (c. 1850-c. 1900).
“The lower part is hollow and cone-shaped to house the pencil. It has a rim at the base and a vertical slot at one side. On the opposite side of the slot there is a raised cartouche or similar feature with initials, possibly S O. The decorative handle end is sub-triangular in plan and pointed in side view. Two scrolls rise from each side of the cone to form an opening. The scrolls support a scallop-like feature which has an almost similar design on each face with a circular hole at the base. Each of the scallop-like faces has a raised design, a crown on one side and a standing human figure on the other.
This sharpener is worn and corroded in places and has a buff patina. The iron cutting blade is missing. 40.97 x 17.13 x 11.14mm. Weight: 9.08g.”

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, and from far away as America and Australia. Thank you all for sharing. But one was slightly different from the norm. ‘Bodkins’, found one shaped like a frog, and has kindly allowed me to share it with you.

Courtesy of ‘Bodkins’

There were many updates to this post. Donna Babington contacted me via Twitter to tell 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.”

Brian Newton’s sharpener courtesy of Donna Babington

I wonder where that phrase came from?

Because the slate was for temporary work, memorisation 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.

7 thoughts on “Scribbling and Sharpening

      1. She went to a village school. The older children even had to help teach the younger ones to read and write. Hard to imagine that there were still schools like this in the late 50’s..


  1. I do not remember using a slate at school, John… but I certainly remember those pencil sharpeners semi-screwed down to an unstable piece of wood.. They always moved around.. they were a real pain in the asp!!!

    I have found my share of olde pencil sharpeners…. but nothing as ornate as is pictured here… Some beautiful examples of the art.

    Thank you again for the trip down memory lane my friend

    I hope that you are not baking too much in the heat


    Liked by 1 person

  2. Very enjoyable article, John. Only in the past several years have I progressed from using a school-style sharpener. My desk now has an “electronic” sharpener with a hole at the front into which a pencil is inserted and out of which, if I don’t check every 2.3 seconds, comes an eraser with graphite marks on one end. I think of it as a Lilliputian log chipper.

    Liked by 1 person

Please Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.