5th January 1873. From Quill to Parker.


Dickens at work with his quill pen.

Quill pens were  used by Charles Dickens who died in 1870 and  as late as the 1880s by Sir Stafford Northcote, Gladstone’s Chancellor of the Exchequer. 

1st Earl Iddesleigh

Sir Stafford Northcote. 1st Earl Iddesleigh.

Not until well into the 19thc did these pens gradually give way to the new metal nibs. So the monastic goose-feather and cutter (‘pen’ knife) passed into history.(1)

Early metal pens tended to rust; Samuel Pepys in the 17thc had a silver pen: ‘This evening came a letter and with it a silver pen to carry inke’.(sic)(2)

It was Today in 1873 that one of the unsung heroes of the Industrial Revolution, Joseph Gillott died whose main claim to fame was the development of the flexible steel nib.

Born in October 1799, Gillott, started as a working cutler in Sheffield, before moving to Birmingham to be employed in the ‘toy industry’ the technical name for buckles, chains and light ornamental steel work.


c 1900

Advert c1900.

Prince of Wales and Princess Alexandra, Victoria Works, 1874.

Prince of Wales and Princess Alexandra at Gillott’s Victoria Works, 1874.










Though the hard metal Osmium was first used by Smith and Tennant in their pen nibs of 1803, it was the steel nib of the 1830s which was the first to be mass-produced, making the fortune of Birmingham based Josiah Mason. He had previously sold cakes, made boots and furniture, before moving into pens.(3)

Mason had seen a card of ‘slip’ pens ‘ advertised for 3s 6d in a shop window in Bull Street, Birmingham  which he was keen to improve.

He ended by becoming the largest pen-maker in the world, helped by the 1870 Education Act and its Board Schools which created a demand for millions of steel nibs. (4)

Modern so called iridium pens are now made of tungsten. Another element Ruthenium (named after Ruthenia) with alloys, was used in pens from 1944 when the Parker 51 fitted these nibs to a £14k gold-tipped nib containing Ruthenium and Iridium.

A bust to Gillott can be see in the Council House Birmingham, and a Blue Plaque can be seen on the wall of Gillott’s Victoria Works which still exists today as Mitchell & Gillott.

A blue plaque exists at Finkle Street, Selby, Yorkshire, dedicated to the Cambridge Professor of Chemistry, Smithson-Tennant FRS, who was born in the house on 30.11.1761.

A clergyman’s son, the discoverer of the elements osmium and iridium, he documented the findings in a letter to the Royal Society of 21.6.1804. He was later to have the mineral Tennantite named after him.

(1) The term ‘quill-driver’ for a clerk can be seen in Wirksworth Church on a memorial tablet to a Philip Shallcross: ‘Once an eminent quill-driver to the attorneys in this Town d 17 of Novr 1787’.

(2) (2) As reported in The Times 8th June, 1792 p.4, and in Pepys’ Diary 5th August 1663.

(3) Osmium (osme Greek for ’smell’) AN 76, the densest metal (twice that of lead), was also used for early styli and electrical contacts where hardness was a requirement.

(4) Another inventor John Isaac Hawkins looking for hard points as a replacement for goose quills had invented platinum nibbed pens with iridium tips.

Iridium (AN 77) is hard and brittle in its solid state state, has the ninth highest melting points of all the elements, and is found in natural platinum ore deposits. It was named after Iris the winged goddess of the rainbow and messenger of the Olympic gods. Many of its salts are strongly coloured.

Ref: Wikipedia.org/pens.

Ref: chemicalelements.com.

Ref: dailytelegraph/dickens_in_pictures/Image.

Ref: wikipedia.org/Image of Northcote.

Ref: wikipedia.org/Joseph_mason.

Ref: wikipedia.org/joseph_gillott/Images.


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About colindunkerley

My name is Colin Dunkerley who having spent two years in the Royal Army Pay Corps ploughed many a barren industrial furrow until drawn to the 'chalk-face' as a teacher, now retired. I have spent the last 15 years researching all aspects of life in Britain since Roman times.

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