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Clashes over carbon in Cumbria

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The humble pencil is an unlikely reason for armed guards, skirmishes, smuggling and an Act of Parliament. As early as 1500 an enormous deposit of graphite — the allotrope of carbon used as pencil “lead” — was discovered in the Lake District at Seathwaite Fell near Borrowdale.

The locals called the stuff wadd or wad. Farmers used it to mark their sheep. Their wives ground it to a paste and administered it in white wine as a cure for various ills.

This particular graphite deposit was formed in vertical pipes like chimneys, was solid and could easily be sawn into sticks. It was the purest graphite deposit in the world. Only slightly different geological circumstances would have produced diamond.

When Borrowdale’s buried treasure came to the notice of the capitalist landowners they naturally wanted it all for themselves, but the locals realised they had been sitting on a fortune and began illicit mining.

Wadd was smuggled on pack-horses to Keswick, where a local inn became a rendezvous for illicit traders, or to the coast over Styhead Pass.

Armed guards were used to protect the mines and legitimate miners were searched as they left work each day. In 1752 an Act of Parliament made it a felony, punishable by imprisonment with hard labour, to enter “any mine or wad hole of black cawke, commonly called black lead, or unlawfully taking or carrying away any wad, etc, therefrom, as also the buying or receiving the same.”

Armed escorts accompanied the pack-horses that carried the wadd from mine to customers. These precautions did not entirely succeed, however. Gangs of men attacked mine offices, or tunnelled to reach nearby mine workings.

To be fair to the pencil, wadd was also a preservative against rust, a mordant for blue dye, good for glazing pottery and casting cannon balls and ideal for blackleading fire grates, although latterly most of the material went to the pencil manufacturers, making and exporting what became known as the crayon d’anglais.

The mine owners made huge profits. Graphite is named in allusion to its use in writing. A famous pencil factory grew up in Keswick on the strength of the local wadd. By the late 1830s the deposits were exhausted and the owners called it a day.

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