January 19, 2016
The Poppy Pen
, or Clover Leaf, a mystery almost solved.
[Posted on Zoss & Pentrace Nov 1, 2004, and FPN on Feb 28, Mar 9, 2005, and Nov 30, 2011.]
Can anyone from the UK identify this pen? It’s a BCHR pen about the size of a Waterman’s #56, although the cap does not interchange with a #56 cap. The #56 is a hair larger in diameter, but this pen is almost a 1/4” longer when capped. It has a Warranted #4 nib, but it’s not just any old ordinary Warranted nib because it’s also imprinted with what looks like a hallmark, a symbol that consists of a capital letter “P” within a pentagon-shaped shield. I’m pretty sure the nib is original. The pen was found in the “wild”, and the nib doesn’t appear to have ever been disturbed from its original seating, nor has it ever been dipped. There isn’t a trace of ink on it. The only clues that give it away as a British pen are the 14Ct mark on the nib and this hallmark. There is no imprint on the barrel, but the lever box looks a lot like a Waterman’s lever box, and there is a symbol that looks like either a four-petaled Poppy, or a four-leafed Clover, on the lever where the Waterman’s Ideal Globe normally would be, but I’m calling it the “Poppy” pen because of the letter “P” maker’s mark. The same Poppy symbol appears on the clip, which again looks like a Waterman’s rivet-clip, and it also has the words “Cap-Clip” on it, but with the order of the words reversed compared to what you’d expect to find on the Waterman’s “Clip-Cap”. The cap has a lip band, so that probably places it in the mid-1920s, or a little after, and it still has its price sticker with a “Medium” nib designation. All in all, it’s a very well-made pen that’s doing its best to mimic a BCHR Waterman’s #56 pen. It’s a Waterman’s equivalent of a no-name Parker Duofold look-alike pen.
I once found a British-made RHR Duofold knockoff that was a perfect replica of the Parker pen, right down to the exact dimensions and the pitch of the thread. The name on the barrel and the clip was “Capacity”, written in a script similar to the “Duofold” logo in the print ads. The parts from this pen were completely interchangeable with those from a real Duofold, and they could be swapped back and forth without fear of damage. Unbelievable nerve, and shameless audacity!
It was suggested that the pen may have been made for some other secondary company as an own brand, or imprint pen, possibly by Burnham, or De La Rue, or even Waterman’s. Does someone have access to an encyclopedia of British hallmarks? Perhaps someone in the UK could do me a favor and look up the mark on the nib. This specific punch mark is actually a maker’s, or sponsor’s mark, rather than an assay office mark, or a date mark. The maker’s mark might give us the name of the penmaker, or it might only be the name of the Warranted nib maker. The “Poppy” pen company was probably very short-lived and may not have out-lasted the life of this particular model. Until something else turns up, the mystery continues.
[Between July and Nov 2011, I corresponded by email with two British fountain pen historians, Andy Russell and Steve Hull.]
“Since I posted the above, I also found another pen with a poppy, or four-leaf clover on it’s lever and 14CT on its nib. This one is only 4 inches capped, and it’s in terrible condition. It’s a tiny, black-tipped, Mandarin-yellow casein, Duofold-look-alike pen with the name “Lilliput” in script imprinted on its barrel.”
Andy Russell wrote, “I should first of all say that four leaf clovers and three leaf clovers, or propellors, seem to be very common on some of the more obscure UK brands. I can’t say whether these were common to a single own brand manufacturer, or whether a number of manufacturers just sourced their levers from the same place. I can say with certainty that Conway Stewart never used clover leaf levers on any of their pens, but I can see how someone would be confused. There was a theory for many years that Conway Stewart made Rosemary pens for British Carbon Papers. A number of these small Rosemary pens fitted with a clover leaf levers were virtually identical to the Dinkie of the period, and this just led people to assume they were made by Conway Stewart. However, Steve and I are both completely convinced that Rosemary pens of this era were not made by CS but by a company called Henry Stark, Son & Hamilton, who shared the same London address as BCP. So while there is a clear link of cloverleaf levers to Henry Stark Son & Hamilton, they may be only one of a possible number of candidates. What I have never seen before is a clover-leaf lever in a lever box, nor have I seen anything with the P symbol on the nib as you describe, so we'll have to talk to Steve about that.
“Regarding the little yellow pen, Steve has the Lilliput as a model by Unique, from the mid 1920s. They certainly used a 3-leaf lever on some of their small pens, not sure about the 4-leaf though. If the yellow material is casein, I think Unique is a very likely candidate, though again they may not actually have made it themselves. It seems they didn’t start manufacturing their own pens until ca. 1927. I seem to remember Steve had an article in the WES Journal about Unique not too long ago? Plain yellow casein seems to be very, very rare in Conway Stewart. In fact, I’ve probably got the only one! But I’ve seen a few Duchess pens, another Curzons-Lang brand, in plain yellow casein, so the material was certainly around in England in the mid 1920s. As for the P-pentagon symbol, it’s really a maker’s mark, or trademark, not a hallmark.”
And I wrote, “There was a similar pen sold on Ebay in 2011 that was discussed in this topic on FPN, but the brand name was “Sunbeam”, a company brand and maker not listed in Steve Hull’s English Fountain Pen Industry book.”
Steve Hull wrote, “The Waterman’s look-alike is unusual, though it is not uncommon to find similar box-lever, rivet-clip pens here. I think it will be pretty hard to identify who may have made it. As for the Sunbeam, it is almost definitely not made by the North British Pen Co.”
And Andy wrote, “I was one of the unlucky under bidders on the Sunbeam pen. [The Ebay auction link in the FPN topic, minus the pics, is still active!] In fact, it will be of interest to you because it has some similarities with your mystery Waterman’s look-alike pen, the same ‘cap-clip’, same boxed lever, and I think the same section shape. You can also clearly make out the logo on the cap in the auction pictures. I agree with Steve that there is virtually no chance of the North British Pen Co. being the makers. It was most likely made for them by others, possibly Curzons-Lang, but I think more likely it would be one of the London competitors of Curzons, such as Henry Stark Son & Hamilton, ‘muscling in’ on Curzons’s own patch.
“I have done a bit of research and have a theory, but first it is worth setting out a bit of background. It is not that surprising that the maker doesn’t appear in Steve’s book, as it only contains makers, or names that appeared in the national stationery trade press, and there must have been many smaller makers who did not merit a mention in these journals, so they remain largely unknown.
“One thing to consider is the name. ‘North British’ in the last century, and earlier, tended to imply a Scottish company, though the pen barrel stated the company was based in Liverpool, so this was one slight anomaly. Small companies often marketed pens that were actually made by other companies, while claiming in advertising that they were ‘the actual manufacturers of these pens’, but it is unusual to see a company name implying a manufacturer like this impressed on the barrel. If they brought the pen in, where was it actually made? Curzons-Lang in Liverpool would be a likely choice, though any one of a number of companies, such as London-based Henry Stark, Son & Hamilton, could have produced the same pen. Would Curzons-Lang produce for a small local company apparently setting up in competition with them? There may be a clue in that they were one of the first UK companies to advertise pens with boxed levers, in 1921, as revealed in Steve’s book, and this Sunbeam pen with a boxed lever that probably dates to the first half of the 1920s. And why the name Sunbeam? I’m not sure Sunbeam is a name readily linked to a rather grimy industrial Liverpool in the 1920s! None of this is conclusive evidence of an actual manufacturer, be it the North British Pen company or one of the more established manufacturers of pens for other companies to retail. You’ll notice here that I’m trying to avoid use of the term ‘own brand manufacturer’, which has produced tedious and seemingly endless disagreements elsewhere on the message boards! In the early part of last century in England, if you wanted to set up a business to ultimately manufacture pens, but didn’t have too much capital, or pen making expertise, a ‘marketing-led’ operation, you would buy pens in from an own-name seller and make sure you identified yourself as the ‘actual manufacturer’ of these pens, legislation then being not what it is today! However, if you wanted to set yourself up in this way as a pen manufacturer in Liverpool, I’m not convinced you would have gone to your local competitor to get these pens made, which is why my preference was for a London maker.
“So we are looking for a theory that fits all these facts. Here are my thoughts, though I stress this is no more than educated speculation, I have no proof of any of this.
“There was a long established rubber goods company based in Edinburgh called the North British Rubber Co., which made all sorts of rubber goods including small machined vulcanite jewellery, boxes and trinkets. Vulcanite was a cheaper substitute for the naturally occurring Whitby Jet in a number of these products. The company was probably most famous for supplying Hunter boots, the Wellingtons of choice for the country set for many years, and they were later to become part of the Uniroyal group. If you Google the name, you’ll find plenty of information online. Maybe, fearing the rise of bakelite as competition to vulcanite in the manufacture of many of their small items, they looked to use their expertise in machining vulcanite to move into the pen manufacturing business, in the same way as the Silvertown operation started in London some ten years or more earlier, and in doing so, they hooked up with some Curzons-Lang employees who wanted to set up in business for themselves. This would have been logical as Liverpool would have been the most northerly of the established pen manufacturing centres at the time, and North British Rubber had warehousing in nearby Manchester. North British Rubber would have supplied the vulcanite parts, ready machined, while the former Curzons employees would have used their contacts to purchase off the shelf metal parts such as nibs, clips, lever boxes, etc., either from Curzons themselves, or from the companies that supplied these parts to Curzons. No large investment in machinery would have been required and the pens could have been assembled from these parts at home with just a few tools. Intriguingly, George pointed out to me that there is a street in the West Derby area of Liverpool called Sunbeam Road. Could this have been the origin of the name? On checking the 1911 census, this was a fully residential street, so no pen factory there, and unfortunately there are no likely candidates in the list of residents for the venture in the 1921 census.
“All this would explain the rather unlikely sounding ‘North British’ name, why the business was set up in Liverpool, why there were similarities with other pens made by Curzons-Lang, and even, possibly, the Sunbeam name, although Steve thinks that it is probably made by Curzons-
Lang. The lack of any mention in the national stationery trade journals and the rarity of pens marked in this way would indicate that the venture was rather short-lived. Anyone who fancies spending a few days in the Liverpool library with the local trade directories and other sources would probably be able to dig out some more clues to the company’s origins but meanwhile, it has been fun thinking about it, and I’m still sorry I didn’t win the pen!
And I wrote, “Thanks for sending the reference to the Sunbeam pen Ebay auction pictures. In fact, the Sunbeam pen is almost exactly like my “Poppy” pen. It’s even the same length. The only difference is that mine has a cap band, thus placing it after 1923. I tend to agree with Steve that it is probably made by Curzons-Lang. Here’s a picture of a Curzon’s Summit S60 I found on Paul M.’s Summit website. There’s an interesting note on p. 53 of Steve’s book that says that Curzons-
Lang advertized box-lever-fillers in 1921, and that places it just before the cap-band era. Did Stark Son & Hamilton ever make a box-lever pen?”
Andy wrote, “I don’t think the lever box is an issue, it was used by a number of makers in the mid 1920s, even on rare occasions by Conway Stewart, for whom it was completely atypical. However, I suspect the real origin of the Sunbeam pen is one of those issues that will likely remain unsolved, and Curzons, or Henry Stark are only two of a number of companies that could have been responsible. I have to say that Steve’s reference to the box lever advertised in 1921 may be an extra tick in the Curzons box, though.
“Steve also pointed out that ‘North British’ is a very strange way to refer to North West England, where Liverpool is situated, and the name sounds much more like a reference to Scotland. If I had the time, I’m sure I could turn up more information about the company but time, of course, is the problem.
“I was finishing off an article for the WES Journal when I looked more closely at one of the advertisements I was using, one that is also pictured on p. 178 of Steve’s book. If you look at the central pen in that advertisement, you’ll see it looks identical to the Sunbeam pen, except that this is clipless, [and has a lever box with a poppy on its lever!] and is by extension, from the same stable as your Poppy pen. Despite the claim in the advertisement that the Southport Maxim Pencil Co. Ltd. were the actual manufacturers, it looks virtually certain that the central pen in the advert was bought in and I would say that makes it more likely that Curzons-Lang were the manufacturers of all three of these pens.”
And I wrote, “That ad on p. 178 of Steve’s book is a nice find. The pen has a Waterman’s-type lever box, and a poppy on its lever. And you’re right, it’s in the same family as the Sunbeam pen and my nameless pen that I call the “Poppy” pen. As for the Waterman’s rivet clip, US patent no. 955,517 shows that Waterman’s wasn’t the only one to have one, except that here the rivets worked from the inside of the cap. Also notice the title in the patent specifications, “Clip-Cap”!
At 12:00 am