Collecting Articles and Features

Sampson Mordan Propelling Pencils

A Victorian gold and hardstone mounted propelling pencil by Sampson Mordan & CoEvery good, middle or upper class Victorian gentleman worth his salt would have owned one. A small silver propelling pencil, perhaps attached to an Albert chain with a fob watch on the other end and stored in a waistcoat pocket, or kept with a notebook for a day’s important jottings. These retractable, sliding pencils were not inexpensive, and as such were bought or received as prestigious gifts and kept for a lifetime. They were made in enormous variety, with the size, shape, materials and level of decoration being a display of both your wealth and tastes. A little like today’s mobile phones or handbags, I suppose.

Pictured: A Victorian gold and hardstone mounted propelling pencil, by Sampson Mordan & Co. Estimate £250-£350. Image Copyright Bonhams.

Although there were many makers and retailers, there’s one name that jumps out as being bound inextricably with these pencils, right back to their inception and development in the early 19th century. That name is Sampson Mordan, famed and (once) famous silver and goldsmith. However, having said this, all is not so clear. The precise details of the development of this indispensable writing tool lie with someone else.

Sampson Mordan propelling pencilPictured: A Victorian Sampson Mordan & Co, London 1895 propelling pencil – A good quality Victorian fully hallmarked silver sliding Propelling Pencil, the cylindrical body with deep foliate scroll engraved decoration, an engraved cartouche with the owners name, the screw-off seal terminal set with a bloodstone. The image is Copyright of Steppes Hill Farm Antiques who have a speciality in pens and writing equipment. Visit to view their site.

As with many important inventions, the name of the real brain behind it is not the one that is most widely known. In this case, the real inventor was an engineer called John Isaac Hawkins. An interesting and innovative man who shared his life between the US and UK, Hawkins was also responsible for developing a polygraph and an upright piano, as well as conjuring up the name ‘bi-focals’. Hawkins had seen that most pencils were made from a long lead bound in wax and rope or fabric, or cased in wood or metal. As they were used, they needed to be sharpened, requiring extra tools. Surely the lead could be placed in a mechanism allowing it to be telescoped out on a spiral as it wore down through use? This would also then allow all manner of elaborate cases to be developed, widening the market for his invention. So, in 1822, the twist-screw mechanism behind most propelling pencils was developed. Precisely what Mordan had to do with this is, I believe, as yet unknown, although he is credited as co-inventor despite apparently having had little experience of inventing or engineering himself. However, Mordan had studied under another inventor, Joseph Bramah, who also had a hand in developing writing instruments, so perhaps he met Hawkins and grew his knowledge this way.

Sampson Mordan propelling pencil golf clubPictured: A Victorian Sampson Mordan & Co novelty propelling pencil c 1880 – A rare Victorian novelty silver Propelling Pencil formed as a 19th century Golf Club, the pencil emerging from the handle with a twist mechanism. The image is Copyright of Steppes Hill Farm Antiques who have a speciality in pens and writing equipment. Visit to view their site.

Whatever, Mordan was able to acquire the total rights to the design in the same year. Quite why Hawkins sold them outright so quickly to Mordan is a mystery. Some say that Hawkins was primarily an inventor and engineer and was not interested in business, and there is evidence to back this up. To use two clichés, Mordan took the bull by its horns and really went to town. He built a highly successful business that, by the mid 19th century, was arguably unrivalled in terms of its expertise, skill and inventiveness. Many thousands of examples were produced with their cases ranging in form from simply decorated cylinders to novelty shapes such as owls and even people.

However, by the early 20th century, people began to turn their back on Mordan’s costly confections. The development of brightly coloured plastics, and the rise of famous names such as Parker, Waterman and MontBlanc, sounded the death knell. People wanted more, for less, and they could have it. When the Mordan factory was bombed during WWII, the final end came. Even so, the company he founded lives on today, having been bought by traditional maker Yard-O-Led, part of the Filofax group.

Despite what I have said above, and the precious materials used, the majority of examples found will have values of somewhere between £40 and £400. This really isn’t expensive for what they are, when you think about it. After all, these are made from solid silver or solid gold, and were made entirely by hand with skilled use of machines for certain tasks, including making the finely engineered internal parts. Just think how much similar work would cost today if you walked into, say, Asprey?

There are four primary concerns when thinking about value. Firstly, there is the material. Solid gold is obviously more valuable than solid silver. It would have cost considerably more at the time, so is rarer today as fewer would have been sold. High (18) carat gold is even scarcer, particularly in fine condition as gold is a comparatively soft and easily worn material in high carats. Look closely too, as there are three colours of gold; yellow, green and rose/pink. The addition of precious stones is also a sign of rarity. Whilst small turquoise cabochons were often used during the 1860s & 70s, and seed pearls can also be found, precious stones such as rubies and sapphires are much scarcer. A pencil like the tiny one shown here combines all of these– three colours of solid gold, pearls and precious stones – rare indeed. In fact, only four have ever been seen by collectors.

Other materials found on Mordan pencils include ivory, tortoiseshell and carved wood. Despite its humble origins, carved wood can be quite rare, particularly if in figural forms. Ivory was a luxury product at the time, but is perhaps the most common of these materials, although inset gold ‘pique’ detailing will increase the value. Tortoiseshell is much scarcer, particularly in good condition.

Material is one thing, but what you do with it is another. The level of decoration is the second important factor to consider. The most common pencils found will have simple columnar lines, known as reeding (if the columns are convex), or ‘fluting’ (if the columns are concave). Depending on date and condition, they can be worth from £50-150. Another common form is ‘engine turning’, which can vary from a fine barley pattern to fine parallel lines, or a combination of both. Any departure from this is worth looking at closely, as the more detailed and more finely worked it is, the more it is likely to be worth. Look at the example with the stylised leaf designs shown here and think about the extra skill it would have taken to make, even though much of it was cast. That’s primarily why it is worth more today.

Following on from decoration is the overall form. Whilst most pencils are based on the cylinder, Sampson Mordan became renowned for their novelty pencils, which I briefly alluded to above and which were produced primarily during the late 19th century. Here their imagination knew no bounds and small pencils were produced in forms ranging from animals to pistols to human beings – the legendary Ally Soper pencil is shown here. Once thought of as a ‘non-existent’ Holy Grail, an example surfaced at auction two years ago and fetched over £1,000. Nevertheless, most novelty forms will cost between £150 and £500, but always check that the mechanism, which can be quite complex on some examples, works, as it can be costly to repair. Also look out for pen and pencil combinations. As nibs were made from feather quills and, later, steel, only a holder will be present. Most are curved ‘slots’ where the nib slid in to a friction fit holder, but anything more, such as the ‘Ejector’ or the much earlier ‘Bramah’ type with its swivelling grip and collar grip, can fetch over twice the value of the simpler version.

The forth and final aspect to consider is the marking. Nearly all Mordan pencils are marked with Mordan’s name. Taking the above aspects into consideration, as you need to think of all three in one go, in general the earlier a piece dates from the better. When Mordan acquired the rights from Hawkins, he then sold half of them on to a wealthy London stationer called Gabriel Riddle to raise capital for the business. Hence the earliest products bear a dual hallmark – SM and GR, along with the wording ‘S. MORDAN & COs PATENT. This lasted from 1823-1837 when Mordan and Riddle parted company. Examples with hallmarks from before 1825 are extremely rare and can fetch up to £300 or more depending on condition and decoration. From c1838 until the 1850s-60s pieces are marked ‘S.MORDAN & CO MAKERS & PATENTEES’ until the 1850s-60s when the wording ‘S.MORDAN & CO MAKERS’ was used. Finally, from the 1860s onwards the name ‘S.MORDAN & CO’ was used. A final tip is to look for a small arrow mark. This was used mainly on gold pencils made by Mordan that do not usually bear his name. But this is no ordinary arrow as, if you look closely, you’ll notice that the feather ‘flights’ on one side are fewer than on the other. As with most things, the devil is in the detail!

by Mark Hill visit