Friday, 11 March 2011

The Elusive Elias Wolff

The name Elias Wolff was not always elusive. When I came upon a tin of E.Wolff Royal Sovereign pencils I investigated. The National Portrait Gallery in its British artists' suppliers resource lists Elias Wolff (c. 1780-1854)  - consequently Elias Wolff & Son (1840-1915) and E. Wolff & Son Ltd. (1916-1920) - as a pencil maker who set up business first in Spitalfields in East London and later in Falcon Pencil Works in Battersea, south London.

During the 1840s Wolff produced the "Creta Laevis" pencils which Dave's Mechanical Pencils came upon in 2008 in an old pencil box. In 1842 Creta Laevis are listed in H. Wilson's The Use of a Box of Colours... under C. Smith's Materials for sketching in watercolours as these crayons worked dry or with water. Creta Laevis pastel pencils were reported to have gone "out of fashion" by 1880s. 

The Survey of London, vol. 27 (1957), mentions No. 23 Fournier Street, Spitalfields as occupied from 1818 to 1866 by Elias and Zive Wolff, pencil makers. Further evidence of Elias Wolff appears in 1884 in the National Archives. It is in the records of the Board of Trade and concerns a patent registered by E. Wolff and Son Pencil Manufacturers of 55 Great Queen Street, London WC: "a pen rack the upper edges of which are notched or serrated so as to hold penholders, pencils, etc."

 I could not find any information about the Falcon Pencil Works, which is listed as a Battersea industry in Randomwalk (where also a photo of the factory from the Wandsworth Local History Centre.) In 1921 E.Wolff & Son is incorporated in the Royal Sovereign Co. together with Arthur Johnson (later B.S. Cohen), pencil manufacturer of Neasden.

Royal Sovereign prospered during the war but it was "a prosperity of an extremely undesirable and unhealthy kind, in that Government demands for pencils received priority over those through the ordinary trade channels, from which an international connection had been built up over a hundred years," Grace's Guide quotes an extract from British Trade and Industry 1934

"So undesirable and unhealthy, in fact, that to see British-made pencils in the retailers' shops in England itself was a rare sight. Indeed, nearly all pencils on sale in the country were of foreign origin.

England during the war became almost the sole manufacturer of pencils for all the Allied Governments. Without pencils it would have been impossible for clerical staffs and draughtsmen to perform that essential work which is the preliminary to the manufacture of commodities and war munitions. Without pencils it would have been difficult to manufacture rifles, shells and guns, to build submarines, destroyers and battle-cruisers, and to move armies in the field."

In an effort to regain the markets lost during the war, Royal Sovereign expanded its premises in Neasden and decided to go under the name Britannia Pencil Works. The company produced "Royal Sovereign" pencils, "Spanish Graphite" and the famous Woff "J" pencil which was supplied to the Law Courts and Houses of Lords.

In the 1922 British Industries Fair, Royal Sovereign is listed as manufacturers of the "Royal Sovereign," "Bank of England," "Spanish Graphite," "Imperial," "Alexandra," and all kinds of Blacklead, Carbon and Coloured Pencils, Crayons and Chalks. In 1934 Royal Sovereign was appointed pencil manufacturers to King George V and thus allowed to bear the royal coat of arms on their packaging.

The brand still exists today. Wolff Carbon Pencils and graphite pencils are popular with artists and there are also Royal Sovereign Chinagraph pencils for writing in smooth and shiny surfaces. I think that the company was taken over by Staedtler but maybe fellow pencil experts know more.

A tin of 11 unsharpened pencil by E. Wolff is available to buy at Inklinks at Etsy. And for those who are into vintage packaging there is an empty case of Royal Sovereign, too.


  1. Good post. I live in the Spitalfields house that was once the factory and home of the Wolffs. Always love to read something about them.

  2. Really?! How fascinating! How about writing a guest post for Palimpsest, I'm sure readers would love to know more. Contact me:

  3. Hello I have a E wolfe & sons Eclipse ink well with the lead ink wells, marked on it 1883 and No 6722 and Red Black and Copy, It in in excellent oroginal condition, e-mail if you can tell me any further information about this or Google Neville Beechey and AJ Millman Bakery Colac Victoria or Sour Dough Blog page, mant thanks from Neville,

  4. Hi
    Have a look at (page 79) for an E Wolff and Sons patent Parcel Pen - a large brass nibbed pen for writing on parcels...

  5. I have a box of Bank of England pencils 12 unused.
    Also Wolffs solid ink pencils 12 tied with cotton,and 12 wolfs desk pencils boxed.
    12 very old Carbon pencils with square leads or slips as they are called.