Sent to the ocean bed by a WW1 U-boat in 1917 – this Onoto fountain pen still writes perfectly after 70 years underwater!
Onoto British-made pens have a long-standing reputation for quality, but a recently discovered example of one of their earliest pens takes the prize for outstanding durability: it writes perfectly after spending 70 years at the bottom of the English Channel!
Guaranteed not to Leak!
The pen is thought to have been manufactured in London around 1906 by Thomas De La Rue & Co, the postage stamp and bank note printers, for their fledgling pen company, Onoto. It is one of the earliest plunger-filling fountain pens, using an innovative mechanism which was the successor to the very messy eye-dropper method of putting ink in pens. At last there was a mechanical, automatic way to fill pens without getting your fingers covered in ink! What’s more, the filling mechanics meant that the pen could be ‘locked’ when in transit so it wouldn’t leak (another messy failing of earlier pens). In fact this Onoto model was widely advertised as the first pen “Guaranteed not to leak”.
A popular and successful fountain pen around the world
Originally sold for 10 shillings and 6 pence – the equivalent of £0.52 ($0.75) today, but quite an expensive purchase in those days – the pen was made from a material known as vulcanite, a hard rubber compound and was an instant success. It was marketed successfully by Onoto all around the world for many years. As a result, it’s not a rare pen but one which is important in the history of fountain pens. Today, there are still many similar Onoto pens offered for sale in auctions – but perhaps none with quite such an unusual story to tell!
Sent to Australia and India – by Royal Command
The pen belonged to Sir Thomas Carmichael, a British diplomat who had spent the early part of his career as Governor of Victoria, Australia and then in 1911 was posted to India to become Governor of Madras and Bengal. King George V, who had sailed to India on the SS Medina, P & O’s most modern steamship, was behind Sir Thomas’s appointment. The Medina, built at Greenock in 1911 for the mail run to Australia, had been fitted out in red, white and blue as a Royal Yacht – and plays an important role in the history of our much-travelled pen. Around this time, Mahatma Gandhi was beginning to create a name for himself through his ‘passive resistance’ tactics against the British; tactics which ultimately led to the end of the British Raj and independence for India in 1947.
A premonition of disaster
But back to 1917 and, at the end of his tour of duty, Sir Thomas prepares to return to England as the new Governor arrives. Lady Carmichael believes the timing of the change-over is absurdly dangerous while English ships are constantly being attacked by German gunboats, but both she and her husband are looking forward to going home. On 25th January 1917 she writes to a friend, Miss Thomson:
‘Our ship comes from Australia – we are not supposed to mention the name but it begins with M and ends with A. Everyone seems to be going (or trying to go) by the same boat – including Lord Montagu – you know I look upon him as a sort of Jonah and I believe he can never be persuaded to stop discussing the most gruesome details of his experiences.
Lady Carmichael is clearly not happy with the arrangements and although they embark on Medina in Bombay, by the time they reach Port Said, she puts her foot down and demands to switch ships. They return home on HMS Sheffield, thought to be a safer vessel in the U-Boat infested waters around Europe. Their 80 cases of personal possessions, however, remain on board the Medina.
Leaving bombaY SUNK BY A GERMAN U-BOAT
The cargo manifest shows that in addition to the Carmichaels’ belongings, Medina is carrying Australian meat and butter for the war-starved British, plus tons of copper, tin and gold ingots. By good fortune or great planning, Medina offloads the gold at Plymouth before continuing the last leg of her journey to London.
But soon after she leaves Plymouth, German U-Boat UB31 spots her 4 miles off Start Point in South Devon. In the perfectly calm conditions, Medina is an easy target. A single torpedo is all it takes to send her to the bottom, taking Sir Thomas’s 80 cases with her, including his much loved Onoto which had accompanied him throughout his service in Australia and India.
Salvaged after 70 years
And there it stayed for 70 years until a salvage company, exploring the wreck in 1987, recovered many of Sir Thomas’s artefacts – including his Onoto fountain pen. The mud had left many objects in an extraordinarily good state of preservation. There was, as expected, a large Oriental art collection; Indian brassware and an elaborate wooden chair; Japanese porcelain; netsuke; Chinese carving; letters from Kitchener and Lord Rosebery which were still legible; watercolours; jars of scent; perfectly sharpened pencils; an Assyrian cuneiform seal and bright Ancient Egyptian beads, striped in gold; Sir Thomas’s Masonic jewels and his KCMG order. There was also a good deal of jewellery: amethyst and diamond cufflinks, and fiery Australian opals, which were just beginning to be mined in the first decade of the century, when Sir Thomas was Governor of Victoria.
Since 1987 the majority of the pieces recovered have been sold at auction, but it was only recently that Sir Thomas’s Onoto pen was advertised on an online auction site. The current directors of Onoto, intrigued by the story and keen to acquire the pen for their corporate collection, won the bid and were delighted to see it in such good condition. The vulcanite cap and barrel in particular showed no ill effects from 70 years underwater – only the scuffs and scratches that came from years of use in Australia and India before it sank beneath the waves.
Original Components Fully restored and in excellent condition
The Onoto directors sent the Medina Onoto to renowned ‘pen doctor’ Laurence Oldfield for an assessment of its condition and within days he reported that it was in excellent shape for a pen which had been under water for more than 70 years! It needed new seals and piston as both had corroded – but any pen of that age would need to have these parts replaced. The good Dr Oldfield even sourced a new piston rod from a willing donor pen of approximately the same vintage as Sir Thomas’s pen.
Ready for assembly
The acid test though was the condition of the nib. Made of 14 carat gold, it had been preserved remarkably well and looked as good as new. When tested for the first time in over 90 years, the ink flowed smoothly and evenly onto the page.
First use for more than 90 years
Now fully restored, the 100+ year old Medina Onoto is regularly used by one of the Onoto Pen Company directors. What finer way to recognise and cherish the quality, resilience and longevity of Onoto pens?
If only it could speak, what an incredible tale this extraordinary pen would have to tell!