Arthur Twydle - a personal appreciation of a unique man - war hero; businessman; innovator; Penmaster and teacher.
- by Dr. Jim Marshall
Arthur Twydle was a unique man with incredible stamina, intellect, inventiveness, experience, ‘nouse’, business judgment, friendship and generosity. He was without doubt one of the most significant influences on vintage pen repair this century. But he was much, much more than just a pensmith.
Arthur was born in Suffolk in 1918 but grew up in the North and after leaving school continued his studies in grocery retailing. In 1939 he was one of the first volunteers and by July 1940 was on his way to Singapore as an officer in charge of ordinance. He had married his girl friend Eileen in March 1940 and that was the last she saw of him for five years.
The stories from these five years would make a book in its own right: his escape from the Japanese by leading his men to steal a lifeboat, and then island-hopping for three months, rowing at night, sleeping and hiding by day. Finally being picked up by a freighter after starting to sail to Australia and being hospitalised for months in Ceylon with malaria and dysentry. A broken back in Kashmir, as one of the few survivors of a transport crash over a cliff, put him out for a few more months . Then, in the Burmese jungle, he lost his appendix on a wooden trestle table and ended up with peritonitis. After VE day back in Europe he was still required to decommission ammunition dumps in Norway and finally made it to civvy street in 1945. Arthur was a survivor and his stamina was beyond the norm.
Life must have seemed a little tame in Doncaster in 1946, but now with Eileen he began his serious attack on the newsagents as a partner in Eileen’s parent's business. This was the age of austerity but it was also a period of opportunity and Arthur had a natural aptitude for business. He was an innovator, thought about new approaches and took calculated risks. He was, furthermore, a skilled ‘mechanic’ of fuses, bombs and bullets and he simply transferred this skill to the mechanics of pens and pencils. He embraced the new developments that had been catalysed by the war and was one of the first people to promote and develop ball point pens. He patented a unique design of ball pen and also set up a business refurbishing ‘refills’. Eileen refers to this period as her ‘blue’ period when her cutlery, their son Peter’s clothes, and her furniture all had a blue tint from the oily ink mix used to fill those early wound tubular refills.
But it was not only on technical matters that Arthur took risks. He pioneered the Christmas clubs, hire purchase, new sales techniques, central repair services (in Leeds) and fervently believed that his staff should be well trained in calligraphy and engraving.
Over a period of 30 or so years Pen Corner branches in Doncaster, Wakefield, Leeds and Hull catered for the needs of Yorkshire’s penmen. During this period they were often the first shops to introduce a new brand or model and during the 1970-80 period Arthur was acknowledged as one of the foremost pen retailers in the North. His peer group were the pioneers of British pens in the 30s 40s and 50s and they were a ‘rum bunch’, Arthur included! He loved to recall some of his encounters with the Music Hall stars of the day in the Leeds shop but with so many shops he found himself spending an inordinate amount of time travelling between them, so he decided to base himself in Hull and in time sold his other shops to his managers. When he decided to finally retire and sell his Hull shop he was almost 70. But ‘retirement’ turned out to be only a word to Arthur.
The next phase of his ‘retirement’ was one to which I believe he was uniquely suited. After a break of about 18 months he decided to start repairing pens again in his garage. However Arthur could not do things by halves and within a year or so he converted his garage into a workshop and his beloved ‘Pen Museum’ was born. He was again the acknowledged master of pen repair but this time it was different because it was a hobby and it was fun designing new tools, parts and, most importantly, sharing his experience and enthusiasm with others. This sharing led to the idea of a semi-formal course and he became the master of teaching pen repair. He had all the attributes for this task as he could repair any pen and a mere 50 years experience to boot! This credibility of being actually part of the growth, the demise and then the growth of the collectors market for fountain pens from 1940 to 1990 made him a revered authority. But he was also a sensitive teacher with understanding, which often came as a surprise to those who only had the pleasure of a brief phone call to go on before they met him.
He believed in transferring his knowledge, and his repair course was an opportunity not only to learn how to repair but also to tap into his vast knowledge for advice after the course. Although many of his students were older and looking for a potential retirement activity he also had younger students - two of my daughters thought his course was wonderful. You not only acquired knowledge on this course, you also got a kit of tools, spares, reprints from manuals and had all your own pens repaired. I’m afraid there will never be an equivalent course in the future and his students will all count themselves fortunate and privileged to have been ‘trained’.
Arthur believed passionately that service was as important as selling and that pen companies should repair older products and not just offer replacements. He was often critical that key retailers did not build up their own repair and service sections, but failed to see that while he was around there was little incentive for them to establish their own facilities.
The man who has the spares can provide an efficient repair service- the man who does not have the spares cannot. - might have been Arthur’s motto. He acquired spares in large quantities; he had a nose for spares; he believed that nibs were the greatest investment; he had spares made.
Quantity meant little to Arthur, whose catch phrase became “How Much? Just give me a price for the lot!”
'You need the correct tools for the job and you need to know how to use them' - might have been his second principle, for he designed tools, had them made, made them available to others.
'Pens should work' might have been his final principle because a vital element of his course was the testing and adjustment of pens after their repair. A pen had to write for more than a few words or lines; the ink had to flow; the nib had to glide over the paper. He logically made the point that once you repaired a pen you did not want it back again, so better to spend a few more minutes ensuring that everything was working well.
He was a man whose quest in the 1990s was ensuring that the repair of old pens, pencils and ball points would continue in good hands with the right tools and with plenty of spares. He definitely achieved that!
I could go on and on about Arthur Twydle for he was such an interesting man who, with his talents, would probably have been successful in any field. He was still attending night school in his 80s; he wrote well; he could tell a great story and was a fascinating traveling companion; he was always the first to support a new show or activity; he had a mischievous sense of humour; he was a dangerous man when adding brown milk to coffee. Above all, he was a gentleman, whose standards of integrity and generosity knew no bounds.
One had to meet him personally to really know him. He had presence; he could inspire and he was a great encourager of others ideas and projects. And you knew that there would always be some spontaneous fun or mild adventure on a trip with Arthur.
When asked why on earth did he want to buy 20 years worth of spares, Arthur’s stock reply was that he was 'going to live forever!' Arthur’s son Peter observed that obviously Arthur knew he would not live forever, but what he really wanted you to appreciate was that he would live his life as if he was going to live forever.
Well, he certainly did that!
He left pen collectors and restorers a legacy of good practice, and his friends a wonderful treasury of memories. So perhaps he will live forever after all!