Zu-lose! But pen thief escapes jail

Jennifer Shaw 20 January 2008

A qualified engineer narrowly avoided a prison sentence after admitting to the theft of a historic Zulu pen used to sign the 1879 Ulundi Treaty from the Cambridge University Library.

William Harmer, now 22, stole the pen from a locked room whilst working as a book runner for the UL in 2004, Cambridge Magistrates Court heard on 3rd January.

He claimed to have acted out of spite at being denied holiday pay he believed the library owed him.

Harmer remained undetected until December 2007 when his ex-girlfriend took revenge by reporting him to the university authorities.

Police then acquired a warrant to search his flat at College Houses in Comberton and found the pen hidden under a drawer.

Harmer claimed he had “always intended to send the pen back to the library.” His solicitor Michael Judkins stressed that it was not stolen for financial gain.

Harmer was made to pay a £250 fine and £75 in costs.

The wooden pen, valued by experts at as much as £10,000, was used to sign a series of peace treaties to end the Anglo-Zulu war, after the capture of the Zulu king on 28th August 1879.

The war witnessed the bloody battle at Rorke’s Drift in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa, in which 139 British soldiers defended their camp against 5000 warriors, as depicted in the 1964 film ‘Zulu’, starring Michael Caine.

The pen is the property of the Royal Commonwealth Society, founded as the Colonial Society in 1868 as “a meeting place for gentlemen connected with, or interested in, the British Colonies.”

Rachel Rowe, the director of the society’s library, which is housed in the UL, said of the missing pen: “Security is very tight but there has to be an element of trust as regards the staff. In the seven years I have been here nothing like this has happened.”

The society’s collection includes other unusual colonial items such as glass spearheads made by Aboriginal warriors from telegraph- pole insulators.

The pen is currently unavailable for public viewing but the RCS plans to include it in an exhibition in the near future.

Jennifer Shaw