3.  The coming of machinery and larger firms










The later Tildesley takes us forward in time. He comments that "originally locks were made by small master men in tiny shops at the rear of their own homes. No machinery was used and as late as 1856 we are told that even large manufacturers such as Messrs. Chubb of Wolverhampton made their locks entirely by hand". But machinery was creeping in. In 1796 "Isaac Mason of Bilston came to reside in Willenhall and bought new methods of pressing out lock parts which he had recently perfected. The operation was carried out on a fly-press and meant the saving of much labour and time". Then in 1812 John Grimley moved from Birmingham to Willenhall and started to make keys using a drop forge. Nevertheless, Tildesley says it was not until the first half of the 20th century that machinery was extensively used – which, he points out, meant that "the emphasis has passed from the locksmith to the toolmaker, for with the perfectly designed and accurately made tools the final operation of assembly has been so simplified that, in most cases, it can be done by semi-skilled labour". He says that "one of the earliest firms to use machinery was John Harper and Company of Albion Works who, in 1856, installed a Nasmith steam hammer for forging purposes".

We get another picture of the industry in the later nineteenth century from the history of two productive co-operatives. These were associations of individual workers who came together to form a co-operative in accordance with the principles of co-operation that had lead to the creation of so many retail co-operative shops. These productive co-operatives do not seem to have been long lived or very successfully, except where they sold their production to co-operative retailers. But there were two such co-ops in the Wolverhampton lock industry, details of which are given in Ned Williams’ The Co-op In Birmingham and the Black Country (Uralia Press, 1993, at p.118).

In September 1877 the Co-operative News gave an account of "The Wolverhampton and Breedwood Industrial and Provident Plate Lock Manufacturing Society". It is interesting to note that lock making was still sufficiently divided for the makers of plate locks ("of iron, with mighty keys and intricate wards, burglar proof and admirable for barn doors") to form their own co-operative; and that Brewood was still sufficiently involved in the lock making industry to be included.

Ned Williams thinks that this Society may have come into existence in 1864, possibly as a result of a strike in the local plate lock industry. He also records that they were fortunate to find a benefactor who provided the first premises. Indeed, judging by the histories of other such co-operatives support from the more moneyed classes was not that uncommon. But the Co-operative News took a more confrontational approach in its account:

"[S]even plate lock makers, holding between them just £13 in money, formed a society and began business on their own account.

"The first result that followed was the combination of the Wolverhampton firms in that line against them. The idea of fair play and "live and let live" is not strong in the English manufacturer, and for many months a bitter commercial quarrel raged between these workmen and their late employers…. On one side a number of wealthy firms, on the other a feeble little society of locksmiths, a handful of men, striving to make the labour of their hands more fruitful. For many weeks the society sold its goods at a loss, till at last the quality of the locks became known, more of their fellows joined, and the ruinous competition came to an end. The little shop on Stafford Street has now grown to three, the little company of seven has increased to seventy five, the society’s sales now reach £300 a week, while the capital has grown from £13 to £16,000."

Despite all this the Society seems to have been wound up on 11th August 1879. "A letter published in The Times explained that a lack of orders and an excess of unsold stock caused its demise. The iron trades went into a great depression at about that time, and therefore the co-operative’s demise has to be seen in that context." It might also be the case that, although individuals continued working on their own well into the next century, the co-op’s position was not helped by the increasing influence on the industry of highly capitalised mass producers. A second attempt at co-operation, The Wolverhampton General Locksmiths’ Co-operative Society, started in 1890, was reported in 1892 as making locks for the General Post Office, but had faded from the scene by 1895.

It was a natural result of the coming of machinery that larger firms, mostly registered limited liability companies, with access to the necessary capital, entered the industry, which they came to dominate, largely, though not exclusively, until the middle of the 20th century, excluding the individual or family locksmith.

It seems a natural extension of lock making and bolt making, to go on to make general hardware.  That is what some companies did.   But some companies moved the other way, starting as producers of general ironware and then adding locks and bolts to their range.

At some point the lock making industry added safe making to its repertoire with, it seems, some existing companies simply moving into the trade and others being set up for the express and more or less exclusive purpose. It is interesting to note that the safe making industry entered into the export trade, despite the difficulties which the weight of their products must have caused.

Once you are into making locks and safes, it is natural to diversify into other security devices and systems and some bigger companies started on such things as strong rooms, safe deposit systems and the like. Thus in the Wolverhampton Official Year Book for 1953 Chubbs are described as: "Bankers’ engineers, manufacturers of bankers’ anti-blowpipe safes and doors, strong rooms and linings, burglar and fire-resisting safes and strong room doors, steel grilles and gates, safe deposits, certified safe cabinets, safe files, ledger containers, wall safes, cash and deed boxes and all types of locks."

The first half of the twentieth century saw the disappearance of the back yard lock maker, who was unable to compete with the larger firms and whose poor competitive position was made worse by factory and employment legislation which required a capital investment the small man could not make. Soon a few firms dominated the industry and, in the second half of the twentieth century, they also felt the chill winds of competition. There were closures, takeovers and amalgamations until, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, there is but a small number of firms continuing in the trade, including one large company resulting from the merger of some of the biggest of the old companies; and that is in foreign ownership.

For a general history of locks, click here to go to Chubb’s web site, History of Locks.

for an excellent  history of locks and keys, which will also tell you, as clearly as possible, how they work, read:  
Jim Evans, 100 Years Plus of Keymaking: The History of Arthur Hough & Sons Ltd., published by Arthur Hough and Sons Ltd., 1998.  You can get a copy at the Lock Museum in Willenhall.

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