A Gazetteer of Lock and Key Makers

Jim Evans

this gazetteer is copyright Jim Evans, 2002


Key maker of the traditional key filing type.  Existing in 1921.  In 1936 Mrs S Wilkinson is listed as a key maker at 47 Essington Road.  Run by Harold Wilkinson into the 1970s, when he was dealing mainly as a factor and finishing a few castings.



Set up in about 1988 to manufacture five and six lever padlocks, furniture fittings and repetition turned parts.  In June 1994 they took over the lockmaking side of Atlas Harrison (q.v.), to add the Belfry range of padlocks and mortice locks to their range.

In about 1995 Alan Ash, formerly of ABT and Morris Springs, took over the company in a management buyout.

In October 1996 Willenhall Engineering acquired Lockstock, which manufactures locks and fittings for UPVC aluminium and timber windows and doors, from owner Richard Morton for an undisclosed sum.  The merger of the two companies has created a business with an annual turnover of £2 million with 50 employees.

In March 1998 Stockwell Engineering sold its padlock making business to Security Engineering plc (q.v.).  Chairman Alan Ash said that the deal formed part of a strategic realignment of its Willenhall engineering products.  "This enables them to concentrate on their core business, namely hardware products and components for the PVC-U and aluminium door and window industry, whilst safe guarding employment for those currently employed in the padlock part of the business".  Around 10 people who work at the padlock firm will be kept on.



See Keys of Steel (q.v.)



The Willen Key Company was founded in 1903 by James Walker, with an office, showroom and stores at No 77 High Street Battersea.  The twenty year old Mr Walker named his company "Willen" after the Staffordshire town of Willenhall, the home of English locks and keys.  Mr Walker's practical experience and youthful zest soon established his new company as a leading supplier of keys and locksmiths sundries in the south of England.  Willen's first catalogue, brought out in1909, illustrated 55 pages of keys, blanks and ironmongers items.  Gradually the firm extended its range to include lawn mowers and garden tools; but its reputation was still based on being a specialist in keys and blanks.  Every new blank of British and foreign origin was immediately put into stock.  When its 1922 catalogue was issued, the "Ironmonger" wrote: "there is still a number of misguided individuals who are under the impression that they can do better by dealing direct with a maker rather than a factor. They overlook the fact that sometimes the wholesale man is a specialist and can offer a bigger choice than the manufacturer. To such we commend for careful attention a catalogue which has just been issued by the Willen Key Co."

By 1923 the scope of Willen Key’s activities had increased to such an extent that it was decided to move to larger premises in Bath Street off City Road EC1.  The new premises included a showroom where the company's range of tools, locks, keys, garden requisites and hardware was displayed.  

In 1938 Willen Key was registered as a limited company with Mr Walker as director. Five years previously he had made an important appointment for the future of his company: he engaged a trainee representative, Robert Allen.

Trevor Dowson has provided this advert from 1929.  Although the advert says the ocks are British Make they do not actually claim to have made them themselves.  

Willen Key suffered their share of war damage: their Bath Street offices were destroyed. Undeterred however, the company moved to the home of locks and keys and established itself in Willenhall.  The manager was W H (Billy) Deering who earned himself the nickname "Padlock Harry" within the trade, as at the beginning of the war he went round all the local pad lock makers and gave them orders to produce padlocks.  With general orders drying up due to the war, he was quickly overrun with padlocks and had to find other warehouse space to keep them.   He still had many left at the end of the war.

When the bombing was over and the head office staff returned to London, the Willenhall branch carried on as a new and thriving limb.  

An advert from The Ironmonger Guide 1950. The advert refers to "Locks of every description, Blanks, Hinges, Bolts, Tools, Door Furniture etc.".

The company continued to prosper, opening branches in Belfast in 1953 and Bristol in 1963.  On the 2 October 1972 the Willen Key and Hardware Company Ltd was acquired by GKN, who amalgamated their own distribution company of Nettlefold & Moser with Willen Key to form Nettelfold-Willen Ltd, with Robert Allen at its head and head offices at Summer Road, Peckham.  From this point the company's interest in locks and keys waned and they concentrated on the GKN core business of screws.  Further changes took place in January 1977 when Nettlefold-Willen Ltd was amalgamated with Netmos Hardware to form GKN Distributors Ltd.  By this time the Willenhall Warehouse had been closed and the sale of locks and keys was finished.  So ended the company that had become the household name for locks and keys and whose catalogue was the bible for everyone in the trade. (Ref. leaflet published by Nettlefold-Willen, 1972)



Key maker. In Existence in 1953. Nothing else known.



This advertisement comes from a Wolverhampton trade directory of 1896.

The brass plate (below) claims that the firm was founded in 1855.  The advert says they have been established over 40 years - which is consistent. 

But Marie and Andy Preece have a Samuel Withers safe, in Bridport, on which the brass plate says the company was founded in 1843.  

The dates at which the two plates were made are not known.  But companies often claimed an early foundation date on very slender evidence.

The trade mark shown on this plate is a lion, passant regardant.  This is consistent with other examples of the mark except that the lion is not standing on a crown.  Referring to West Bromwich as being "near Birmingham" is geographically accurate but unusual.

Trevor Dowson has found this advert is a trade mark listing for 1912.  Note that they claim various names and words as trade marks and that the lion is now on top of a crown.  Presumably they adopted this new device about this time; and it may be that items bearing this mark are later than ones which bear the lion alone.

Information on the company in its later days can be found in K. W. "Bob" Sidbotham's book, Life and Tales of a Locksmith, History into Print, 2005.  Bob's firm, WBS Locks, from its foundation in 1946, supplied most, if not all, the locks for Samuel Withers' safes.  At that time Withers was owned and managed by Dennis Withers.  But he died about 1962 and the company was then run by his widow.  It did not last many years and closed sometime in the late 1960s. 

In their time they made enormous numbers of safes. Some that have survived are shown below.

This Withers safe is owned by Rolie Slater.  Note that, unlike the one shown above, the plate is oval, not round.

This label from this safe shows the trade mark as a lion standing on a crown.


This Withers safe is owned by Mike McLean in West Hollywood, California.

The brass plate (from the exterior) and the label (from the interior) of Mike's safe.

This shipping label is still attached to Mike's safe.  However Mike bought the safe from a very large antique dealers who import many antiques from Europe; so this may not be evidence of Withers' export trade.


This Samuel Withers safe is built into the cellars of the former Bilston Town Hall (which is currently, 2005, undergoing complete restoration).  The Town Hall was built in 1873 with additions in 1880.  This safe seems to date from that time.  



The Bugle of 27 April 2006 shows a name plate of T. Withers (not the one shown below) which says "Estd. 1855" and shows a trade mark of the letter T superimposed on W, all enclosed in an inverted triangle.  The paper also reports that Kelly's Directory of Staffordshire, 1900 gives them as being in Sandwell Road, West Bromwich; and Round's Alamanac of 1907 giving them as being at 230 Sandwell Road. 

name plate from Frank Sharman's collection

In the original entry in this Directory Jim Evans wrote: "The origins of this company are unknown but in the late 1970s the directors were Charles Robin Greenwood and John Peter Hewitt, who were also directors of the Churchill Lock and Safe Company; and of the Dreadnought Safe Co.  

In 1978 they set up C. H. Buggins & Sons (Locks) Ltd. (qv) where Dennis Buggins made their safe locks.

In 1982 Thomas Withers Ltd got into financial difficulties and went into liquidation. They were removed from the company register and dissolved in February 1984."

The Bugle article also mentions Samuel Withers and adds that there was also, recorded in Jewell's Annual for 1896, a Joseph T. Withers, safe maker, 104 Old Sandwell Road. 

The relationship between all these Withers is not known.

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