MY ANCESTOR WAS A... LOCKSMITH
Before mechanisation, creating locks and keys was a time-consuming, poorly paid occupation
Lock-making is an ancient occupation – the earliest known locks were made by the Egyptians approximately 3,500 years ago. These were wooden and operated with a pin tumbler mechanism: pegs of varying lengths prevented the lock from opening without the right key. The Romans developed locks further, making them in iron and forging their keys from bronze or iron. They also came up with the warded lock, which featured a set of fixed internal obstructions (or wards), that only a corresponding key could open.
For many centuries the pin tumbler mechanism was largely forgotten, and it was the warded lock that became standard in the industry. In medieval Britain locksmiths made beautifully elaborate locks that adorned the doors, chests and cupboards of palaces, cathedrals, churches and the houses of the wealthy.
Until the mid-19th century most locks were made by hand. This was a laborious process, because before the 1700s only iron bars were available; there were not yet iron sheets or strips. The lockplates had to be hammered out on the anvil from bars heated in the smithy fire. A chisel and shears were then used to cut the plates to shape. The shackles for
Until the mid-19th century most locks were made by hand in a laborious process
padlocks were also forged from bars or rods, and most keys were hammer-forged.
From the 18th century rolling mills produced iron sheets, which made the work slightly easier. The hand-operated fly press was introduced from about 1790 for shaping and piercing lock plates, and from around 1806 specialist stampers supplied key blanks that were produced by stamping or drop-forging.
Locks were made by master locksmiths, known as ‘little masters’, usually in a workshop behind their home. The trade was a family affair and locksmiths employed their own children to help them, as well as several apprentices. Children could blow the bellows for older apprentices or adults to forge the iron, ‘drill’ the pipe of a key for the reception of the pin of the lock, cut the wards and file the keys. More experienced workers made keys with more complicated wards.
Although there were successful ‘little masters’ whose business continued down the generations, for others it was a struggle. Locksmiths worked from 6am to 7pm in summer and 7am to 8pm in winter, although in reality they often exceeded these long hours. Their primitive working methods kept wages and prices low. Smaller locksmiths worked for a factor (middleman), who sold locks on to retailers, making them acutely vulnerable to fluctuations in supply and demand. When trade was slow, the factor reduced the price that he paid, and locksmiths needed to produce even more locks to make ends meet. They frequently had to sell their week’s work before they could buy materials for the following week. A locksmith in 1871 earned on average 15–25s per week, but those who made higher-quality locks could earn more.
The usual route into lock-making was via an apprenticeship. Apprentices were bound to a master, usually until they were 21; they could be bound as young as eight years old, although 12 or 13 was more common. In the 1840s and 1850s locksmiths relied heavily on apprentices, sometimes employing four or five at a time and no other paid help. When a man had served out his apprenticeship and become a journeyman, he was obliged to leave and set up on his own or find employment in one of the new factories.
A typical set-up was described to the 1842 Children’s Employment Commission by Abraham Fletcher, a locksmith in New Invention, near Willenhall: “I have two apprentices and one son of about 15 years of age. We work from 7 to 10 regularly every day of the week, and on Friday night sometimes through the whole night. It is too long for both men and boys. It is no use denying it. I should like to have the hours limited from 7 to 6 if only we could get enough money to live by. I sell the locks we make, and I consider that my earnings are from 3s to 3s 6d a day, and that the boys earn 1s 6d a day… These hours are common about here with both locksmiths and keysmiths.”
The labour-intensive nature of the job could cause deformities, especially in children who started at a young age. Long hours spent bending over a bench to file keys and locks often led to a humped back and knock knees.
Rise of the factories
The lock-making industry became concentrated in South Staffordshire, particularly the areas around Wolverhampton and Willenhall, and this remained the case even during the 1860s when the trade was
Apprentices could be bound to a locksmith when only eight years old
well established in cities such as London and Birmingham. At this time approximately 90 per cent of all of the locks produced in England were made in Staffordshire, although only 15 per cent came from small workshops – the lion’s share was made in the rapidly expanding factories.
As the number of factories grew, so did the variety of locks. In the 1860s one factory in Willenhall produced 200 kinds of lock, each in six sizes. The main types were padlocks, till and chest locks, cabinet locks, house door locks (both rim and mortice) and fine-plate locks set into a wooden case to guard against rusting. Locks were exported to Australia, New Zealand, South America and India. It was not just the rich who wanted locks, either; the upwardly mobile middle classes now wanted to protect their wealth and property.
It took a long time for technological developments to transform the lock-making trade. Because wages were low, large numbers of people could churn out locks by hand, leaving little incentive to invest in machinery. But production in the factories did increase greatly from the 1830s with the advent of malleable iron castings for the parts of a lock.
As a result it became more and more difficult for the small locksmiths to compete. By the 1900s lock factories were largely mechanised; machines, often tended by female workers, made the various components then skilled locksmiths assembled and finished each lock.
Tracing your locksmith ancestor
The census reveals the various specialisms in the trade. While some described themselves as a “locksmith”, others gave precise occupations such as “rim lock maker”, “key stamper”, “mortice lock maker” and “padlock maker”. If you find the term “locksmith j”, the “j” usually denotes a journeyman who had completed his apprenticeship but was not yet a master employing his own apprentices.
If your ancestor was a master locksmith, he may be listed in a trade directory. For England and Wales, check the directories that the University of Leicester has put online ( bit.ly/historicaldirectories). For Scotland, try the Scottish Post Office directories digitised by the National Library of Scotland ( nls.uk/family-history/directories/post-office). Some Irish directories can be searched on Findmypast ( findmypast. co.uk/irish-directories).
You might also find your locksmith named in bankruptcy proceedings. Check The Gazette online ( www.thegazette.co.uk) or local newspapers via the British Newspaper Archive ( britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk) or Findmypast ( findmypast.co.uk).
Local archives may retain records of apprenticeships; you can find out what’s available via discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk or the Scottish Archive Network ( scan.org.uk). Alternatively the Register of Duties Paid for Apprentices’ Indentures is on Ancestry for 1710–1811 ( bit.ly/ancindentures), although remember that informal apprenticeships between father and sons will not be recorded.
A Victorian locksmith mends locks at his stall in the street, c1877
These locksmiths are making a key in 1920s London