Be­fore mech­a­ni­sa­tion, cre­at­ing locks and keys was a time-con­sum­ing, poorly paid oc­cu­pa­tion

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - CONTENTS - Michelle Higgs is an au­thor who spe­cialises in social and fam­ily his­tory. Her ar­ti­cle on con­vict trans­porta­tion starts on page 63

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.

Fam­ily trade

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 (­tor­i­caldirec­to­ries). For Scot­land, try the Scot­tish Post Of­fice di­rec­to­ries digi­tised by the Na­tional Li­brary of Scot­land (­ily-his­tory/di­rec­to­ries/post-of­fice). Some Ir­ish di­rec­to­ries can be searched on Find­my­past ( find­my­past.­ish-di­rec­to­ries).

You might also find your locksmith named in bankruptcy pro­ceed­ings. Check The Gazette online ( or lo­cal news­pa­pers via the Bri­tish News­pa­per Ar­chive ( british­news­pa­per­ar­ or Find­my­past ( find­my­

Lo­cal archives may re­tain records of ap­pren­tice­ships; you can find out what’s avail­able via dis­cov­­tion­ or the Scot­tish Ar­chive Net­work ( Al­ter­na­tively the Reg­is­ter of Du­ties Paid for Ap­pren­tices’ In­den­tures is on An­ces­try for 1710–1811 (­cin­den­tures), 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

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