Willenhall History Society

Willenhall - The Town of Locks and Keys

There is just one claim to fame that the town of Willenhall possesses in the minds of most people up and down the land. This claim centres on the production of locks and keys. Put another way, where is it that business concerns, not only in the British Isles but in various parts of the world, look to when thinking of security and more particularly locks and keys? The answer is "Willenhall", a name well known to many people who have never visited it and who possibly have no desire to do so. The fact is that the town produces the goods and that is what matters. Was Willenhall born then under the security of lock and key? It appears not. In fact there was a time, believe it or not, when Willenhall did not exist, with or without locks or keys.

Until man had possessions he had no need for locks. What's more the earliest form of lock was as simple as a stone rolled across the mouth of a cave to keep out intruders.

The first lock with any degree of complexity however, was the Egyptian lock of about 4,000 years ago. This was made of wood and worked on the same principle as the modern pin tumbler lock. A hollow wooden bolt which slid into a staple, had several holes in it, and the staple above the bolt contained weighted tumblers. These dropped into the holes when the bolt was in its shut position, this preventing the bolt from being drawn back. The wooden key had pegs to match the weighted tumblers. When the key was pushed into the hollow bolt, it could be lifted to raise the tumblers and the bolt could then be drawn back. Variations on this have been found from comparatively early times in such diverse parts of the world as Scotland , Japan , Norway and America .

It is thought that lockmaking in this country began with rough specimens being made before the reign of King Alfred. The products became more important and were greatly improved by the time of Queen Elizabeth I when locks were made by blacksmiths. The Willenhall blacksmiths relied on locally made wrought iron for the manufacture of the locks. This was produced from the coal and iron found nearby in abundant quantities.

As the blacksmiths evolved into specialised locksmiths and keysmiths so their work became progressively more intricate. All parts required for locks were hammered out to rough sizes and then filed down to shape. The file and the hammer were the most important tools of the locksmith. Many weeks must have been spent making some of the intricate locks and keys of Elizabethan times. The best locks by now possessed keys with numerous fine splits and perforations and the manufacturers of these needed to serve long apprenticeships. It was written that Queen Elizabeth granted to the township of Wllenhall the privilege of making all the locks required for state purposes. Although this has not been substantiated, the writer argued that this profitable piece of state patronage saw the rapid growth of Willenhall, and so lock making became the staple trade of Wolverhampton and Willenhall.

The dramatic rise in the population in the eighteenth century as industry expanded after the discovery of coal and iron, had its effect on Willenhall. Parish registers record a figure of 3,143 inhabitants in Willenhall and Short Heath in 1801. By 1861 this figure had risen to 17,256. Suffice it to say for the moment that for some one thousand years Willenhall seems to have stood waiting for a specific identity. During the latter part of this time it survived a serious fire of 1659. Willenhall rose bravely from the ashes and stood, waiting. In the fullness of time the 'lock and key' industry arrived.

One of its strongholds was New Invention, a small area two miles North East of the centre of Willenhall but within its township. The origin of the name New Invention has been a matter of considerable debate. The historian Hackwood favoured the legend that the name commemorated the invention of a new kind of chimney pot, while others believe that it relates to a new kind of pump used in the local mines or even a machine for the manufacture of locks and keys. The name is certainly old - it was current as early as the 17th century - but its meaning will probably always remain a mystery. There is one other village called New Invention, in Shropshire but this place name has a local origin of no significance to the Willenhall area,

Of course the skill of locksmiths was being continually challenged by thieves with increasing degrees of cunning. The locksmiths needed to keep a step or two ahead of the thieves. Robert Barron a Yorkshire man certainly moved them a long stride ahead when he patented a lever lock in 1778. This had two pivoted tumblers which were double acting, i.e. they had to be lifted simultaneously to precisely the correct height before the bolt could be withdrawn.

Jeremiah Chubb made a further advance on this in 1818 with his famous detector lock. This had an extra safeguard in that over lifting of any of the levers caused the detector lever to be caught and held up in the over lift position, thus preventing withdrawal of the bolts. When the owner tried to turn the lock he realised immediately that an attempt had been made to pick the lock. He then had to turn the correct key to return the lock to its original position before he could turn it to open the door.

In 1830 Willenhall resident James Carpenter along with inventor John Young of Wolverhampton designed the famous perpendicular action rim lock for doors. The striker did not move in and out as in modern locks but, instead moved up and down. The direct development from this patent saw the beginning of the mortice lock we know today. As Carpenters business grew he built a new large factory in New Road , known as Summerford Works. On his death in 1844 the firm was transferred to his son-in-law James Tildesley, he continued trading under the name of Carpenter and Tildesley. James Carpenter was an ardent Methodist and gave generously to Union Street Church . He lies buried with his wife in a vault on the east side of the Church, in the centre of the lockmaking area of the town. James Carpenter also took out patents for the manufacture of Currycombs, a device used for the combing of horse's coats. With the decline of horses as a means of transport the market for these disappeared.

With the introduction of the blast furnace new ways of making iron were developed, and it became possible to stamp out key blanks and other lock parts with the development of the drop hammer in 1806. In 1812 John Grimley from Birmingham settled in the town and commenced to manufacture parts by means of a drop hammer. This marked the commencement of the drop forging business which became one of the most thriving industries in the town.

The development of malleable iron was perfected by 1836 and brought further progress. This is a cast iron with the properties of wrought iron that could be moulded and cast into small intricate shapes. The industry found its roots in Walsall and Willenhall and the castings produced were small as used in the saddle, harness and lock trades. Repetitive production enabled large numbers of lock parts and keys to be produced cheaply. Key making has always been a separate trade from lock making. Key castings would be purchased for finishing and then passed to the locksmith for final fitting to the locks. The key maker would carry out his work by the use of the file and very primitive machinery. The file was used to clean up the castings and make them bright, while the wards were cut with either a file or hammer and chisel. This work was entrusted to boys in the case of the simpler work. The castings and stampings were drilled to make the pipe or barrel needed for keys which were intended to open a lock from one side only (as most of them were). The hole was drilled by a small machine worked with the foot like a lathe or sewing machine. The key makers use of the file led to them becoming known locally as "Key Filer"

By this stage locks and keys of every variety had become utilitarian rather than ornate. The locksmiths and key makers in general worked in small isolated groups of ones and twos, independent of each other, but all engaged in one aspect or other of providing locks and keys. In many cases this work was combined with work of an entirely different nature. We find individuals listed in the 1818 trade directory, Joseph Hodson, Red Lion Public House and Padlock Maker, Lichfield Street . John Phillips, Kings Head Public House and Lock and keysmith, Wolverhampton Street . Joseph Read, truss maker, draper & locksmith, Bilston Road . In 1864, Samuel Davenport, Brown Jug Public House and Keymaker, Sandbeds. John Langley, Keymaker and shopkeeper, Newhall Street . Letitia Ordidge,Padlock maker and shopkeeper, John Street .

Where a retail shop was involved it was the wife who attended to the shop while the husband plied his lock and key work in the workshop at the rear. Many of these locksmiths and keymakers made use of apprentices and when the latter had served their time they were replaced by new ones so that the 'master' did not have to pay the much higher wages of a journeyman. As a result the former would be almost forced to become a small master himself. This accounts for the relatively small numbers of journeymen or large manufacturers in the West Midlands , but large numbers of 'small' masters.












Wolverhampton and Wednesfield




















Bilston and Wednesbury










Bloxwich and Walsall










The above tables make fascinating reading, showing the development of Willenhall and Wolverhampton as the home of the British Lock and Key industry.

The conditions in the numerous workshops to which the figures of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries refer were often poor. Young children would be set to work when they were strong enough to hold a file. The fact that Willenhall was known colloquially as 'Humpshire' is evidence, of course, of the toll that this took in causing deformity. A contemporary observer of this characteristic gave the following grim details:

"The right shoulder blade becomes displaced and projects. The right leg crooks and bends inwards at the knee like the letter V; this is the leg which is hindmost in standing at the vice. The right hand also has, frequently, a marked distortion, almost everything it holds takes the position of the file. If the poor man carries a limp lettuce or a limper mackerel from Wolverhampton market they are never dangled, but always held like the file. If he carries nothing, his right hand is in just the same position".

What would a Trade Union of today have to say of these working conditions, as the locksmith worked frenetically towards the end of the week for sixteen or eighteen hours a day? The anonymous observer, quoted above, has this to say:

"Towards the end of the week, when hurry and drive are the order of the day, they eat their meals while at work and bolt their victuals standing. You see a man and his two apprentices with a plate before each of them heaped with potatoes and turnips or something or other (but seldom meat) and a large slice of bread in one hand; your attention is called off for one or two minutes and, on turning round again, you see the man and boys filing away at their vices again".

vaughan letterheadCheap labour enabled the locksmiths to put out their products in large numbers and at cheap prices. They might well have had orders for up to 10,000 padlocks, which were sold in the plantations of South America and India for as little as a penny each. Despite all this the picture was not totally black, many apprentices were well fed, clothed and kindly treated, and went on to become successful business men.

By the end of the 19th century the most important lockmaking firms in the town were Messrs Carpenter & Tildesley; H & T. Vaughan; John Miners & Sons; J. Waive & Sons; Beddows & Sturmey; J, Legge & Co; and Enoch Tonks & Sons. In the casting trade there was John Harper & Co. Ltd.; Wm. Harper; C & L Hill; H & J Hill; T Pedley & Co. Ltd.; and Arthur Tipper.

Currycomb manufacture was shrinking, but was more than being made up for by the rapid growth of the trade in stampings, producing keys, parts for locks, and hardware articles. The main firms in this trade were Armstrong Stevens and Co, John Harper & Co. Ltd. and Vaughan Brothers.

The age of mechanism was a long time coming to the lock trade, but towards the end of the eighteenth century came the hand press. Isaac Mason, a native of Bilston, moved to Willenhall in 1796, and brought with him a new method of pressing out lock parts. The operation was effected by means of a punch and die fixed to a hand press whereby it was possible to produce plates and other parts at a single blow. The hand press was later replaced by the power press, while sheet steel replaced wrought iron. All these developments meant that the small independent master with his manual skills, was in decline. Women were employed more and more in the trade, making parts for machine made locks, as better production methods were introduced.


The next important step forward was made in the middle of the nineteenth century. The credit for solving the problem must go to an American, Linus Yale Junior. The Yale Cylinder Pin Tumbler Lock was to bring about great changes in the lock trade when in 1865 Linus Yale Junior patented his new lock. In fact, it was hardly new. The basic principle was that of the Egyptian pin tumbler device, moveable pins held the bolt in place until raised by the correct key. Yale improved on the design and introduced the cylinder key we know today, paving the way for mass production of locks.

The development of the Cylinder pin tumbler lock in Willenhall took place in the early 1900s, H & T. Vaughan and Josiah Parkes & Sons leading the way as they gradually built up a large overseas trade in their products. Other companies who soon started to manufacture this type of lock in large quantities were Enoch Tonks & Sons, Humphry & J. Fox Ltd, Arthur Shaw & Co. Ltd and J. E. Reynolds & Sons, later to be joined by J. Legge. By 1929 H & T. Vaughan had grown to be the largest lock makers in Willenhall, and when Joseph Starkey their managing director died, the Vaughan family decided to sell the business to the Yale & Towne Manufacturing Company of USA . This gave the American company production facilities with a ready made workforce to expand their manufacture of the "Yale" cylinder pin tumbler lock.

Working conditions have changed dramatically over the last hundred and fifty years, and prices have risen out of all recognition. The development of locks during the second half of the 20th century has shown itself in the production of numerous new patterns, new manufacturing techniques and the increased use of specialised machinery. These, together with the application of new materials and treatments transformed lock manufacture and allowed the Willenhall industry to become competitively priced in a world market, meeting the competition From Europe and the Third World .

The recession of the late 1980s saw unemployment rise. Linked with this was an increase in burglaries. This in turn saw Insurance companies specifying locks that conformed to a higher British Standard specification, the challenge was met by the lockmakers with renewed vigour.

As we approach the millennium the industry has stabilised, companies have merged or been absorbed by large groups. It is estimated that around 10 manufacturers account for most of the UK production of locks and keys. The amalgamation in 1997 of Chubb Locks Ltd. (which includes Josiah Parkes and Sons Ltd and C.E.Marshall Ltd) and Yale Security Products Ltd. as part of the William's Holdings Group has seen the lock industry become concentrated in Willenhall, and between them this group accounts for about 70% of the locks manufactured in the UK. There are still other lock makers making significant contributions to the wide range of locks produced in Willenhall, including Guardian Lock and Engineering Ltd. Legge (now part of the Ingersol Rand group), J E Reynolds & Sons Ltd, Security Engineering Ltd. (Formerly Securefast and Enoch Pinson). Benton Smith Ltd. Willenhall Locks Ltd, and padlock makers Henry Squire Ltd and B & G. Tool Ltd, plus seven other small lock makers who employ ten people or less.

Total employment by the industry in Willenhall is estimated at over 4000, and although the industry is not a large employer in national terms, it is an important provider of jobs in the area, and is the most important lock making town in Great Britain .

Jim Evans 3/9/99

Since this was written lock manufacture is greatly reduced in Willenhall, with even the old Yale works now demolished to make way for new developments.

There are still lock companies operating in the area, some distributing imported locks and others producing high quality specialist products.