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Locks, safes and japanning — Wolverhampton at work

By Black Country Bugle User  |  Posted: December 03, 2009

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AFTER A FEW weeks’ hiatus, we return to the year 1872, when The Leisure Hour, the selfproclaimed ‘family journal of instruction and recreation’, sent an unnamed writer on a lengthy tour of the Black Country, to report back with regular, detailed accounts of the lives of almost every one of our towns and villages.

Readers around the country must have been fascinated and appalled in equal measure at some of the industrial wonders and physical hardships described; much as we, the descendants of those workers, are now when we find an account such as this. Our thanks to Ian Bott for his loan of a bound volume of the entire year’s Leisure Hour issues.

This week, we find the visitor well into his tour, in Wolverhampton, which appears to impress him far more than most of the smaller towns he has worked his way through up to this point.

He begins: “We are now in the Iron Capital, the Metropolis of the Black Country! It is very irregularly but substantially built, and well paved, and has many fine edifices.

Its old name, ‘Hampton’, is thought to have signified High Town, or a town on a hill, and in its most elevated parts it commands an extensive and, in some directions, a very beautiful view. The town, which first sent members to Parliament in 1832, became a municipal borough in 1847, and contains about 14,000 houses.

“It has numerous places of worship; a fine Town Hall; an Exchange for ironmasters and merchants; an Agricultural Hall for farmers and corn dealers; a Market Hall; a Public Library of 14,000 volumes; a Free (Lending and Reference) Library (opened in September 1869 and possessing more than 10,000 volumes); a Free Grammar School; an elegant School of Practical Art (commenced in 1854); National, Bluecoat, Ragged and other Schools; an Orphan Asylum for the reception and education of destitute orphans from all parts of the kingdom, wrought by Thorneycroft after the express idea of the Queen, and inaugurated by her Majesty, with great public rejoicings, on 30th November, 1866.” Wolverhampton was — and in many ways still is, to a lesser extent — a town of contrasts, with the filthiest of industry and the most verdant of countryside coming together ...

“And now, while on the north and west all is still, as we see, rural and picturesque, all about the south and east sides of this town are coal and iron mines, blast furnaces, forges, rolling mills, and foundries; and Wolverhampton produces iron in almost every shape, from pig iron to finished iron, iron foundry goods, iron braziery and galvanised iron goods, iron tubes, steel, edge tools, and enamelled hollow wares, machinery, mills, cut nails and, above all, locks, for in the production of locks more than 100 firms and 2,000 people find employment and the town may be said literally to hold three fourths of the habitable globe under lock and key. And the lock trade of Wolverhampton is quite distinct from that of other parts of South Staffordshire.

“Nearly two hundred years since it was said: ‘The artisans of Wolverhampton seem to be preferred to all others in lock-making, they making them in suites, six, eight, or more in a suite, according as the chapman bespeaks them, whereof the keys shall neither of them open the other’s lock, yet one master key shall open them all. Nay, so curious are they in lockwork that they can contrive a lock that the master or mistress of a family sending a servant into their closets, either with the master key or their own, can certainly tell by the lock how many times that servant has been in, at any distance of time, or how many times the lock has been shot for a whole year together.’ ” If true, this is a remarkable story indeed. Such locks, we’re told, could be set up to ‘record’ up to 10,000 uses, and one ‘very fine lock’ from that 17th century account, sold by a Wolverhampton lock maker for £20, had a set of chimes built in which could be set to go off at any time chosen by the owner. By the time of the Leisure Hour piece, 1872, there were around five hundred distinct lock factories, some employing only a master workman and two or three apprentices; others up to a hundred and fifty workers. There were around five thousand locksmiths clustered in Wolverhampton.

Just about the best known even then, not just in Wolverhampton but the entire country, was Chubb’s, which received an in-depth account from the Leisure Hour’s writer: “One peculiar feature the detector — characterises, and has always distinguished, Chubb’s locks; and, with the tumblers, is the basis of security against all attempts at picking. The detector consists of a spring, which so long as the levers are lifted with exactness by the true key, remains inactive; but should the levers, raised by a false key, vary in the slightest degree, this spring instantly secures the bottom lever, and renders the bolt immovable.

When the true key is applied while the detector spring is ‘on duty’, the former has to be turned the reverse way, and the spring restored to its original position, and the lever is then set at liberty.”

All Chubb locks were made by hand without the aid of machinery, and still the hundred or so workers turned out around 40,000 locks a year, ranging in price between ten shillings and five pounds. Among the most curious in the writer’s opinion was one in Florentine style, the works being encased in walnut and the ornamental steel work cut out by hand. The key was in Venetian Gothic style, inspired by ornamental ironwork observed in Venice. Another key was wrought from 2,000 pieces of steel, and one detector padlock was made from gold with four tumblers and set in a finger ring. At the other end of the scale was a ‘gigantic rim lock’ weighing above two hundred weight and ‘as finely finished as a lady’s watch.’ To demonstrate the durability of Chubb’s locks, one was put into use at Portsmouth dockyard and opened and closed almost half a million times, without showing the slightest sign of wear. The writer was told on his visit that it would be perfectly possible to make a lock for every house in London with a different key for each, and still fashion a master key that would open every one.

Each Chubb lock was made from start to finish by a single lockmaker, whose name was written against it in a ledger, next to that of the buyer and a unique number, so that the history of any lock could be traced at any point in the future.

Fire and gunpowder resistant safes were a speciality, but when even that wasn’t enough, Chubb could be brought in to build a custom made Strong Room on your premises ...

“A strong room was lately made for a London bank, the walls of which, two feet thick, were formed of hard bricks laid in cement, and with hoop iron worked in: the room was lined throughout with wrought iron half an inch thick; there were two doors, the outer of strong iron with two locks; the inner of combined steel and iron of extraordinary strength, with two locks, throwing ten bolts. A safe, weighing eight tons, and throwing twenty bolts, was inside this; an alarm in the resident clerk’s bedroom was attached to the inside of the strong room, so that if the outer door were opened a gong was set going; a porter slept in front of the outer door; and by pulling a handle, could set the alarm off. It is frequently arranged that a stout bolt, quite independent of all the usual locks and fastenings, shall shoot into a socket on the inner side of the iron door. This is worked from the manager’s bedroom, where its handle is concealed in an iron box fixed in the floor.” But a safemaker can never rest on his laurels.

One of Chubb’s latest developments was explained as follows: “The body ... is made with the usual casing of fireproof non-conductors, while the outer casing is made of two plates of iron with hard steel plates fastened between them of a total thickness of one inch, firmly riveted and secured all round by strong angle iron inside, and the outer plate (half inch) dovetailed in addition. The solid frame into which the bolts go is made to overlap and bind all round the four sides, so as to make practically one piece. The rebated door is constructed in the same way as the sides, but it is one and a half inches thick; the locks are gunpowder proof. The most important feature of this safe, however, is the system adopted to prevent its being opened by wedges. The bolts are thrown diagonally all round the four sides of the door, so that they act as dovetails, and effectually prevent the action of wedges, or any other violent means used to open the door, to which the lock is fastened by a great number of screws and screw bolts, so that it cannot be moved.”

Clearly impressed with the lock and safe makers of the town, the writer then widens his scope to include Thorneycroft and Company, one of the leading iron manufacturers of the time, and employers of about 2,000 workers, utilising seventy- four puddling furnaces and twelve rolling mills to manufacture plate, angle iron, T-iron, girders, sheets, hoops and bars; banging out about 700 tons each week.

“Messrs Thorneycroft,” wrote the visitor, “make most of their own machinery, rolls etc.; and manufacture the iron for, and build, their own canal boats, of which they have 112 now in use.

They expend upwards of 2,000 tons of coal weekly in their several works; and have a colliery extending over about 150 acres. Their men work day and night, week about, alternately; the day puddlers beginning work on Tuesday morning and finishing on Saturday evening: the night puddlers commencing on Monday night, and ending on Saturday morning all the puddlers thus making ten days in the fortnight. The puddlers cannot work in the daytime on Mondays, as that day is reserved for repairs to the furnaces.” A recent development in metal manufacture had seen to it, according to this account, that many items were now more cheaply and widely available, thanks in no small part to the metal manufacturers of Wolverhampton: “We see here those operations by which articles for domestic use in every variety of beautiful form, which till lately could be had only in the more costly metals, can now be obtained in sheet iron, so that the dwelling house may be cheaply furnished with ware both elegant and indestructible.

Here cups, jugs, basins, teapots, dishes, dish covers, tureens, and even baths, which as well as smaller articles were formerly made piece by piece, and joined, by hand, are now stamped from one sheet, and tinned, wheeled, planished and polished by improved methods, so that they fairly rival the more costly goods. The now well-known enamelled hollow ware is also largely manufactured here.” Japanning, the application of layers of varnish to render iron both highly decorative and waterproof, was a relative newcomer to the town, though it had quickly established itself as a major employer: “The japanned ware trade, since its introduction into Staffordshire from Pontypool (where it first settled in this country form the East) has grown largely through its connection with the tin plate trade.

“In the Wolverhampton district about two thousand people are employed in, and about ten thousand dependent on, these two trades (enamelling and japanning), more than half the workers in which are females. The wages average 40s a week for skilled workmen, 10s for women, and 5s for girls. There are fourteen establishments for the manufacture of tin plate and japan ware in Wolverhampton.”

Though times were hard in the mid-Victorian period it’s hard not to think of life for the working class in terms of a Charles Dickens novel there was, we find, plenty fun to be had, and a few spare pennies could buy something for the children ...

“One large Wolverhampton establishment is devoted to the manufacture of Tin Toys ie the thousand and one little things with which children play, from the farthing trumpet and the halfpenny horse, to the five or six shilling miniature steam engine. The manufacture, trifling as it may seem, gives constant employment to about one hundred persons.” Of a more prosaic and practical use was a variety of other items, some of which were, again, of recent introduction to the town: “The manufacture of cast iron nails and shoe pins is peculiar to this district. The smallest nail is a quarter of an inch long, and a good workman will mould more than 75,000 a day; the largest measures two and one eigth of an inch.

Shoemaking on a large scale has lately been introduced here.

The manufacture of varnishes, photographic and other chemicals, drugs etc. is also carried on in Wol v e r h a m p t o n ; among the latter are arsenic acid, employed in calicoprinting, dyeing, the production of aniline red, etc; benzoic acid used in medicine and artificial essences; bisulphate of lime, for preventing fermentation in malt liquors without affecting their taste or smell, and potash-acetate, which is produced in the form of large snow white crystalline masses, for medicinal and other purposes.” What the writer found most strange though was that such a heavily industrialised town had such strong connections to agriculture ...

“The Agricultural Hall has been erected for the special use of the farmers and corndealers, who attend the weekly markets in great numbers, and the manufacture of artificial manure is carried on on the very largest scale. The weekly cattle market also is one of the most important in the kingdom. The Royal Agricultural Show, held at Wolverhampton in 1871, was very successful; and besides a magnificent collection of animals, was specially remarkable for the great variety and quantity of labour saving machinery exhibited. The town was formerly famous for its wool trade (from which, indeed ‘Wool’-verhampton might not without reason be supposed to have received its name) and foreigners from all parts of Europe resorted to its annual wool fair.” Just as interesting as the contemporary descriptions, however, is a passage which describes what sounds like a golden age for certain, long gone Wolverhampton trades:

“Many old trades of the town are extinct, such as the ‘Steel Toy Trade’, for which a century ago it was renowned, and of which shoe buckles, fetching form ten to fifteen guineas a pair, watch chains, worth twenty guineas each, and sword hilts for court dresses, were the crowning glories.

‘When a boy’ says Mr Frederick Walton, ‘I heard an old man eighty years of age say that he once had 300 guineas for a sword hilt, which took him eighteen months to produce; it was for one of the royal family if my memory serves me right, for the Duke of York.’ “The manufacture of enamelled copper boxes, to contain bon-bons, or the hideous ‘black patches’ once worn, is also extinct; together with that of carpenters’ rules, which was formerly confined almost exclusivley to Wolverhampton, but has now almost deserted it for London and Birmingham.

Additional trades have lately, however, been introduced, including two large shoemaking factories, each employing several hundred hands.”

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