Note: these pages are illustrated by lcoks from the catalogue of Dew Bros. of Wolverhampton, which was probably issued in the 1920s.

1.  The Earliest Times













Wolverhampton started life as an agricultural settlement, boosted by becoming an ecclesiastical centre, and then becoming a market town providing not only a market but, almost certainly, a range of other services as well. It may be that it was this agricultural connection that first led to the metal bashing and engineering industries appearing here, for not only would Wulfrunians find a living in selling clothes, shoes and other necessities to those who came in to market but they would also be able to sell agricultural implements. Certainly they did not start this kind of work because coal and iron and limestone were found within the borough boundaries. They were not. But they were close enough at hand for enterprising people to be able to exploit them.

Although locks of some sort had been used throughout history, changing social conditions and aspirations, increasing wealth and capital accumulation, a change from community to individual capitalism, would have combined with improved metal winning and working, to make locks a promising market. It is quite likely that lock making here would have started as a local trade, possibly even in conjunction with farming, for it was not at all uncommon for farmers to augment their income with a specialist trade and even town dwellers were often both farmers and artisans.

So at some imprecise time lock making appeared in Wolverhampton, Willenhall and their environs. The raw materials were near at hand. The skills were acquired goodness knows how but were soon handed down from parent to child and from master to apprentice. The market would originally have been local but it seems that, despite the town's having bad communications, the market expanded.  Locks were small enough to be transportable by pack horse and waggon.   As roads improved and canals were built, the potential market became wider. But there is nothing to say why Wolverhampton became a lock making centre when it had the same starting point as many other places. It must be related to some kind of local entrepreneurial spirit – and who can say what would explain that?

In the earliest lock making times the makers would have been one family outfits. In the course of time, as the market expanded, firms could grow larger and some became very large. But even to the end of the lock making days, there were still one family outfits hard at work.

According to J C Tildesley, Locks and Lockmaking, the "introduction of the lock trade into South Staffordshire took place as early as the reign of Queen Elizabeth, but it did not flourish very extensively until the end of the 17th century."  His authority for this account of earlier times is not cited.  But the time of "the reign of Queen Elizabeth" may not be earlier enough.  St. Peter's church contained, in medieval times, a chapel to St. Loe who was the patron saint of lock makers and metal workers.  The chapel is not dated in the records but it maybe that this shows that lock making in Wolverhampton went back to before 1485. (For a fuller account of this evidence, see the article on St. Loe on this web site).

Tildesley gets onto firmer ground with the Hearth Tax of 1660 when, it appears, most of the 84 hearths in Wolverhampton and 95 in Willenhall "were used by the locksmiths of those times".  That might be worth checking a bit more closely.  But Dr. Plot, writing in 1686 also comments that the "greatest excellence of the blacksmith’s profession in this county lies in their making of locks for doors, wherein the artisans of Wolverhampton seem to be preferred to all others …".

This suggests that by the end of the 17th lock making was well established and was certainly more than a local trade; and that Willenhall and Wolverhampton both had lock making industries. At that time to the structure of the trade was, according to Tildesley, beginning to change. Originally the locks made by the individual manufacturers "were purchased by chapmen who travelled from place to place with packhorses. At the commencement of the eighteenth century, however, the merchants began to establish store rooms in Wolverhampton and Birmingham, wither the locks and other hardware productions were conveyed by the smiths, in wallets".  (He wrote in 1866 and was able to add that this system, was "not even yet quite obsolete" and that the "oldest ware-room in Wolverhampton is that of Messrs. Tarratt, Sons and Co,. in the Townwell Fold, which has been established considerably more than a century").

According to Mander (p.143), the Sketchley and Adams trade directory of 1770 shows that the "predominating industry was still that of lockmaking; no less than 118 names are listed under this head. Bucklemaking follows, a very close second, with 116". He also deduces that "lockmaking … had become very specialised. 24 different types of lock are mentioned – from the ordinary gate lock to the secret bag lock and the tea chest lock. Often a single person represents an entire branch of the trade; John Ryley, for example, is the only man to be described as a letter and baglock maker. George Fox, of Berry Street, appears as a bitted and swallow bow lock maker, and Thurston Groom, of Stafford Street, as the only outside box lock maker. The great majority, however, appear to have been engaged in the manufacture of cabinet locks; there are three times as many names under this head as under any other, and, in addition, we find eight cabinet key makers listed".

Of course the brief entries in the directory may cover the fact that the makers named could and did make other types of lock, the named one being their preference or speciality. In any case our local lock makers were renowned for their ingenuity as well as their skills and several patents were taken out by local men even before the large manufacturers moved in.

George Price (1856) noted that in 1770 that the numbers of lock making concerns was:

Wolverhampton 134
Bilston 8
Willenhall 148

By 1855 he records that Willenhall’s slight ascendancy had become a predominance:

Wolverhampton 110
Bilston 002
Willenhall 340

These raw numbers are not as revealing as they might be – the value of the trade in each area might have been more informative – but they do seem to indicate that, during the period covered, Willenhall established the ascendancy it ever after maintained.

Return to Locks and Safes

Return to the Strong Room

Proceed to the Lock Trade in 1865