A Gazetteer of Lock and Key Makers

Charles Aubin

by June James

Charles Aubin was born on 29th November 1812, his place of birth is unknown at the moment, but he was baptised in  St. Peters Church, Wolverhampton in 1817.

His father, Charles David Aubin became a "Lampworker", or ornamental glass-blower. Although he was born and resided in St. Omer, France, he was a British Subject. His family, mainly Merchants and Mariners, were from Jersey. His Grandfather was a Royal Naval Captain.

Charles Snr. travelled throughout England, demonstrating his craft and obtaining commissions for his goods. He advertised himself as " Mr. St. Aubin ", unlike Charles Jnr. who rarely used that title.

Charles laboured under "humble circumstances" (Price) and first surfaced in 1830 with a ‘Guardian’ patent lock when he was18 years old. Here was a talent more precocious than that of Joseph Duce with his 1823 lock. Charles Aubin advertised as a locksmith of Wolverhampton in 1838 and by the year 1842 had invented a latch-bolt lock. It proved expensive to make. Few were sold, the asking price of ten shillings being too expensive.

Practical costing was his besetting weakness. He lacked the ability to design locks to an acceptable retail price. In 1845 he tried again with similar results. And there was a predictability about the fate of his compound lever lock of 1850; but that does indicate that the lock cabinet was by no means the sole outlet for his design resourcefulness.

Aubin’s locks were manufactured in his early and middle years in Spicer’s Buildings, Pountney Street, Wolverhampton. A western tributary of Dudley Road, this street was described as ‘intended’ in 1827, so by 1830, when Aubin is first found there, the mortar of these dwellings was scarcely dry. A near neighbour was Joseph Duce, so doubtless there would be a great deal of professional exchanges between these men of common French origin.

An advert from 1861.

The Aubin Trophy.  Each lock could be opened or closed individually with its own key or all the locks could be operated together by a single lever arm at the top.
By the year 1847 he was manufacturing the Bramah lock and, in 1851, the ‘best gunlocks’. He even manufactured for George Price himself. Later George patented Charles’s design as his own. Charles also worked for Samuel Chatwood, another powerful competitor in the safe industry. 

In 1849 what was to become known as the Aubin Trophy was first conceived and, when built, it was displayed at the Great Exhibition of 1851.  (Further details of the Trophy are below).

Also by 1851 he had a wife, Elizabeth (nee Perry) and nine children to support. (He had had twelve children but only nine survived).  The eldest sons were already working for their father by the time they were 13 years old, and would be familiar with the steam engine and with the then comparatively rare key cutting machine. Like Parsons, Charles soon abolished the steel spring in favour of those made of brass.

Aubin's wife, Elizabeth, died in 1863, and in 1865 Charles married a widow, Ann Baugh, who had a small millinery business at 55 Dalrington Street. She called herself Anne St Aubin, using the surname of Charles’s grandfather. By now Charles was running his business from 56 Darlington Streeet. 

In the 1861 census Charles and Annie were living in Darlington Street with just Charles's daughter Ann.  The daughter, Ann, married into another well known (at that time) lock-making family, the Braziers of the Ashes, Brickkiln Street.

When he was listed in the 1860 Post Office Directory he had set up his new ‘Guardian’ works, (using the name of his 1830 patent lock), at 25 Great Hampton Street, where he is described as manufacturing patent iron locks. In the 1871 census he is shown as living in Waterloo Road with his wife, daughter Jane and son Frederick.  At one time he also set up house in Lowe St. In the Wolverhampton Trade Directory for 1873 he is living at Fern House, Bath Road, and still owns the Guardian works, employing 22 men and 6 boys. The electoral roll of 1877 shows him living in Hunter Street in St. Mark's ward.

As a direct result of his prestige in the lock trade, he was appointed works manager at Nettlefold’s Guardian Works in Whitmore Reans, a connection that lasted until about 1879. He then moved to West Derby, Liverpool, in the employ of the Milner Safe Company. The old locksmiths of Milner's talked about the Aubin trophy and the inscription on it referring to Aubin as "The Prince of Locksmiths.  Apparently Chalres Aubin and George Boyce  were classed as the two greatest locksmiths in the high class security area in the nineteenth century and were known as "Class X men".

Charles Aubin died in Liverpool in May 1883.

The Aubin "Trophy"

This famous trophy was conceived in 1849 for display at the Great Exhibition of 1851. Aubin used more than 3,000 parts in the compilation of his chosen locks and their connecting mechanisms. Very likely he would have employed apprentices to help him in its assembly. It was a demonstration as to how alike locks were and, as Price remarked, '… how one inventor has copied another…’.

"The Crystal Palace and its Contents" (published by W. M. Clark, London, 1852) says: "A contrivance by Aubin, of Wolverhampton, contained the movements of the most celebrated locks (37 specimens) which, with their connected mechanism, contained upwards of 3,000 parts, all put in motion by the arm of a lever communicating by hidden works". This was what became known as the Aubin "trophy".

In the 1961 edition of the Complete Oxford Dictionary a ‘cabinet’ is described as ‘… ornamental piece … fitted with shelves … for the proper preservation and display of a collection of specimens…’. This definition describes exactly what Aubin was trying to achieve in his lock presentation. 

However the ‘cabinet’ in question is now almost invariably called a ‘trophy’, a definition with connotations nearer to spoil, loot, valour, and the prizes of victory in war. Tomlinson called Aubin’s collection a ‘trophy’ in 1853, as did Price in 1856, Hobbs in 1868, the Commissioners of Patents for Inventions in 1873.

A part of the trophy showing Aubin's lock no.26, the lock he introduced in 1830.  Note the intricate detail.

For the duration of the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park, the lock trophy was in all probability seen as a sophisticated mechanical toy by many of the 42,381 visitors who were in average daily attendance. Price’s reaction is on record. He thought the trophy ‘ingenious’. It is an artefact which cannot be overlooked by the lock historian. Doubters should examine it and observe that in strong light it still burns like gold. Aubin himself complained of its ‘glare’ in 1851. The trophy is an intimate work of a size easily accommodated in a modern living room and its mechanism displays craftsmanship of a kind expected from a man of Huguenot background, a breed of men excelling in areas like engraving, gunsmithing, clockmaking, tapestry work and designing in precious metals.

During the exhibition the American locksmith, A. C. Hobbs, insisted on buying the trophy. Hobbs' company, Hobbs Hart, was bought out by Chubbs and the trophy went to that company.  It is now with Chubbs Safes and, I understand, is about to be restored to its original glory.

Whilst working with Milner's, Chalres Aubin made another three centres, the same as that in the original Trophy, as he was going to build another three trophies for Milner's.  But they were never completed.

Locks invented by Charles Aubin

as listed in "Fire and Thief Proof Depositories" by George Price, 1856.

c. 1830   Lock consisting of one tumbler under the bolt and three more levers on the top of the bolt; the whole working in combination with each other, together with a barrel and curtain.

c. 1842   Latch bolt. This was an improvement in the construction of lever latches, consisted of placing the latch bolt at the back of the levers, making it impossible to reach the bolt by any surreptitious instrument.

c. 1845   Sliding Stump lock. This was an improvement on the Marrs lock.

c. 1846   Curtain lever lock, This lock was constructed with several discs on a revolving barrel, so that the levers had a circular motion.

c. 1850   Vibration guard lock. This was constructed in the Bramah principle but with levers or vibrating guards in the place of sliders.

c. 1850   Compound lever lock. A balance detector locks which was constructed on the principle of the scale beam.


Charles Aubin and Frederick Neafield Cookson , of the Guardian Works, Great Hampton Street, Wolverhampton, Lock Manufacturers, trading under the style of “Charles Aubin and Co”, have filed their petition for liquidation, with liabilities estimated at £1,000 and assets at  £1,000. Upon the application of Mr. Southall for the firm of Southall, Thomas and Southall, of 21 Waterloo Street, Birmingham, solicitors for the debtors, the Registrar appointed Mr. A. ?. Gibson, (of the firm Baker and Gibson, Accountants, of New Street,  Birmingham) receiver of the estate.

This is a copy of the liquidation notice, transcribed from a poor photocopy by June James. The date appears to be 16th October, 1877.

Four of Charles Aubin's descendants with his trophy.  left to right:  Me (June James), my sisters, Pam Collins and Pat Wollaston, and my mother, Eileen Jenkins. 

Some of the information in this article is based on an article in the Black Countryman by John Duce, a descendant of Joseph Duce, cabinet lockmaker, referred to above.

Many thanks to Peter Gunn of the Chubb Archive for all his help.

My thanks to Messrs Chubbs for letting us see and photograph the trophy.

I am still researching Charles Aubin and his family, including his gun lock making days - Charles was my great great grandfather. If anyone has any further information of any sort I would be very glad to hear from them. My email address is: junabria@hotmail.co.uk


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