A Gazetteer of Lock and Key Makers

Jim Evans

this gazetteer is copyright Jim Evans, 2002


Richard Cooper, the founder of the firm, was born at the latter end of the 1700s and commenced the manufacture of locks in 1817.  The first factory was situated in Little Brickkiln Street but, after Richard Cooper had taken his son William into partnership, after 1835, the business increased so fast they decided to build a new factory in Church Lane, which at that time was surrounded by gardens and fields.  Only part of the land was built on at that time, the remainder being left for future extensions.

From Melville & Company's 1851 Wolverhampton Directory.

Accommodation for another 100 hands was added in 1897, together with steam presses and  machinery for the preparation of materials.

Lever locks were generally started to be made about 1855 and superseded tumbler and back-spring locks in the cabinet lock trade.  The cheaper class of lever locks were machine made, i.e. all the parts (plate, cap, bolt, lever, spring) are cut out by machinery instead of being forged by the workman himself, as was done until about 1890.  The best class of lever work was all hand-made and machinery was not used in its manufacture.

The trademark, which was used by the firm since about 1850, was well known abroad. Contrary to the custom amongst most merchants, that the goods should not be marked, Cooper & Son found, into the 1900s, that buyers insisted that not only the trade mark should appear on the locks but that the parcels should also bear the name of the firm.

Mr. Cooper’s two nephews carried on the management of the business in the 1890s.

An advert from 1920

The company is listed in the 1914 Whitakers Red Book as Lock manufacturers and Brass Founders, and in the 1937 Aeroplane Directory of the Aviation and Allied Industries as Lock manufacturers, 'R.C. & S.' Locks and Metal Pressings.

The following account of the company's later history from the 1950s has kindly been provided by Paul Sutherland:

My father, Roy Sutherland, left Marston Excelsior (part of ICI) in the early fifties, aged about 40, and went into partnership with Leonard Peers in buying Richard Cooper & Son.  Len and Vera Peers (with their son, Roger, a contemporary of mine) lived in Linton Road, Penn, as my family had done before we moved to Gothic Cottage, in Church Walk, Tettenhall in 1947.  Len was the accountant at Cooper's and my father was the engineer.

Disastrously, Len died soon after the partnership was formed.  His wife, Vera, became a working director in his place and kept the books.  

The company's lock making business was severely affected by the Government's decision that local authority houses need have locks only on the two external doors.  In an attempt to keep the company going Father started to make red reflectors for the rear of cars - which were now required by new legislation.  He also made golf caddies and aluminium bows and arrows.  (He was a keen archer and his club, the Wolverhampton Company of Archers, used a field belonging to the Swansons at Wergs Hall.  The Swansons owned Ansell's Brewery at Aston).  

This non-lock side of the business was carried out under the name of "P & S Designs" (standing for Peers and Sutherland).  However the business did not survive and Richard Cooper's went into voluntary liquidation in the late 1950s.  To my father's credit, all Richard Cooper's creditors were paid in full.  

Cooper's premises were acquired by James Gibbons and taken into their works.

After Cooper's folded Vera Peers ran a little shop halfway along the east side of Larches Lane.  My father went into an informal partnership with the foreman at Cooper's, Stan Johnson, of Willenhall, making smaller quantities of locks under the name "Rhonson Locks" (qv), in Willenhall.  

In my Father's entry in the register at Bushbury Crematorium there is a picture of a padlock.  Unfortunately the artist wrote on the lock the name Chubb!  He did not realise that my Father was a rival of theirs, albeit a small one.  

The following account, and the photos with it, are taken verbatim from "Wolverhampton and South Staffordshire Illustrated", 1897.  This is basically an advertising or PR publication and is sycophantic to a degree.  But behind the facade there is an interesting account of a large lock works. The Curator has added his own comments to the captions.

Messrs. Richard Cooper and Son having been engaged in the trade for eighty years, we visited their factory and are indebted to them for the following interesting particulars of their works and the manufacture carried on there.

View of the main building in Church Lane.  Most of Church Lane has now vanished under Ring Road St. Johns.  The 1901 OS Map shows a lock works about 75 yards west along Church Lane from the Dudley Road end, and on the south side.  That seems to be the Atlas Works.

Richard Cooper, the founder of the firm, was born at the latter end of the last century and commenced the manufacture of locks early in this. The first factory was situated in Little Brickkiln Street, but after Richard Cooper had taken his son William into partnership, the business increased so fast they decided to build a new factory in Church Lane, which at that time was surrounded by gardens and fields. Sufficient land was obtained to erect a commodious factory but a portion only of the land was built on, the remainder being left for future extensions.

This building again proving too small for their increasing trade, further accommodation for another 100 hands has been added this year, together with steam presses and the best machinery for the preparation of materials. The new buildings are three stories high, containing three shops 50 feet by 20 feet and three shops 45 feet by 14 feet.

View of the new building and engine house from the yard.

The casting shop.

In order that we might see the locks in the processing of making, it was first necessary we should inspect the materials in the raw state. In the brass room we were shown tons of ingot metal for casting; tons of rolled sheet brass for pressing the plates, caps and bolts of machine-made locks, and lastly some tons of drawn brass plates, the latter being the latest development in the trade for superseding the cast plates. 

A drawn plate being a closer grain than a cast one and of more uniform strength. We were surprised to see the enormous quantity of malleable iron castings (comprising keys, bolts, etc) and pressings kept in stock, but it was explained that quick delivery could not be ensured without this outlay of capital; a large stock of materials being absolutely necessary to carry on an export trade.

Our next step was to see the ingots of metal melted in the casting shops, and the various shapes produced from the moulds. About 40 lbs of metal is used at every pouring and a good caster will cast about 150 lbs a day. The casting shops are lofty, and well ventilated by a lift-up roof, which allows all fumes to escape. The photographs will give some idea of the heights of the shopping and we have seldom seen such healthy and well lighted workshops.

The most interesting shop we visited was the machine or pressing shop, which has just been completed.

Powerful steam presses for cutting out plates, caps and levers are ranged on both sides whilst the centre is occupied by light hand presses worked by women. Several of the steam presses are capable of cutting out 80 to 100 pieces per minute, and a ton of metal is soon cut up. The care of the pressing tools is a most important matter, as a slight error in setting them means a waste of the materials cut. Two men are constantly employed in this work alone.
The machine shop.  Note the women operating the "light hand presses". Which would have been harder work:  the steam presses or the hand presses?

Lever locks were generally commenced to be made about 1855 and have almost superseded tumbler and back-spring locks in the cabinet lock trade. 

The Locksmith's shop - Lever Lock Department.  Note the amount of hand work which seems to be going on.  And note that the building is of the traditional factory design, being narrow enough to allow natural lighting from both sides.
The cheaper class of lever locks are machine made, i.e., all the parts (plate, cap, bolt, lever, spring) are cut out by machinery, instead of being forged by the workman himself, as was done only a few years since. The best class of lever work is all hand-made and machinery is not used in its manufacture. The large number of locks which can be made to differ with a master key to pass the lot, struck one as being a proof of the ability of some of the firm's workmen.
In the machine-made cabinet lock shop we observed the cheaper class of locks being put together. So rapid were some of the workmen, that we failed to detect when the lever was put on, the cap adjusted, and the lock completed. We were informed that this fact proved the accuracy of the parts pressed in the machine shop.
Locksmith's shop - Machine made cabinet locks.  This is called "machine made" but there seem to be more people working by hand than by machine.
Locksmith's shop - machine made cabinet locks.  This is the "illustration on page 77" referred to in the text below.
The iron locks, owing to their size and bulk, are made in the larger shops. The various parts of the lock being pressed by machinery as in the brass lock department. The finishing of the iron locks is completed on large emery bobs, driven at a high speed. In the illustration on Page 77, three men are engaged at this work, whilst women are polishing on calico mops the lighter brass kinds; the mops revolving at a rate of 2,500 times per minute. 

Locksmith's shop - the iron lock department

It will be noticeable that no overhead belting is visible, as all the spindles are driven by belts rising from a deep trough, in which the shafting is fixed. This arrangement does away with a common danger to the workers where overhead belting is used.

The polishing and bobbing shop.

After the locks are made and the keys polished, they are sent to the warehouse for inspection, before passing into the stockrooms. The wrapping up and boxing the locks keeps a staff of men and women regularly employed.
The shipping and packing room.  You would expect the final stage to be on the ground floor but the rafters here hint that it is on the top floor.

Warehouse - wrapping up.  Note that this is the only interior view which shows the round-headed windows which appear on the right of the picture of the exterior of the building.  What was the rest of this section used for?
In the packing room we observed several shipments of goods for foreign markets. Various packings are used according to the markets they are destined for. White and brown paper packets, together with cardboard boxes, were to be seen. This room contained a variety of locks, prison door locks; safe door and other classes were represented.

The trade mark which has been used by the firm nearly forty years is well known abroad. Contrary to the custom amongst most merchants, that the goods shall not be marked, Messrs. Cooper & Son inform us, that of late years, buyers insist that not only the trade mark shall appear on the locks, but that the parcels shall also bear the name of the firm. Before leaving we had the pleasure of inspecting their new catalogue of locks and keys just issued, a most comprehensive and valuable help to buyers. Not merely illustrating in full size all their locks and keys but giving a descriptive account of each lock, together with the various sizes it is made in.

The drawings are so exact in measurement, that the distance to pin of a lock may be taken from them. Foreign competition has, so far, only affected the cheaper class of brass cabinet locks. The better class still continues to be made in England.

A 1960s letterhead.

It is interesting to note that the number of manufacturers is smaller now than at the beginning of the century, although the number of workmen employed is much larger. The capital needed for machinery, together with the operations of the Factory Acts, have both combined to make it very difficult for the smaller masters to maintain a footing.
Cooper's trade mark.  Usually the companies mass producing goods in Wolverhampton did not mark their wares until late in the 19th century.  Note the significant remark about this is the text.

Owing to the amount of detail and intricacy in the trade, unskilled labour is useless. Comparatively few workmen make a lock out and out; machinery, in doing the work for them, has, to a great extent, made them dependent upon its use. In the better class of locks which are produced by hand labour, we noticed that Messrs. Cooper and Son were training a large number of young hands, every facility being offered them to become proficient workmen.

The management of this business has for some years past been carried on by Mr. Cooper's two nephews.

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