Did you ever wonder where the concept of locking things up came from? The reality of human nature seems to be that ever since people have owned things that are deemed valuable, they need to be protected from theft. Not to mention the need for personal protection – locking yourself in away from harm, or locking away those things or people that have been deemed unsafe to others.
Interestingly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, it is thought that the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans developed mechanical locks independently from each other – highlighting the collective unconscious need to protect one’s valuables and person from this unseemly side of human nature. The idea evolved from the use of simple knots to detect if anyone had attempted to tamper with a locked place, and as time went on, locks made from wood and metal were developed and the security that they provided increased (History of Keys 2016).
We find several types of locks in the work that we carry out in Christchurch. Door locks from the pre-1900 houses that we record, and padlocks from excavations of pre-1900 material. The concept of a padlock is a great one! We have the Chinese from about 1000 BC to thank for the invention of a portable apparatus, the size and uses of which are so versatile that we can lock all manner of things up and away. The idea travelled to Europe via trade with the Romans several centuries later and the heart cast type became popular for locking up railway cars and controls, as they were durable in dirty and freezing conditions (History of Keys 2016). These days we’re not just using them for railroads – they work well to secure static latches that have been fixed to the outside of a door or cupboard to keep it closed, or on the inside of a door to lock yourself in a room. How convenient! Latch and lock types that work well for this are hasp latches, and sliding bolt locks – the kind you might use on your garden shed, or on a public locker.
Padlocks consist of an enclosed body (housing), and curved bar (shackle) that is passed through a loop and secured (Priess 2002: 79). The housing shapes can vary, being symmetrical or asymmetrical, and some had key hole covers. These covers were originally attached with hinges, which were later replaced by pivoted examples. These keyhole covers can also offer additional dating and origin information as they were often stamped with maker’s marks. A popular mark was “VR”, after Queen Victoria during her reign 1837-1901 (Priess 2002: 81). Padlocks are a lock type which have been favoured historically for their flexibility, and because they are simple to make, with few working parts. But on the flip side, their simple structure means they are also easy to break open (Priess 2002: 82).
Door locks are more complicated in manufacture and form. The idea is simple – “A lock is any key-operated device attached to a door and equipped with a bolt or other member to keep the door closed” (Butter 1968: 163). But the 19th century saw many innovations in door lock technology. The most notable were the changes in material used – from wrought iron to cast iron, brass or steel, when it began to be economically viable (Priess 2002: 92).
Without delving into the tedious technical details – the locks that were available in the 19th century consisted of two main types – ones that are attached to the surface of the door and ones that are placed into a cavity that has been cut into the door. The surface locks consist of ‘stock locks’ and ‘rim locks’ and the cut locks are ‘flush locks’ (which were cut into the surface of the door) and ‘mortise locks’ (cut into the edge of the door).
These types are easily distinguished as the surface locks have their strike plates attached to the surface of one side of the adjacent wall, and the strike plates of a mortise or flush lock are placed within the door jamb. Also, only the front plate of the housing (lock cover) is visible with these mortise and flush locks. Sounds simple? Not always – lock reuse can make identification and dating of locks complicated, as broken locks were often replaced with new types. Wrought iron examples could also be fixed and reworked into other things (Priess 2002: 92). Darn those thrifty Victorians!
Of the types mentioned above, rim locks and mortise locks are commonly found on the doors of Christchurch houses that were built during the 19th century. Some examples that some of our buildings archaeologists have found are pictured below.
Mortise locks were more labour intensive to install than rim locks, as the mortise cavity in the door had to be cut. This lock type didn’t become popular until the late 19th century for this reason. But by the beginning of the 20th century mortise locks formed a major portion of the locks offered by prominent lock companies like Yale and Towne, and Sargent and Company (Priess 2002: 99). Flush locks are more commonly seen on furniture or closets, as they are inserted into the interior surface of a door or draw, and they are usually out of sight when the draw or door is closed (Priess 2002: 90).
The works of a few of the same lock makers are seen over and over again in our local examples – particularly the makers James Carpenter, Willenhall, England and H.&. T. Vaughan Standard Works, Willenhall (P. Mitchell and K. Webb, pers. comm.). Carpenter’s No. 60 patented lock was mentioned in the blog a few weeks ago, and this lock type was so popular that the design was counterfeited by rival lock-makers (Switzer 2013).
So we have talked about the locks, what about the keys? They’ve enabled us to take better control of our locks and make them more exclusive as only the key holder can operate them. The first of their kind were made with wooden pins, but we can credit the Romans again for the production of metal keys – the strength of the material made it possible to make keys smaller than before and hence, more potable (History of Keys 2016). We find keys less commonly in the archaeological record, as it’s likely that the 19th century owners of these keys did not often discard them on purpose – the abundance of advertisements for locksmiths in 19th century Canterbury newspapers suggests that the skill of breaking locks was one in demand.
And who were these lock breakers behind the scenes? If you lost your key or if something went wrong with one of your locks, you’d need someone to pick it, break it, or blow it up (if you’re that desperate). Locksmiths seem to have been ‘a jack of all trades’ in New Zealand during the 1800s – they often moonlighted as plumbers, engineers, guns smiths, tinsmiths, bell hangers and gas fitters to name a few (Star 29/09/1873: 3). They appear to not only have had varied careers, but also exciting ones – among the many instances of getting called out on false alarm missions (having to open safes that were never locked, or even closed in the first place (Star 23/10/1897: 2). There were also many examples of locksmiths being the first called to the scene of a crime (often murders) to break through a locked door (Temuka Leader 16/12/1882: 3). They were also commonly called in as expert witnesses at court trials to prove if locks had been tampered with – a sort of 19th century forensics expert (Star 4/04/1900: 3). I’ve LOCKED in an example of one of these turbulent tales – it may be the craziest story I have ever read in the New Zealand newspapers – so I’ll leave it with you. Until next time.
By Chelsea Dickson
Butter, F. J. 1968 An Encyclopaedia of Locks and Builders Hardware. Josiah Parkes, WillenhaIl, England.
Evans, J. 2002. A Gazetteer of Lock and Key Makers. [online] Available at: http://www.historywebsite.co.uk/Museum/locks/gazetteer/gazv.htm
History of Keys 2016 [online] http://www.historyofkeys.com/ [Accessed July 2016]
Press, P. J. 2000 ‘Historic Door Hardware’ in Karklins, K. 2000. (Ed) Studies in Material Culture Research.
Star [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed July 2016]
Switzer, R., R. 2013. The Steamboat Bertrand and Missouri River Commerce. University of Oklahoma Press. Norman.
Temuka Leader [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed July 2016]