It is said that it was the patronage of Queen Elizabeth I that provided the impetus behind Willenhall’s lock-making industry, and the abundance of coal and iron found in the Black Country certainly enabled the industry to flourish.
Despite the proliferation of lock makers in the area, companies rarely grew beyond a master and a couple of apprentices, due to the fact that once an apprentice had completed his training he became a journeyman who had to be paid extra.
Thus it was cheaper to find a new apprentice as a replacement and the newly qualified journeyman would venture forth and become a master himself.
This division between all the individual locksmiths meant the business of lock-making was carried out largely in cramped sheds and entailed long hours bent over a small work bench.
So common was it for these workers to grow hump backs and other deformities that the town earned itself the imaginative nickname Humpshire, and in fact local pubs would build coves into the wall so that locksmiths could sit with their bent spines nestled into the wall.
It wasn’t until the later part of the century that a few larger companies started to emerge along with advances in iron production and mechanised pressing capabilities.
One such company was H&T Vaughan, opened in 1856 by two teenage brothers from a lock-making family. In 1869, Henry and Thomas set up shop on Wood Street, eventually growing to be the largest of the Willenhall lock makers.
Meanwhile in the states, the Yale Lock Shop was established in New York in 1843. The latest in a line descended from Welsh settlers in New York, Linus Yale Jr., went on a few years later to build upon the inventions of his father to create the pin-tumbler lock design that is still in use today.
The pin-tumbler lock was based on locks that had been in use as far back as Ancient Egypt, where wooden versions were used on front doors.
Such rudimentary designs however, consisting of little more than uniformly sized pins, could easily be picked, and therefore didn’t meet the needs of the increasingly possession-filled homes of the 19th Century.
Lock expert Linus was of the same line of Yales as the ‘lovable rogue’ Elihu Yale, whose donations to a fledgling college in Connecticut, ensured his name would forevermore be associated with a certain strata of American education.
Perhaps a touch of his unorthodox entrepreneurship, which saw him booted out of the East India Company for repeatedly dealing on the side, ran through Yale Jr. as he travelled the country demonstrating how easily he could break into rival manufacturer’s locks.
Yale Jr. even went so far as to offer $3,000 to anyone who could successfully pick one of his own locks.
Such brazen displays didn’t go unnoticed, and within a short time the pin-tumbler lock was being manufactured across America, including by the renamed Yale & Towne company, and even as far away as the UK, where Henry and Thomas Vaughan had cemented their success by 1910 with the large scale production of pin-tumbler cylinder locks.
It was only natural then, that once Yale & Towne began to expand into Europe, their first stop would be Wood Street, Willenhall, where the manufacture of their locks was already underway in all but name.
1928 saw the death of MD, Joseph Starkey, and the Vaughan family chose that moment to sell the business. Had Starkey held on another year and seen out the Wall Street Crash, who knows if Yale ever would have set up on English shores?
Yale went on to be the largest employer in the area, accounting for, as part of Williams Holding Group, around 70 per cent of the locks manufactured in the UK.
In 2000 Yale UK was bought by Swedish lock conglomerate Assa Abloy and a recent £3.1million investment in the Willenhall site, no longer on Wood Street, is ensuring the home of the lock stays up to date with the latest trends.
In practice, this largely means going ‘smart’, not that that should imply the intricate mechanisms behind standard locks are in anyway ‘dumb’. In 2004 electrical locks accounted for 27 per cent of the firm’s range, a figure that now stands at 50 per cent.
The first smart lock was launched in 2010 and, if some quarters are to be believed, could be a standard feature of every home within a decade.
However technical our locks might get, they still ultimately rely on solid engineering to provide their strength, and Yale’s continued presence in humble ‘Humpshire’ serves to remind us of the hard work from the garden shed that paved the way to where we are today.