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History of Locks (Part Three): Victorian Innovations

31/08/2018 Victorian cylinder lock

Continuing our occasional series on the history of locks, we thought we’d take a look at how locks developed towards the end of Victoria’s period on the British throne – when technological advances made smaller, more complex locks possible. If you need a reminder of how far we’ve come, read history of locks part one ‘invention’ and part two ‘medieval locks’.

Feuding Locksmiths

One of the great forgotten stories of Victorian locksmithery is the feud between George Price and William Milner. Both had filed patents for various improvements to fire-proof safes. Price was more of an academic (he published the 1000 page ‘A Treatise on Fire Proof Depositories and Locks and Keys’ in 1856) and Milner was more of a showman. 

Milner advertised his product by building huge public bonfires with one of his safes in the middle and invited eminent people to put valuables and documents in the safe before setting the bonfire alight. Price maintained that there were flaws in the design of Milner’s safes, and was persecuted by Milner’s sales reps as a result. Price’s warnings were proved correct in the most tragic of circumstances. In 1860, one of Milner’s safes exploded at a public bonfire demonstration in Burnley and a child was killed.

The Black Country

Ironmongery and locksmithing have a long history together. The iron and coal being dug out of the ground around Wolverhampton made the Midlands the centre for ironmongery in the 19th Century and a thriving locksmith industry sprung up there too – designing locks to protect the valuables of a newly emerged wealthy industrialist middle class. Doors and windows needed locks now that there were valuables inside the houses. Specialist locks were produced for various organisations: the Church of England wanted locks not just for their places of worship but also for valuable bibles, pews and pulpits!

The Yale Cylinder Lock

Linus Yale Jr was born into a family of locksmiths. His father, Linus Yale Sr, specialised in high-end locks for bank vaults. Between 1843 and 1857, Yale Jr filed 8 patents for locks – the most important of which was the cylinder lock: a miniaturised version of the Pin-and Tumbler locks first developed by the Egyptians some four millennia earlier.

In the Twentieth Century, this all-American company made inroads into the international market. Its British arm was so successful that cylinder pin-and-tumbler locks by any manufacturer are usually referred to as Yale locks.

We’ll tell you more about how locks developed in the Twentieth Century in part four! In the meantime, if you have any kind of trouble with any kind of lock, don’t hesitate to get in touch. You can call us on 01603 812613 or email

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