This week I’m handing over to Ally again, our Collections and Archive Officer who has chosen an interesting object to tell you all about…
The earliest security systems
The first civilisation to invent keys and locks is not known, but archaeology has shown that their history goes back several thousand years. Early models of mechanical keys have been found in various places such as Ancient Egypt dating some 4,000 years ago. These locks were made of wood, which was a readily accessible material. They were very simple and worked with a large wooden bolt to secure the door, which had slots with several holes in its upper surface that were filled with wooden pegs to prevent it from being opened. Although changes were made over the centuries, the mechanisms remained in this form until the late 18th century.
Developments in metal
Locksmiths were employed mainly by the rich, who demanded more protection that couldn’t be delivered. Over time, they started to make keys out of metal. They were usually very small and were viewed as one of the most effective ways of publicly showing wealth. However, thieves became increasingly expert at picking locks. In order to combat this, locksmiths had to make more complicated key designs with multiple locks and fake locks, which were often very ornately decorated.
The major expansions in industrial manufacture and new metallurgy processes during the 19th century allowed for the development of better tools and the ability to create small and durable lock components. Through these, modern locks and safes were invented.
Locking up the Mill
The pictured keys were used to lock interior office doors and work rooms at Quarry Bank Mill. One of the keys is double-ended with two different locks accessed by each end. They are highly decorated and have elaborate locks. According to the ‘Mill Memoranda’, in 1854 burglars broke into the safe in the mill manager’s office and stole £295 in coins. This money had been taken out the previous day by the clerks to pay the workers’ wages.
During the 19th century, the increase in large businesses, such as mills, with valuable machinery and stock on site, led mill managers to install locks that would provide the greatest security for their possessions. It is possible that these keys were made following the break-in and that some were double-ended, because the door would have had two different locks to ensure additional security.