24 August 2019

Gallery: John Wilkes' Beautiful Locks & 'keys so finely wrought'

Birmingham made 'detector' lock from c. 1680. V&A.

This brass lock was made in Birmingham in about 1680 by John Wilkes and is a fascinating object.

'the keys so finely wrought’, Robert Plot. 

The lock is able to record how may times it has been opened through the turning of the numbered dial. It would therefore ward off any potential thieves, and on the front are written the lines:

If I had ye gift of tongue 
I would declare and do no wrong 
Who ye are ye come by stealth 
To impare my Master's wealth.

When a button is pressed, the man’s leg moves forwards and backwards to reveal and conceal the keyhole, and his hat is tilted to release the bolt. It is an ingenious piece of craftsmanship, and Wilkes signed it Johannes Wilkes de Birmingham. It is not the only surviving John Wilkes lock, and more are shown in the gallery below.

Wilkes is generally considered to have lived and died on the Square, a fine housing development dating from about 1713, and his famous lock, above, is depicted in Kenneth Budd's 1967 mural which is situated in the modern square (called Old Square, see below). There were two John Wilkes', though, father and son, and the Wilkes who made these locks was not the same who lived on the Square.

Kenneth Budd's 'Old Square' mural made 1967. Wiki Commons.
Part of Budd's mural depicting John Wilkes' lock, J. Dixon, 2011.

The elder John was born in about 1651 and had been a locksmith in Darlaston in Staffordshire, as noted on his marriage licence to Elizabeth Heynes.** Lockmaking was dominant in Darlaston and nearby Staffordshire towns and villages. Robert Plot, who wrote A Natural History of Staffordshire in 1686, described Wolverhampton door-locks ‘with brass or iron boxes so curiously polish’t, and the keys so finely wrought’.*  In 1654 John Evelyn, the diarist, also described ‘a lock for a doore, that for its filing, & rare contrivances, was a masterpiece, yet made by a Country Black-Smith’ continuing that ‘a dore lock, of a tolerable price, was esteem’d a Curiositie even among forraine Princes’.* Although Evelyn did not note which area the 'Country Black-Smith' came from, it was likely the Black Country area of Staffordshire or Birmingham, as these were the dominant sites of lock-making outside London at this time.

John and Elizabeth were married in Sedgley, Staffordshire, where Elizabeth was from, in 1673 when they were both 22 years of age. They seem to have moved immediately to Birmingham as a daughter, Mary, was baptised at St. Martin's in 1674. They had five children altogether, John, Mary, Elizabeth, Rebecca and Joseph, and although baptisms can be found for all but John junior, they were all mentioned in John seniors will, dated 1709. The will contained an inventory of the Wilkes home as well as John's workshop, containing the tools of his trade, which was possibly on Bull Street (more on his home here).

The tools contained in Wilkes' two workshops provide insight into how these locks were produced using eighteenth-century methods. Wilkes had a hearth, as bellows were mentioned, and also a trough for cooling hot metal. There was an anvil, hammers, tongs, shears as well as technologies such as lathes. His ‘Squares & Cumpasses [compasses]’ helped him get the correct shapes and measurements, and tools which created the intricate shapes and polish were also recorded, such as vices to hold the metal and drills to begin the designs. Dozens of files of different shapes and sizes were also listed, including ‘3 New thin files, 2 oval half round & new thick half Round’. These would help him file the shapes of the foliage in the locks below. For polishing the finished articles there were rubbers and ‘smooths [smoothers]’, as well as a polishing wheel. Wilkes owned ‘Wimbles’, which were used for boring holes, and ‘Screwplates’, which formed the thread on screws. This shows that Wilkes made his own screws and that this labour was not being majorly outsourced or divided at this time.*

After the elder Wilkes' death, it was the younger John Wilkes who lived on the Square. He had followed his father's trade as a locksmith and in about 1712, or just before, had borrowed £200 from his mother, possibly to purchase one of the new grand townhouses in the Square. He died in December 1732 and was buried at St. Martin's.


Birmingham made 'detector' lock, John Wilkes, c. 1680. V&A.

This lock is from about 1680 and is one of three Birmingham locks made by John Wilkes held by the Victoria and Albert Museum. The working of the lock is described: 'The master of the house could select, by turning the small knob at the top of the lock, the number of bolts (1 to 4) that he wished to put into operation. When set at number four, which is maximum for locking the top four bolts are locked out by just turn of the key, but four turns of the key are required to withdraw these, i.e. one at a time. There is however literally a "sting in the tail" of the top bolt, the one last withdrawn, for it triggers off the twin anti-burglar bottom bolts, and these can only be unlocked by a reverse action of the correct key'.***

Similar locks (or at least parts of them) are held at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and the MET Museum in New York (below). The layout and workings are slightly different, but overall the designs are very similar.
Birmingham lock, c. 1680. MET Museum.
Attributed to John Wilkes as the lock is unsigned.

Lock,  signed by John Wilkes, c. 1680. BMAG.

Hinge plate in similar design to Wilkes' locks and probably made to match,
so would be placed on the same door as the lock.
Held at V&A.

Dyrham Park, a National Trust property near Bristol and Bath, have two Wilkes locks of this design still in use, which also include a decorative keyhole plate and doorknob used on the other side of the door (belowthanks to Victoria Barker). Wilkes not only made the locks, then, but everything needed to make both secure and beautiful doors. 

Wilkes keyhole plate and knob, images by Victoria Barker.

A detector lock signed by Wilkes and sold at Sotheby's
in 2015 for £12,500.

Locks Attributed to Wilkes

Another very intricate detector lock held at the V&A.

The panel which is removed at the top reveals two dials which detect how many times the lock has been opened. 

Below is another unsigned lock very similar to the first depicted. This is very likely by Wilkes, although others may have imitated his locks. 
Held at the Rijks Muesuem.

Other locks were sold at Bonham's, here and here
See all galleries here. I have also posted this to my other blog, Crafts Through Time.

* References on request.
** 1. John Wilkes, a locksmith from Darlaston, married Elizabeth Heynes, from Sedgley, in Sedgley on 20 September 1673. The licence stated that they were both 22. Their five children were John, Mary (1674), Elizabeth (1678), Rebecca (1683), and Joseph (1689). According to wills Rebecca Wilkes married Richard Dolphin, a baker, and Mary Wilkes married Edward Burton, a short cutler. 
*** V&A.

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