Today I heard the sad news that a friend of mine in Spain, a near-neighbour called Kevin, had been found dead in his home on St Stephen’s Day. It is particularly sad because Kevin had had a really rough time this past year or so, and Christmas is always a difficult time to be on your own, regardless of Covid Restrictions. In memory of Kevin I thought I would do a blog about the company he worked for before he retired, Chubb’s, the locksmiths.
Chubb’s traces its roots back to 1804 when Charles Chubb opened a ship’s ironmongery and chandlery business in Winchester. With his brother Jeremiah they moved the business to Portsmouth in 1818. In the previous year there had been a burglary at the dockyard in Portsmouth and the British Government arranged a competition open to anyone who could produce a lock that could be opened only with its own unique key. Jeremiah hit upon the idea for a new design: a detector lock which was not only difficult to operate without the original key, but which would clearly show if any attempt had been made to pick the lock. Jeremiah’s design for a a four-lever lock incorporated a security feature known as a regulator. It meant that if it was picked or opened with the wrong key the lock would stop working until a special key was used to reset it. The regulator would be tripped if an individual lever was moved too far.
Various developments in locksmithing had been made in the recent past, not least with the Bramah ‘unpickable lock’ developed by Joseph Bramah. In 1788 Robert Barron had come up with a double-acting tumbler lock, but the Jeremiah Chubb invention was new and meant that Jeremiah was able to claim the £100 reward offered by the government. That was a lot of money – equivalent to perhaps £8000 nowadays. The story goes that Jeremiah personally delivered his special lock to a convicted prisoner serving time on one of the rotting prison hulks in Portsmouth Docks, with an offer of a £100 and a free pardon if he could open the lock. Given that the prisoner was a locksmith who had successfully met every previous challenge put before him, the prisoner leapt at the chance of freedom – but after two or three months of twiddling and fiddling he had to concede defeat.
With this invention under their belt, and with good government contacts, the Chubb brothers moved to near Walsall in the West Midlands to manufacture locks. Jeremiah decided that his future lay in America and brother Charles took over sole responsibility for running the company. In 1823 Chubb’s were awarded a special licence by George IV and went on to become the sole supplier of locks to the Post Office and to HM Prison Service. This was apparently despite the fact that when the Prince was shown the lock he accidentally and rather painfully sat his ample posterior on the padlock, with its key inserted in an upright position…. ouch!
Improvements to the design of the lock were made and an extra two levers were added. They challenged anyone to open their six-lever lock – a challenge which took a generation to be successful. It was not until the Great Exhibition in 1851 that Alfred Charles Hobbs, a rival locksmith, finally worked out a way of opening the detector lock without triggering the regulator.
The company moved into the business of making safes. The first patent for a burglar-resistant safe was taken out by the company in 1835 and their first safe-making works were opened in Cowcross Street, London two years later. In 1838 the first fire-resistant safe was invented, with the gaps between the iron plates filed with fire retardant materials.
By the 1840s Chubb customers included the Bank of England as well as the Royal Consort, Prince Albert, and when a secure setting was needed for the display of the Koh-i-Noor diamond at the Great Exhibition it was Chubb’s who got the contract to come up with a special display cage.
By then Charles Chubb had died (in 1846 at the age of 75) and the business was taken over by his son John Chubb. The company expanded worldwide, with impeccable contacts throughout the security industry. Eventually, the company got taken over, and ended up under the same ownership as its erstwhile rivals, Yale and Union.
I have no idea what role Kevin held in the Company – since his customers were mostly either banks or governments it was hardly something he could discuss. He was a fine man, excellent company and I am saddened to hear that he has died.