On the Sherborne Museum website is this gorgeous picture of a seventeenth century lock. In 1654 diarist John Evelyn wrote that sophisticated lock mechanisms were ‘rare contrivances’ and regarded as technological marvels, ‘esteem’d a curiositie even among foraine princes’.
In the days when there were no banks, a surprising number of strong boxes were made to house the coinage on its way to daily transactions, such as paying wages and taxes, and for other large purchases such as houses, horses or livestock. So demand for the production of locks and chests was surprisingly large.
The best chests of the time were manufactured by the Germans and the Swiss, who were clockmakers as well as locksmiths and had the fine skills needed for intricate work. Most money chests, or coffers, had heavy locking lids, reinforced bottoms and strong handles. High precision was required for locksmithing and it was all done by hand at the bench. The keyhole was almost always positioned in the centre of the lid, well hidden through some cleverly designed camouflage or extra function. The ubstantial key needed to have a stable bit- one that would lock all the pins with a single turn and strong enough to turn all the springs and moving parts. During the seventeenth century, a decorated or ornate cover of polished sheet iron was added. The interior was plain, except for the locking merchanism in the lid. The outside, however, was lavishly decorated to be individual, with coats of arms, insignia, ornamental chasing, etching, or gilding, and sometimes with welded brass detail on the corners or hasps.
A rare English brass ‘Cavalier’ detector lock signed by John Wilkes of Birmingham. Last quarter 17th century, with a fretted steel key, the Cavalier’s leg with ‘Kick’ mechanism to reveal a keyhole, the mechanism incorporating a catch in the form of the cavaliers hat to release the ‘kick’ (currently inactive) and activate a numbered indicator disc, the main plate engraved:
‘If I had ye gift of tongue, I would declare & do no wrong, who they are ye come by stealth to impare my Lady’s Wealth, John Wilkes e Birmingham, Fecit’
It is called a ‘detector’ lock, because the dial on the right side shows if the lock has been opened in the owner’s absence. What I love about it is that is shows the sense of humour of both the person who commissioned it, and the maker. Imagine the fine lady going out and cocking the Cavalier’s hat to lock her jewels in her chamber, and then checking her valuables were safe on her return by checking the dial. After that, a click to release the kick, and the keyhole is revealed behind the calf of the Cavalier, ready for her to slide in the key. A gentle click, and she returns to find her jewels safe on the cushion where she left them.
For a novelist of course, it’s fun to imagine what might happen if she found the dial showing that someone else had been in the room…
For comparison, see a similar lock in the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, but the V & A lock features the words ‘my Master’s Wealth’ as opposed to ‘my Lady’s Wealth’. Watch the video of how it all works here
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