How brothers secured their place in history with a word-leading invention

"When I were a lad, you could leave your front door open, and nobody would steal anything," so goes the old saying, repeated down countless generations.

Charles Chubb started in business with an ironmonger's shop
Charles Chubb started in business with an ironmonger's shop

Well that didn't appear to be the case in the early 19th century. Indeed, crime ­– theft and burglary in particular – was so rampant that in 1818 the Government resorted to holding a talent contest for the security industry. The Locks Factor, if you like.

It proved to be a stroke of genius. Because not only did the winner, 28-year-old Jeremiah Chubb, come up with something incredibly clever and innovative. But he also used his 100 guineas prize money to start up a business that would lead the world. And from a base in the heart of the West Midlands.

This week's edition is about not one but several Great Lives, because the success story behind the Chubb lockmaker was very much a family affair. But it was Jeremiah's invention that lit the torch, and his older brother Charles whose persistence and business acumen created a security giant.

Jeremiah Chubb was born in Fordingbridge, Hampshire, on June 10, 1790, 18 years after his older brother Charles.

Having served an apprenticeship as a blacksmith, Charles set up in business selling specialised ironmongery to the shipping industry, first operating out of Winchester, before moving to Portsea in the Portsmouth docklands in 1804. It was the height of the Industrial Revolution, and there was plenty of money to be made selling ironware for use on ships. But as growth of industry led to levels of wealth and prosperity never seen before, this also meant soaring crime rates. Unsurprisingly, the naval stores around Portsmouth, where all manner of goodies were kept, were particularly susceptible, and after joining his brother's business, Jeremiah realised there could be a serious market for an ultra-secure lock that would put paid to the pilfering once and for all.

Jeremiah was just eight years old when his older brother married Maria Hayter on August 20, 1798, possibly against the wishes of both families as no members of either family attended the wedding. It appears Jeremiah was living with Charles and his family when he developed his 'detector lock' that would change both their lives.

The Chubb detector lock

The 'detector lock' was unique in that it had a 'self destruct' mechanism that would render it inoperable if an attempt was made to pick it or open it with the wrong key. This not only made it more difficult for the criminally inclined to gain illicit access, it also warned the owner that an attempt had been made to break into his property. The lock could be reset, but only with a special regulating key that came with the lock.

In 1818, 100 guineas, or £105, was about the equivalent of £10,000 today. Not a vast fortune, but Jeremiah was determined to use it wisely and began recruiting rim and cabinet locksmiths at his brother's shop in Portsmouth – by advertising in the Wolverhampton Chronicle. There was a certain logic to this; at that time, nearby Willenhall was the lockmaking capital of the country, and there would be far more highly skilled workers in the West Midlands than in Portsmouth.

By this time, the brothers probably already had one eye on the future, and within two years, they opened a lock and safe manufacturing works in Temple Street, Wolverhampton, with the lockmakers who moved to Portsmouth to join the company presumably returning home.

There is an unsubstantiated, but nevertheless enjoyable tale, about how the manner in which the fledgling business secured a royal warrant from Prince Regent George IV in 1823.

An advertisement in Melville's 1851 Wolverhampton Directory

In a 1951 interview with an Australian newspaper, Charles' great-great grandson the Hon George Chubb, painted a rather colourful meeting when the future king summoned Charles Chubb to meet him aboard the royal yacht.

"Charles Chubb arrived with his lock, was ushered into a cabin, and instructed to await the arrival of the King," he said.

"He placed his lock on a nearby chair, and started to wander round the cabin, examining the pictures.

"While he was occupied in gazing at the seascapes, King George swept into the cabin and sat down right on top of the lock.

"It’s an old joke in our family that that lock made such an 'impression' on him that he granted us a royal warrant, which we’ve had ever since."

A less colourful version of the story is that Charles Chubb was demonstrating his locks to the captain of a battleship in Portsmouth harbour when the King came aboard. The flustered captain attempted to push Chubb out of the way, but George IV called him back, and was so enthralled by his sales pitch that he invited him to London.

"I and my friends will make your lock known," George is said to have told him.

This strange contraption was used to display the priceless Koh-i-Nor diamond at the 1851 Festival of Britain

What is known is that George IV was a huge supporter of Chubb in its early days, and it was major contracts with public bodies which secured the company's future.

Which was just as well, as the company appeared to have overstretched itself with its expansion in Wolverhampton, and sometime shortly after the move Jeremiah is thought to have moved first to France, then to the US, to flee from his creditors. It appears that Charles may also have been subjected to bankruptcy procedures, but nevertheless persisted with the business, and achieved the breakthrough in 1820 when he persuaded the Admiralty to issue a contract to supply its locks. In 1823, similar deals were struck with the Post Office and the prison service, which operated prison ships in Portsmouth, and after a shaky start the business was firmly established.

Charles made more friends in high places in 1828, when the Duke of Wellington called upon Chubb to pick open his front door at Aspley House, and supply four new locks.

This was four years after Charles had patented an improved detector lock which did away with the need for the separate regulator key, and in 1835 he developed a burglar-resistant safe. The years that followed saw rapid expansion, first with the opening of the company's safe works in Cowcross Street, close to Smithfield Market in London, and then to a new works on the corner of Horseley Fields and Mill Street in Wolverhampton, where it would make about 28,000 locks a year.

The company became a master of marketing, and visitors to exhibitions would regularly be challenged to pick the 1818 lock, which remained undefeated until somebody managed to beat it at the Great Exhibition of 1851. And the Great Exhibition saw the greatest publicity stunt yet, when Chubb managed to get hold of the huge Koh-i-Nor diamond – one of the crown jewels – to exhibit in a secure cage on its stand. At night, on the touch of a spring by the custodian, the Koh-i-Nor and two smaller diamonds would "sink into a massive iron box of impregnable strength, and fall into a pedestal of solid masonry". The company must have been very confident in its product; the adverse publicity had somebody managed to steal the Koh-i-Nor doesn't bear thinking about.

Chubb's show-stopping stand at the 1851 Festival of Britain

The Chubb stand appears to have made an impression on Queen Victoria, who wrote in her private diary: "Chubb's locks were the first exhibits we regularly inspected and they really are wonderful of every size and kind. He explained to us the ingenious manner by which an attempt to form the lock is discovered." The company's efforts were rewarded with the Exhibition's Prize Medal.

In 1855, the Post Office installed its first pillar box, which was fitted with a Chubb lock, as most future ones would be.

After a spell working in the US as a machinist, Jeremiah returned to Britain in 1828. It was another 11 years, however, before his name appeared in any patents, and he may have worked as a travelling rep for Chubb's products until his only son died of measles. His wife Emilia returned to America, and it is thought Jeremiah hoped to follow her, but by this time he was in poor health, and died in Winchester on November 10, 1847.

Charles Chubb was a staunch Wesleyan Methodist, known for his donations to charity, although it appears the extent of his generosity may not have extended to his own family: it appears Jeremiah, or 'Uncle Jerry' as he was known to younger relatives, acted as a conduit for family members seeking financial assistance.

Charles and Maria Chubb had 11 children – eight daughters and three sons – and when Charles died on May 16, 1846 it was his youngest son John who took over the running of the company, which had already been renamed Charles Chubb & Son. His widow, Maria, died seven months later. Charles left £16,000 in his will – about £2 million today – which was divided between his eight surviving children.

John Chubb took over the business on the death of his father, Charles

John ran the business until his death in 1872, when he was succeeded by his sons John Charles, George Hayter and Harry Withers.

George would emerge as the driving force, becoming chairman of the new limited company. This period coincided with rising crime levels across the Atlantic, and Chubb responded by opening a subsidiary in the US. George was knighted in 1885 and made a Baronet in 1900, given the baronial title as the 1st Baron Hayter, as it was considered improper that the name of a company could be used in the House of Lords. In 1909 he was made a Freeman of the Borough of Wolverhampton. He retired as chairman in 1938 but remained managing until his death in 1946, at the age of 98, when he was succeeded by his brother Harry.

The firm briefly left Wolverhampton in 1882, when the lease on the factory in Horseley Fields had expired, and the lock works moved to London. But the exile was shortlived, the company opening its imposing landmark building in Railway Street in 1889, the new works capable of accommodating 350 locksmiths, and a similar number of safe makers.

The expansion continued into the 20th century, and in 1938 a new lock works opened at Wednesfield Road in Heath Town, bringing the total factory space to more than 6.5 acres.

The Chubb works in Horseley Fields

In 1956 Chubb took over the famous lock and safe maker Hobbs Hart and Co Ltd, and in 1961 the company strated making fire-resistant safe deposit lockers at Park Lane in Wolverhampton.

Chubb remained a family business until 1984 when it was taken over by Racal Electronics, although Bill Chubb, 4th Lord Hayter, remained with the company until 1984.

A takeover by Williams Holdings in 1997, and a further takeover by Swedish group Assa Abloy three years later, saw the break-up of Chubb as we know it. Assa Abloy used the Chubb name for its locks until 2010, and Chubb Fire & Security is now owned by the US Carrier Global.

Chubb vacated its famous red-brick factory in the centre of Wolverhampton in the 1960s, but restoration work began on the building in the 1970s, and in 1984 the Light House media centre opened in part of the building.

Facts about the Chubb family

The famous Chubb works in Railway Street pictured in a 1908 advertisement, with the workforce assembled outside

*Charles Chubb was born in 1772, probably in Fordingbridge, Hampshire, the third child of Charles Chubb in 1772.

*Jeremiah Chubb was also born at Fordingbridge on June 10, 1790.

*Charles married Maria Hayter on August 20, 1798. No family members attended the wedding.

*Jeremiah now working for Charles' ironmongery business, patented his detector lock in February 1818. Later that year he won 100 guineas in a government competition to design the thief-proof lock, and launched his new business with an advertisement in the Wolverhampton Chronicle.

*In 1820 the Chubb brothers relocated their business to Wolverhampton, initially opening a factory in Temple Street. The company struggled to begin with, and sometime in the early 1820s Jeremiah fled to France, possibly to avoid his creditors.

*Charles persisted with the business though, and received a huge boost in 1823 when he won the support of Prince Regent George IV. There are a number of colourful stories about who this relationship came about.

*Charles made another influential friend in 1828, when the Duke of Wellington sought his assistance in picking the lock on his front door.

*Charles died on May 16, 1846, and Jeremiah died on November 10 the following year after a period of ill health. Charles' son John took over the family business. He left £16,000 in his will, divided by his eight surviving children.

*Chubb stole the show at the 1851 Festival of Britain, with attractions including a contraption to protect the priceless Koh-I-Nor diamond.

*John Chubb ran the business until his death in 1872, when he was succeeded by his sons John Charles, George Hayter and Harry Withers. George, later Lord Hayter, ran the business until his death aged 98 in 1946, when he was succeeded by younger brother Harry.

*Bill Chubb, the 4th Lord Hayter, was the last member of the Chubb family to sit on the company board, leaving in 1988.

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