The forgotten blockbuster locksport competitions of the mid-Victorian era

Today, organizations like The Open Organisation of Lockpickers Worldwide support locksport with tools, educational materials, training and organized events, but in the Victorian era, locksmiths competed at expositions to show off their talents and show off the weaknesses of their competitors' wares.

The press of the day was fascinated with these competitions, not least because of the huge cash rewards offered by lockmakers and the showmanship of the lockpickers, who'd pull stunts like holding picks in their teeth to feel the vibrations from the locks. What's more, lockpicking tied into the Victorian anxiety that "machines" were outstripping humans, and each new lock picked demonstrated the superiority of flesh and intellect over inert metal, while simultaneously serving as "scientific" demonstrations of the workings of these high-tech precision marvels.

The pickings were haunted by scandal and accusations of cheating, and debate over whether a lock's defeat was proof of its strength or weakness -- if the best picker took 16 days to open a lock, did that mean it was adequate to protecting a Hatton Garden jeweler who would never be away from his shop for more than a night or two? Add to that a nationalist dimension, with "Yankee ingenuity" pitched against "John Bull craftsmanship" and you have the ingredients for serious public interest in an otherwise esoteric practice.

The emphasis on locks eventually had a perverse effect on physical security, as safemakers focused their energies on locking mechanisms at the expense of the safes themselves, so that robbers could just use wedges to break apart the safes themselves.

David Churchill, Lecturer in Criminal Justice at the University of Leeds, has a magnificent paper on this, focused on the marvellously named "Great Lock Controversy."

Still more absorbing than the construction of locks was the feat of picking
them. The fact that contemporaries understood the modern lock (with its
moving parts) as a ‘machine’ imbued the competitions with the intrigue of a
battle between mechanical skill and the material product of that skill. The
act also carried an air of mystery, never more so than in Hobbs’s sixteen-day
struggle against the Bramah lock, conducted behind closed doors. The
Illustrated London News – which had previously detailed Hobbs’s tactics
in picking Chubb’s detector lock – extensively covered this trial of mechanical
skill, providing illustrations of Hobbs’s bespoke lock-picking apparatus,
and carefully explicating his method.30 As exemplars of ingenuity and determined
competitive effort, lock-picking contests appealed to a technically
attuned public. Attention next focused on Hobbs in 1854, when he tried
in vain to pick Edwin Cotterill’s climax detector lock. The lock-picking
implement produced on this occasion was formed of a hoop bearing
twelve pieces of wire around a central spring; each wire corresponded to a
slider in the lock, and each could be operated independently, so as to apply
to each individual slider the unique degree of pressure required to operate
the mechanism. The Manchester Guardian noted that this ‘very ingenious
construction’ struck those present with ‘surprise and admiration’. Critical to
the lock-picking spectacle, however, was the use Hobbs made of this
remarkable contrivance – his showmanship:

In pressing inwards any wire, Mr. Hobbs placed the handle between his
lips, and let the end rest against a tooth. The object of this was to test
precisely the amount of pressure necessary to force back any given slide,
and especially to determine the point at which the effect of pressure
terminated. For this purpose, a tooth would be more sensitive than the
fingers, as a vibration would be sensibly felt by the tooth the instant
resistance was met with.

Such tortuous manipulation of tools and body lent Hobbs’s exploits a certain
panache, which excelled that of his rivals and quickly won him considerable
celebrity: by October of 1851, the Morning Chronicle declared that his
accomplishments had been so voraciously devoured by the public that he
had become ‘an article of general property’.32

The Spectacle of Security: Lock-Picking Competitions and the Security Industry in mid-Victorian Britain
[David Churchill/History Workshop Journal] [Paywalled]

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