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  • The Spectacle of Security:Lock-Picking Competitions and the Security Industry in mid-Victorian Britain
  • David Churchill (bio)

Lock-picking competitions first captured the imagination of the British public at the Great Exhibition of 1851. These contests pitted rival brand-name locksmiths against each other in trying to circumvent the leading security devices of the day, typically before a crowd of onlookers. As such, they presented a spectacle of security – an opportunity for those present to witness the most sophisticated locks not resting dormant, but under attack from a skilled and determined mechanic taking the part of the criminal. The most celebrated of these lock-pickers was Alfred Charles Hobbs, who first arrived in Britain as a representative of the American lock-making firm Day & Newell, before rising to international acclaim by picking two locks previously considered inviolable: Chubb & Son’s ‘detector lock’, originally patented in 1818; and Bramah & Co.’s famous challenge lock, first patented in 1784. This last had stood proudly in the firm’s Piccadilly shop window for decades, alongside a notice offering two-hundred guineas to anyone who could devise an implement with which to pick it. Hobbs’s conquest of these two ‘unpickable’ locks captivated the press: one newspaper even asserted that no feature of the Exhibition had attracted greater public attention than this ‘celebrated lock contest’.1 Yet the ‘Great Lock Controversy’, as it became known, was only the most famous of a series of lock-picking challenges and disputes which issued from the emerging security industry of the 1850s and 1860s.

The history of the security industry – in Britain as elsewhere – remains largely unwritten. Focusing predominantly on state systems of crime control, historians have barely touched upon market responses to crime.2 However, recent work has begun to shed light on the history of security more broadly defined. Eloise Moss and David Smith, for example, by examining how security companies influenced popular understandings of crime and the home, have revealed the deep historical roots of anxieties surrounding insecurity, and have highlighted the role of security entrepreneurs in shaping commonplace perceptions of risk, responsibility and prevention.3 But historians have yet to embark upon any broader exploration of security enterprise as a significant aspect of modern social development. [End Page 52] For instance, an important theme which the cultural histories noted above tend to gloss over is the commercial logic which informed provision of security products and services. Thus despite unravelling the discourse surrounding the Great Lock Controversy in minute detail, Smith never explains why lock-picking competitions took place, nor does he explore their material consequences. Indeed, he purposely evades such questions by dubiously asserting that the controversy ‘had more symbolic than real meaning’.4 By contrast, this article argues for a political economy of modern security, grounded in a critical analysis of the mechanisms through which the social power of the security industry was constituted historically in particular contexts.

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Fig 1.

Alfred Charles Hobbs, performing his characteristic ‘tentative’ method of lock-picking. Illustrated London News, 2 Aug. 1851, p. 141. The daguerrotype which served as the basis for this image was displayed at the London galleries of artist John Jabez Edwin Mayall, alongside portraits of other prominent individuals associated with the Great Exhibition of 1851.

The nineteenth-century witnessed the transition towards a modern system of security provision, mediated increasingly by products subject to continual technological development and delivered through the market by assertive brand-name producers. The mid-century lock-picking competitions played an important role in this development, and so they illuminate a key chapter in the history of security. What follows thus examines the rise and fall of the lock-picking competition in terms of its commercial rationale, cultural meanings and social consequences. It draws mainly upon sources in the Chubb & [End Page 53] Son lock-and-safe company archive, particularly its scrapbook collection, the ‘Chubb Collectanea’.5 It first explains why lock-picking competitions flourished in terms of the marketing strategies of premium lock-makers, before situating public interest in competitive lock-picking in its cultural contexts. Next, it exposes the shortcomings of the competition as a reliable arbiter of security...


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pp. 52-74
Launched on MUSE
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