The Influence of Charles St Aubin on English Lock Makers
by Mike Fincher
Very little seems to have been written about Charles St Aubin prior to the great exhibition of 1851 held in the Crystal Palace in Hyde park. What we do know is that Aubin was born on 29th May 1812 and that he was the son of Charles David Aubin who was an ornamental glass blower, coming from France. Aubins early locks were made in Spicers building in Pountney Street, Wolverhampton but all his lock inventions up to the time of the Great Exhibition were clever and very well made but were not cost effective, to use a modern phrase. The only two at this point of time that we should pay special attention to are the "Vibrating guard" lock and the "Compound lever" locks, as both these locks were years later taken up by two French firms, Bauch and Fichet, who eventually became Fichet-Bauch. Bauch based their "Monopole" lock on the "Vibrating guard" and Fichet used the compound lever lock. In this lock, which had two sets of levers, the key lifting a primary set of levers, which act on a second set poised above them, so that a very small movement of the first set causes a huge movement of the secondary ones.
The turning point in Aubins fortune and general recognition came with his famous "Lock Trophy" in 1851. Aubins own rationale for making this trophy was as follows:-
"As I could never trace any treatise on the art of lockmaking, and I thought two years ago, I would devote all the threads and patches of time I had, to make a feeble attempt to file it, by taking the most simple movement known and from it, step by step, take forty-six of the most celebrated movements, and give to each a fair and impartial separate section, so that anyone might see in a few minutes, nearly the whole art and if he wished to become an inventor, he might choose the path to follow, and at the same time, might see how each inventor had borrowed from the other, by adding some little improvement, or reversing or doubling the action, or by giving the interior part a different form, may claim to be an original invention."
A very detailed description of this trophy is given in George Price's monumental book on locks and safes, so no more details will be given here.
Why the year of 1851 is so important in the life of Charles Aubin is because this wonderful Trophy brought his name and abilities to the notice of many influential people. The great American Charles Alfred Hobbs was so impressed with the Trophy that once the exhibition had closed he bought the Trophy and it stood in Hobbs showroom where it remained for 100 years. What was more commercially usefull to Aubin was that he came to the attention of the Nettlefolds, John Sutton Nettlefold and his two sons, Edward John and Joseph Henry Nettlefold who owned a very successful wood screw business, originally based in Sunbury-on-Thames but moved to Birmingham in 1842. The Nettlefolds provided the capital for Aubin to build a lock factory in Wolverhampton called "The Guardian Works",after the lock of that name that he and the Nettlefolds had just patented in 1855, on the Whitmore Reans estate and installed him as their manager.
Elizabeth Aubin died in 1863 from Breast Cancer, leaving him to care for 9 children, however he did not long remain alone as in November 1865 he married Anne Baugh a Widow (nee Willcox) a Milliner with her own premises in Darlington St (1861 and 1871 Census) His workshop was at 55 Waterloo Road and he also filed an 1871 census for that address. In the trade directory of 1873 he is still listed as operating this lock factory, employing 22 men and 6 boys and he remained here untill 1879 when he moved up to Liverpool. We shall probably never know the reason for the failure of this venture but one can hazard a guess, for it seems Aubin, like many other great inventors such as Linus Yale Jnr had no business sense, he was a superb craftsman and almost certainly an idealist, who set very high standards for production which were not cost efective. What we do know is , that during this period in Wolverhampton where he had some very nice contracts to make locks for both George Price and Samuel Chatwood, he was possibly indiscreet, in as much as he passed on ideas from one client to another. Samuel Chatwood tells us in his lecture to the Royal Society of Arts in 1888 that Aubin had allowed George Price to see his Chatwoods design lever, as he had been supplying locks to George Price for some time. George Price, who had just patented his new design lock in 1859 and called it his "Ne plus Ultra" lock, having seen Chatwoods new design of lever, at once changed his own lock and took out another patent in 1860 for a lock that was very simular to Chatwoods. Needless to say soon after this both George Price and Chatwood set up their own lock making depts, which must have caused a great loss of business to Aubin!
Now we come to consider the influence that Aubin had on other lock makers. Firstly both Chatwoods and George Price continued to make their locks with levers and springs that were integral, from one piece of brass. This may seem to the superficial observer a relatively trivial point but when it is considered that 90% of all locks made at that time had steel springs, called "Comb" or "Finger" springs because they were cut from one piece of spring steel, and these were very liable to snap or break, especially if attacked by rust, then Aubin's integral springs can be seen as a major advance, and they had the added advantage that being made of brass they were relatively unaffected by damp conditions (especially in padlocks). Aubin redesigned the original "Nettlefolds Patent Lever" for his later locks, making it gunpowder proof by following the design of Chatwood and George Price but keeping the actual gating in the levers the traditional form. Towards the end o 1877 the firm of Charles Aubin & Co was put into liquidation and following this, Aubin moved up to Liverpool in 1879 and became the foreman of Milners new lock making dept. unfortunately his health declined and in 1883 he died. An interesting fact, not generally known, is that Aubin planned to make another 3 "Aubin Trophies", the three centres, ready to take the locks were present up to the time that Milners moved to their new works in Speke. He had intended to mount all Milner locks of different designs on the centres and all would have been "crowned" by a Bramah lock with a key with the "Liver Bird" on the bow. It is certain that we will never know the full debt that Milners owed to Charles Aubin and his men for I believe there is little doubt that with the closure of the Guardian works in 1877 that the majority of Aubins workforce transferred to Milners. If only we knew the names of Aubins workers it might be possible to see if they re-appeared at Milners.George Boyce's ancestor Benjamin Boyce travelled up in a party with Aubin and his daughter in 1878.
Milners had been using a square 4" lock made by Hobbs, Hart & Co for 20 years on all their safes but once Hart seriously started to make safes as a rival to them, all trade between them ceased creating a desperate need for an un-pickable lock. This Aubin and the locksmiths who joined him in Liverpool were able to do by making a gunpowder proof or "solid" lock version of the "A1 Guardian Lock" of the same physical dimensions as the Hobbs lock. Soon after Aubins death the Boyce family produced a new lock design for Mlners, but like Chatwoods and George Price before them they kept Aubins idea of the integral lever springs which they used for another 50-60 years. Another introduction of Aubins borrowed from Hobbs "Protector" locks was the use of the revolving barrel which carries on it the bolt talon, so that the force to move the bolt in and out comes from the whole web of the key bit and NOT by a separate lower bolt step. This also allows a small key to effect a large throw of the bolt and was retained right up till the end of Milners production. For a short time after Aubins death, an anti-pressure device was incorporated in a Milner lock (the "C" lock) after the A1 Guardian lock was dropped but this was abandoned in favour of false notches.
To sum up, we can clearly see that Aubin had a profound, if subtle, influence on three great manufactures, Chatwoods, Ceorge Price and Milners, all of whom adapted his integral lever springs, Geoge Price and Chatwoods untill 1930 and Milners right to the end of production. It is said that the inscription on the base of the unfinished trophies at Milners referred to Aubin as "The Prince of Locksmiths" and I think that most of us would agree with that.