Rivals to the Yale® Pin Tumbler Cylinder Nightlatch: The Wellington Lever Cylinder Lock

by Richard Phillips

She had been the victim of crime. She had lost her door keys —or almost certainly had had them stolen by an ‘office creep’. This is a burglar who walks in though insecure staff entrances, and rifles coats and handbags in the staff cloakroom, whilst staff are at work. His main target is usually money; but if he finds house keys and can also find the owner’s address, he can hurry round there to burgle it before the owner leaves work, and notices the loss.

In my youth, Yale® ran an advertising campaign, fig 1 using the slogan ‘Someone may come back to the same door —but not the same lock.’ This woman was lucky; when she came home to her council flat and found her keys missing, at least she had not been burgled.

Fig 1

I was called to open her flat —and fit a lock of a different type. Coming originally from outside London, I had never seen such a lock as fig 2, 3.

Fig 2
Fig 3

I had no idea of its mechanism, nor how to pick it. This one is a rim nightlatch, with no deadlocking function, apart from the inside snib. Many of the older cylinders had a BMA finish, with matt black or hammered silver zinc alloy diecast latchcases. Later, the hammered silver finish was much used on the cylinder also.

There was a rim deadlock also made, fig 4 with a trigger-action,and inside handle lockingby the key(in effect, ‘dual cylinder’)but I have never seen one.It is disclosed in a series of British patents, and a picture confirms it was made.This pre-war lock shows the pre-war one-piece malleable ironkeys. The bolt could be snibbed in the withdrawnposition by inserting a pin, in the manner of the old Chubb ‘combination latch’, so that the bolt would not shoot when the trigger hit the doorpost.Such a rim deadlock could still be useful today.

Fig 4

The first time I tried to ‘’loid’ open a door,I successfully used a free promotional calendar which happened to be printed on thin plastic. Later I was advised that cut sheet film, such as was used for x-ray photos and some offset-litho printing, worked well. A radiographer gave me a stack of old x-ray photos for the asking. Each one was over a foot square and made several strips of lock slipping plastic —I still have some. As x-rays now mostly go straight from the radiographer to the doctor’s computer without using actual photographic film, there might be masses of old film about hospitals, unwanted. These days, cheapest margarine comes in boxes of thin plastic which also works well. Strips can be cut from the lid; but a strip can be cut from the side which includes a little of the corner bend —an inherent curve which is useful.

This flat door, however, was swollen too tight to slip the latch, despite its short throw. If commercially-made purpose-designed air-bags or hydraulic door-spreaders existed in the 1960s, I didn’t know about them. I did have a small hydraulic bottle jack intended for lifting light vans, and a length of wood. The latch shoot was only 5/8” / 15mm, and the door frame easily spread enough to open the door.

I don’t know if modern locksmiths use them, but I once used my hydraulic jack to open a posh front door with a broken Ingersoll lock (the bolt tail had broken). There were valuable stained glass leaded light panels either side. As I enthusiastically worked the jack handle, the glass creaked and bowed ominously! Fortunately, lead cames are flexible and no glass actually broke. Had it been a single sheet of glass, it would certainly have shattered.

The pin tumbler cylinder nightlatch had begun to become popular in the early part of the 1900s, after Yale & Towne began exporting to Britain at the end of the 19thC.The early Yale® patents had by then expired, and several British companies began making copies of the Yale® five pin tumbler cylinder nightlatch. Several British companies also launched competing small key cylinder nightlatches. Chubb introduced two in the first decade of the 20thC. Hobbs Hart, and Gibbons both produced one, using a lever cylinder mechanism. About 1948, Cyril Kieft, an industrialist with a range of interests, also started to make a cylinder pin tumbler lock known as the ‘K’ type, which differed from the Yale design in that the pins were in an almost straight line, end on to the face of the cylinder. It was made through the 1950s. In the USA during the 1930s there had also been developed the Ace-type tubular lock, the Ilco Duo, a Bramah derivative called the NIX-PIX, and others. None has equalled the popularity of Yale’s design, but some achieved some success in the market place. Most successful of the British competitors was the Wellington lever cylinder rimlatch, and other versions, which did resume production after World War 2, unlike the other pre-war lever cylinder rivals.

Albert Marston & Co. had its beginning as a brass foundry started by Albert Marston in the 1880s in Wellington Works, Cemetery Road, Willenhall. The company expanded to make cabinet locks and brass padlocks. They made locks under the WELLINGTON, TRAFALGAR and WATERLOO trademarks. Their Wellington five lever cylinder nightlatch, introduced about1925, was their rival to the pin tumbler cylinder lock. fig 5

Fig 5

During the World War 2 lockmaking was replaced by munitions production. Lock making recommenced in 1946 in difficult conditions caused by the shortage of raw materials. Marketing efforts were directed to seeking specification by the major housing authorities, the London County Council becoming their biggest customer. Indeed, although a few other housing departments took some, if you haven’t worked in an area with postwar LCC/GLC overspill housing estates, Nottingham, Leicester, or a few other towns, you are unlikely to have encountered Wellington lever cylinders.

Soon the LCC/GLC was absorbing most of Marston’s whole lever cylinder production (some stock went as spares to local locksmiths and ironmongers in those areas). During the 1930s however, the Wellington nightlatch was on general sale, so the odd one might be found still in service almost anywhere —I spotted one in Hay-on-Wye, for example.

Early locks pre-war used coined brass, or malleable iron cast key blanks, but there was a problem with the supply of these after the war. C. B. Gurmin & Co. of West Bromwich pioneered resistance-welded steel keys, and already supplied some to Marston by 1948. (Josiah Parkes was, however, granted a patent on this technology in 1949!)

There were some early problems with some of the welded steel keys. With a very deep cut for a dead-lift lever, the bit (or part of it) sometimes broke off the shank! Later, for locks originally supplied with an early welded key, combinations using the dead-lift lever were usually not used. Not using dead-lift levers reduced the number of differs available from three thousand, but there was still a useful number, about a thousand. That is many fewer than the pin tumbler lock, but even in a large estate, trial of keys would not be much of a risk. Brass blanks were also widely used for original and replacement keys.

Fig 6

There was, briefly, another metallurgy problem. The specifications for Zamac/Mazak are precise, and deviations can produce unsatisfactory results. Due to faulty alloys supplied, some postwar zinc alloy latch cases can suffer a decay with appears (though the chemistry is different) similar to ‘tin plague’,fig 6, which also shows the pressed steel strike which can cause lockouts rather easily. There is no remedy: affected latch cases crumble and disintegrate.

Some early postwar rimlatches were supplied with a pressed steel strike. This is stronger than the cast strikes used by many nightlatches, but it is slightly flexible. If the bolt is snibbed out with the door open, the door can be banged shut forcefully (e.g. by a strong wind) and the bolt pushes past the strike. The latch then cannot be open from outside by key. This problem is not unique to Wellington latches. Examination of a latch will show where to drill to release the lock, if the door cannot be spread. The snib spring is quite strong, and the arm has quite a travel to release.

The same rim cylinder key mechanism was also used in mortice latches, fig 7, 8 though being more expensive to fit they were much less used. Note that the cylinders are not interchangeable with yale-type pin tumbler cylinders (or any of the other cylinders or rimlatches made to rival Yale). A few locksmiths have some old stock still, but they are now difficult to find. Locks online have stock. With the postwar abundance of aluminium, some cast aluminium cylinder fronts were made, but soon proved unsatisfactory as this metal is so soft. The back or the cylinder is brass.

Fig 7
Fig 8

By the 1960s Marston was a thriving business and moved into larger premises. In 1971 it was taken over by the Chubb Group, and production later moved to Parkes’ factory. Marston also pioneered the fire brigade locks for the London Fire Brigade (still made), and made the RADAR lock, the disabled lock and key (also still made). The Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation, which is now part of Disability Rights UK, worked in partnership with Nicholls & Clarke, the inventors of the RADAR lock and together they created the National Key Scheme (NKS). The first RADAR locks were fitted in 1981 to help keep accessible toilets free and clean for disabled persons. In 1998, after the merger of the Chubb Group with Yale, following their acquisition by Williams Holdings, production was rationalised under the Yale, Chubb, and Union brands, with only a few of the specialised ex-Marston range of locks still being produced. The Wellington lever cylinder locks were discontinued.


Fig 9
Fig 10

Fortunately, few folk were picking locks in the 30s-80s. Figs 9,10 show the inside of the lever cylinder. Picking the Wellington lever cylinder is not the greatest challenge —there are no anti-pick notches, the gates are close, but the stump is slightly bevelled. The back of the cylinder is held on by 3 small round head screws.

The main problem is applying tension. A piece of stiff piano wire with a right-angle bend at the end can be lodged at the bottom of the keyhole, to apply clockwise pressure (the lock cylinder only opens clockwise, about a quarter-turn). Better is a cut-down pin blank, as the talon rotates rather than slides, as in most lever locks. Quite heavy tension is needed for a complete lock in situ (as opposed to a cylinder alone on the bench) as the tension is also working against the springs supporting the latchbolt. A bent wire resting on the flattened tensioner shank is suitable. Pin tumbler pick sets generally have a deep curve which works quite well to lift the levers if using a wire tensioner. If your picks are single-ended with thin flat handles, it is possible to shape a handle end into a right–angle which will lift the levers. It is also possible to drill a hole through the thin face of the brass or aluminium cylinder at the end of the groove seen on the inside where the stump moves, to destroy the stump. It is still necessary to apply turning pressure against the latchbolt spring. A Wellington key with the lever steps removed is then suitable for turning. There are several opening videos now on Youtube.

(additional information supplied by the late Mr. Jim Evans of Arthur Hough Ltd., Locksonline w̲w̲w̲.L̲o̲c̲k̲s̲O̲n̲l̲i̲n̲e̲.c̲o̲m̲, and Brian Camfield of Tower Security www.towersecurity.co.uk. )

Mechanism: 5 Lever. Keys Supplied: 3. Face diameter 41mm x body length 15mm x connecting bar 68mm x body diameter 31mm

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