Padlocks

Introduction

A padlock is a detachable, hanging lock which can be easily moved around. All padlocks essentially have two halves, either hinged or separate, which are pulled apart to open the padlock and locked shut to close it.

For padlock keys, see the separate guide to keys.

PAS object type(s) to be used

We use the term PADLOCK for all padlocks. The mda thesaurus also offers BARREL PADLOCK, and you will also find the term ‘box padlock’ used, but there is no consensus on whether these terms refer to the shape of the padlock or its internal workings, and so the PAS database avoids these terms.

PAS classifications and sub-classifications to be used

The small medieval copper-alloy padlocks are the only group large enough to split up effectively. When you have enough of the case surviving to identify the shape, the words tubular, zoomorphic, and extended oval can be used.

Terms to use in the Description

There is no agreed terminology for the various parts of padlocks, and every book seems to use different words. What follows is an attempt to standardise the language; preferred terms are in italics.

Most padlocks in the past were held together with barb-springs (also called leaf-springs) and so can be called barb-spring padlocks. On these, one half consists of the hollow case, open at one end and with a keyhole at the other. The other half consists of the bolt, which consists of a spine and springs.

The two are connected via a hasp, which can be made in several ways. The commonest is perhaps the rectangular hasp which consists of one arm made in one piece with the bolt, and another arm and bar (forming an L shape) made in one piece with the case.

The springs are two pieces of springy metal (usually iron) fixed at one end to the central spine to form a barbed arrowhead shape. When the bolt is pushed into one end of the hollow case (which could be called the bolt-hole), the springs are squeezed together and the bolt slides in, until the springs clear the end of the case and spring apart to lock the bolt in place. To unlock, a key is passed through a specially shaped keyhole in the other end of the case and slid along the springs to squeeze them together, allowing the bolt to be removed from the case.

The process of unlocking a barb-spring padlock is well illustrated in a diagram in Egan 1998, 92, fig. 64, but the labelling of the parts is inconsistent and should not be followed. Here is a diagram showing the terms to be used on the PAS database.

Names for the various parts of a padlock (SOM-6AE232).
Names for the various parts of a padlock (SOM-6AE232).

Roman padlocks

Padlocks seem to have been first used in Britain in the very late Iron Age or early Roman period. Manning (1985) is still the best source of information on Roman iron padlocks; although he only illustrates two, he gives sources for others. We have very few on the PAS database, including LIN-D4FAC2 and WILT-0E9BA9.

There are a few copper-alloy Roman padlock cases on the PAS database which were made in the form of human heads. These have the keyhole (a very modern-looking shape) in the head’s right side and a small hole in the head’s left side. They appear to be dated to the Roman period on art-historical grounds.

Left: Roman iron padlock (LIN-D4FAC2). Right: possible Roman copper-alloy padlock case (SUR-302076).
Left: Roman iron padlock (LIN-D4FAC2). Right: possible Roman copper-alloy padlock case (SUR-302076).

Early-medieval and medieval padlocks

Iron cases

Although 7th-century graves do occasionally contain iron padlocks, normally together with wooden caskets or boxes (e.g. Harford Farm 7 and 18, Finglesham 6, Didcot 2, Castledyke 1), these have simple cylindrical cases and U-shaped hasps which are not distinguishable, out of context, from other iron padlocks. One copper-alloy padlock has been tentatively identified as of 7th-century date, in the shape of a pair of Janus-like male heads (MacGregor and Bolick 1993, no. 59.1).

The best source for later early-medieval iron padlocks is undoubtedly Ottaway 1992, but this is both out of print and not yet freely downloadable, so has not been consulted in compiling this guide.

Medieval iron padlocks recorded on the PAS database usually consist of a cylindrical iron case covered in a thin plating of copper alloy. The commonest part to be recognised is the end-plate of the bolt, through which the spines (often two or three) are fixed, usually leaving two or three rectangular-section bumps on at least one face of the circular plate.

These appear to date from the late 10th century into the medieval period, but when they end is uncertain, as few have been excavated with a post-conquest date. It is possible that Egan 1998, no. 247 may be one of the latest of this type, from a context of c. 1200-1230; it has a D-shaped loop, perhaps for suspension. Calendar dates of c. 950 -c. 1250 AD therefore seem appropriate.

Late early-medieval or early medieval iron padlock bolts, coated with copper alloy. Left: BH-94A132 (with two spines, one with springs); centre above, BERK-2C354E (with D-shaped loop, perhaps for suspension); centre below, BERK-2BC8FE (with two spines, only one surviving); right, BH-94CE26 (with three spines, all incomplete).
Late early-medieval or early medieval iron padlock bolts, coated with copper alloy. Left: BH-94A132 (with two spines, one with springs); centre above, BERK-2C354E (with D-shaped loop, perhaps for suspension); centre below, BERK-2BC8FE (with two spines, only one surviving); right, BH-94CE26 (with three spines, all incomplete).

Iron padlocks continued in use throughout the medieval period and often appear in excavation reports, but are not found (or not recognised) by metal-detectorists in any numbers. 

Copper-alloy cases (long)

The overwhelming majority of padlocks recorded on the PAS database are small copper-alloy examples with long cases. They fall into three main types, based on keyhole location. These three basic types can also be found in iron padlocks; see Ottaway and Rogers 2002, 2861.

The three types are:

1. Keyhole in one end

2. Keyhole partly in the end and partly extending onto the underside

3. Long key slot on the underside

There are also a variety of shapes for the cases; they can be tubular, zoomorphic, or extended oval (see below for details).

Unfortunately the three types based on keyhole don’t neatly coincide with the three shapes, so we have to choose between a classification based on shape and one based on keyhole location. Because PAS objects are often incomplete, and the keyhole is missing, we classify our medieval padlocks by case shape.

Tubular padlocks

Use ‘tubular’ in the classification field for this shape of padlock case.

The tubular case is the commonest shape for medieval padlocks. They are long and slim, often cylindrical, octagonal or seven-sided in cross-section, more rarely square. They often have decoration of wavy lines, made up of dots or of paired punched triangles (often called rouletting).

Tubular cases can have any of the three types of keyhole; either in the end of the case, or partly in the end and partly on the underside, or as a long key slot on the underside.

Tubular padlocks of iron with copper-alloy plating also occasionally occur (e.g. Ottaway and Rogers 2002, 2870, nos. 12596-7).

Keyhole in the end, and keyhole partly in the end and partly on the underside

These two types can be taken together because the different construction probably made little difference to the type of keys used, or to the way in which the padlocks were unlocked. There is a diagram showing the mechanism of a keyhole in the end in Egan (1998, 92) and another showing the mechanism of a keyhole in the end and the underside of the case in Ottaway and Rogers (2002, 2866-7). It seems likely that both would have used keys of Winchester type A; keys survive within the case at SWYOR-7E57B4, HAMP-F70CA1 and BERK-604315.

Normally the bolt-hole is divided into two, for a pair of spines, but occasionally the case has been shaped to accommodate three (e.g. BH-6A8884) or surviving divisions show that there were four or five spines.

Examples of tubular padlocks with keyholes in the end only are known from 13th-century contexts in London (Egan 1998, 93,  nos. 243-5) and another, but of iron with a copper-alloy coating, came from a later 12th-century context in York (Ottaway and Rogers 2002, 2866, no. 12597).

A tubular padlock with a keyhole extending onto the underside came from a 15th-century context in Winchester (Biddle 1990, no. 3666) and one of iron with a copper-alloy coating came from a 13th- or 14th-century context in York (Ottaway and Rogers 2002, 2866, nos. 12596-7). An iron example from London was from a context of c. 1270-1350 AD (Egan 1998, no. 250).

Calendar dates of c. 1150-c. 1500 therefore seem appropriate for both types, although the type with keyhole in the end may be more popular earlier (say c. 1150-1300), and the type with keyhole in both the end and the underside may have been more popular later (say 1200-1500).

Three examples of tubular padlocks. Bottom left, BERK-A8A8A1, with the two halves made from metal of very different colours; this example has a T-shaped keyhole in the end of the case. Top centre, SF-BF1DC4 (bolt and arm only); the holes at the end of the spines are for fixing the springs. Right: SWYOR-3D0FA8, with a T-shaped keyhole partly in the end and partly on the underside of the case.
Three examples of tubular padlocks. Bottom left, BERK-A8A8A1, with the two halves made from metal of very different colours; this example has a T-shaped keyhole in the end of the case. Top centre, SF-BF1DC4 (bolt and arm only); the holes at the end of the spines are for fixing the springs. Right: SWYOR-3D0FA8, with a T-shaped keyhole partly in the end and partly on the underside of the case.

Long key slot on the underside

The third type of tubular padlock has no keyhole in the end, but instead a long key slot on the underside.

They would have been used with padlock keys with the bit set to one side of the stem (Winchester type C); there is a good illustration of how they worked in Ottaway and Rogers 2002, 2868).

Sometimes the internal mechanism survives and can be seen through the key slot. The accessibility of the spines and springs suggests that they must have been very easily picked, and it would seem common sense to have had a cover over part of the slot; but if they ever had this, no example has yet been found.

Tubular padlocks with long key slots in the underside. Left, PUBLIC-EE86D3. Centre left, SF-6B2BA2 (above) and LIN-50F952 (below). Centre right, YORYM-93785E. Right, IOW-B199D4 (above) and SUR-EAAD05 (below).
Tubular padlocks with long key slots in the underside. Left, PUBLIC-EE86D3. Centre left, SF-6B2BA2 (above) and LIN-50F952 (below). Centre right, YORYM-93785E. Right, IOW-B199D4 (above) and SUR-EAAD05 (below).

The illustration above shows the two main shapes. On the left are the normal tubular cases with a single arm on the case. Another arm would have been on the bolt; one view of a tubular padlock with a long key slot in the underside, complete with its bolt, can be seen at NMS-9B2F40.

The group on the right have an arm at either end of the case, each with a loop at the top; the bar passes through both loops. We do not yet have any complete examples on the PAS database.

There is little evidence for date for these padlocks. Type C keys are relatively short-lived, being mainly found in 12th-century contexts, but the standard cylindrical or faceted case seems to have been much longer-lived. Calendar dates of c. 1150-c. 1500 are probably appropriate.

Zoomorphic padlocks

Use ‘zoomorphic’ in the classification field for padlocks of this shape.

Zoomorphic padlocks have an elaborately moulded case in the shape of an animal, almost always a horse, judging by the mouldings (or engraved lines) indicating a saddle. The holes to take the spines of the bolt (usually two or three) are in the rear end of the horse, and the keyhole is in the other end, in the horse’s chest; the hole for the bar runs through the head.

The keyhole is often an irregular rounded shape, but the best-preserved examples are often T-shaped. It does not extend down onto the belly of the horse.

An example was found at Winchester in a context of the 12th to early 13th century (Biddle 1990, no. 3665) and this also seems likely on art-historical grounds. They may also have been inspired by models from the Middle East, which appear to date to the 13th or 14th centuries (such as a group in the British Museum: 1872,0816.91, 1884,0509.32 and OA+.1343). Calendar dates of c. 1100-c. 1400 AD seem appropriate.

A selection of small copper-alloy padlocks in the shape of horses. Left, two with very detailed ornament (above, LEIC-CE40BE; below, WAW-565B1A). Centre, two with more stylised ornament (above, YORYM-BA035A; below, BERK-F6BF18, with parallel rows of punched triangles). Left, two which are complete with their hasp (above, DENO-EFE719; below, SUR-D02FD3).
A selection of small copper-alloy padlocks in the shape of horses. Left, two with very detailed ornament indicating saddles and harness (above, LEIC-CE40BE; below, WAW-565B1A). Centre, two with more stylised ornament (above, YORYM-BA035A; below, BERK-F6BF18, with parallel rows of punched triangles). Left, two which are complete with their hasp (above, DENO-EFE719; below, SUR-D02FD3).

Extended oval

Use ‘extended oval’ in the classification field for padlocks of this shape. This term is used for cases which are rectangular in cross-section throughout, with flat top and bottom, but expanding from rectangular ends to a rounded oval area in the centre. The underside is normally decorated, usually with curving grooves made from a series of connected punchmarks, sometimes with linear pairs of spaced punchmarks (often called ‘rouletting’).

Extended oval padlock cases have the keyhole partly in the end and partly on the underside of the case. The keyholes tend not to be as neat as those on tubular padlocks, and they may have been subject to more wear.

Key slot padlocks would probably have used padlock keys with the bit set to one side of the stem (Winchester type A); there is a good illustration of how the mechanism worked in Ottaway and Rogers 2002, 2866-7).

There is little direct evidence for date, but Ottaway and Rogers (2002, 2866) suggest that similar iron padlocks date to the 12th or 13th centuries. The type A keys with which they would have worked have a wide date-range of 10th to 15th century.

A selection of extended oval padlocks. Left: a complete example (SWYOR-DF14EC). Centre left: case only, with characteristic decoration of grooves made up of punchmarks; note holes for two sets of springs (WILT-565CC0). Centre right: case decorated with linear pairs of punchmarks, with a ridge on the underside to accommodate three sets of springs (LIN-C8A755). Right: another case with the bolt-hole clearly showing three sets of springs (HAMP-92A695).
A selection of extended oval padlocks. Left: a complete example (SWYOR-DF14EC). Centre left: case only, with characteristic decoration of grooves made up of punchmarks; note holes for two sets of springs (WILT-565CC0). Centre right: case decorated with linear pairs of punchmarks, with a ridge on the underside to accommodate three sets of springs (LIN-C8A755). Right: another case with the bolt-hole clearly showing three sets of springs (HAMP-92A695).

Late medieval and early post-medieval padlocks

Flat, with keyhole in front and separate bolt

Copper-alloy padlocks of an entirely different, more modern shape are occasionally found in medieval contexts and may be late medieval or early post-medieval in date. They have a keyhole in the flat front, and a bolt-hole in the top; the separate bolt has a U-shaped hasp.

One distinctive type is known from an early 14th-century context at York (Ottaway and Rogers 2002, 2866, 2871, no. 14289), with a parallel from at Castle Rising, Norfolk (Williams in Morley and Gurney 1997, 93, fig. 61, no. 30) where it was thought to be early post-medieval. NMS-857B01 has similarities with both, and is made from pieces of flat sheet soldered together. It is missing a swivelling keyhole cover and a which soldered-on loop on the reverse, into which the end of the hasp engaged, but is otherwise complete.

Several similar padlocks of circular or lozengiform shape are recorded on the PAS database (e.g. SF9032 and WMID-186251). The U-shaped bolts from these, some of which have characteristic perforations, can survive detached (e.g. SF-315EA8).

Copper-alloy padlocks with separate U-shaped hasps, perhaps of late medieval or early post-medieval date. Left: NMS-857B01. Centre: SF9032 (above), WMID-186251 (below). Right: SF-315EA8 (bolt and hasp only).
Copper-alloy padlocks with separate U-shaped hasps, perhaps of late medieval or early post-medieval date. Left: NMS-857B01. Centre: SF9032 (above), WMID-186251 (below). Right: SF-315EA8 (bolt and hasp only).

Padlocks with hinged hasps

Most post-medieval padlocks have hinged hasps which cannot get separated, and this type is still in use today. Examples include PUBLIC-3C1BC5, LON-210B69, LON-BBED74 and LON-AE1C18. They are discussed briefly by Margeson (1993, 157, no. 1240).

Combination locks

Combination locks are a type of padlock which does not need a key to lock and unlock it. Several combinations locks of a distinctive type have been recorded on the PAS database. They have five rotating discs set between a pair of end discs which are linked by a hinged hasp. Each disc has punched letters or symbols which had to be lined up in a particular order before one end disc could be pulled out, releasing the hasp and opening the padlock (see Gaimster 2005 for precise details).

They are dated to the 16th or 17th centuries by the style of the lettering; Gaimster (2005, 379-80) also quotes early 17th-century literary references to locks that open with letters. Put ‘combination’ in the classification field, and use PADLOCK as the object type.

If you can transcribe the letters and suggest a possible opening combination, please do.

16th- or 17th-century combination locks Above, SUSS-BF6BE2; below, SUSS-E23432.
16th- or 17th-century combination locks Above, SUSS-BF6BE2; below, SUSS-E23432.