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The Fenton Lock

So today (Friday 23rd May 2014) Rebecca and I were invited to a special viewing of the infamous Fenton Lock at Bradford Industrial Museum by the current Curator - Liz McIvor.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the lock (shame on you) then here is a little bit of history, lets rewind and go back in time to Victorian, England, early 1900s and The great, the amazing, the one and only Houdini was coming to town.

In America, Houdini attracted enormous crowds wherever he went, and his first appearance in London in 1900 had caused a sensation. Now he was on his way north to Bradford in West Yorkshire. Houdini’s reputation for extricating himself from seemingly impossible bonds – handcuffs, chains, even the cells of Scotland Yard – had preceded him and so had his willingness to take on challenges. He advertised big 

rewards for anyone who could restrain him. William Fenton, cycle maker, repairer, and locksmith was only too willing to oblige. He had an old lock he thought might hold Houdini and bring fame to the Fenton family firm, so he dashed off a note. “Dear Sir, I have a patent lock with wood handcuffs attached, and if you will allow me to fasten you, I challenge you to pick the lock ... If you will kindly accept the challenge, I shall be pleased to handcuff you, at any time convenient to you...” The lock had been in the Fenton family for 150 years.

It was made around 1750 by William’s great grandfather, also called William. For years, the lock had been fixed on the door of someone’s old warehouse in the city, but when the building was demolished, William retrieved it, regarding it as something of a keepsake. The lock was the only remaining example of three such locks, and even a modern locksmith like William regarded it as special. It weighed more than 7 kilograms, measured 30 by 21 centimetres and was a chunky 9 centimetres thick. Where locks are concerned, though, size isn’t so important. It’s the ingenuity of the mechanism inside that keeps out would-be burglars. The Fenton lock is a three-chambered model – effectively three locks in one. The first chamber is protected by “wards”, projections around the inside of the keyhole. Only a key with the right pattern of slots can make it past the wards and on to the next chamber. Fenton was confident that the big, old lock couldn’t be opened by anything but the original key, which was a hefty thing 15 centimetres 

long and 5 centimetres high. Houdini thrived on challenges. They were an important part of his publicity and helped to draw huge audiences. At every town he came to, the place would be plastered with posters offering prizes to anyone who could beat him. Houdini was a master of his art. He had the physical strength and agility to work in impossible positions, often tightly trussed, sometimes confined in a tiny box or a water-filled container – and he was an expert at manipulating locks.

Houdini’s feats were often dangerous but he didn’t take more risks than he had to. He knew locks inside out. Whenever he came across a new device, he would buy two of them: one to dismantle and study, the second to practise on. Offered something like the Fenton lock, he was understandably cautious. Something as old as this was a bit out of the ordinary. You couldn’t buy one and he certainly wouldn’t have encountered anything like it before. It could be a trick. Houdini had been caught out before, during an appearance in the US. After that, he always asked to see cuffs and locks in action, closed and then opened again – just to make sure. Offered something like the Fenton lock, he would ask to examine it, and if possible take it apart to study the mechanism, or at least take the back off. Fenton turned down Houdini’s request to study the lock. Houdini, in turn, declined the challenge. In 1914, on one of Houdini’s many return visits to Bradford, Fenton tried again. And again Houdini said no. And so the story grew: the lock was so good Houdini didn’t dare try it. According to the Fenton’s, Houdini reckoned the lock was the best he had ever come across. Refused permission to take the lock apart and study it, Houdini played safe and said no rather than risk failure in front of his audience. But by turning Fenton down, he left the town with a lock that has become a local legend.

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