Security for sale in modern Britain: security provision, ensembles and cultures, 1785 - 1995

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leeds
Department Name: Law


Today, we are surrounded by security commodities: our shopping centres are patrolled by private guards, our town centres watched over by CCTV, our computers protected by anti-malware systems and firewalls, our homes fortified by locks and alarms. With the arrival of the 'internet of things', the security landscape is expanding further, as physical security devices are networked with other technologies to form 'smart' security systems. Almost everywhere, it seems, we navigate everyday risks through the purchase of security commodities - products and services which seek to safeguard property and information against risk - supplied by a vast global industry. Behind these developments is a revealing yet largely forgotten history. The last two hundred years have seen profound growth in commodified security: in Britain alone, a handful of specialist lock-making firms have morphed into a vast and powerful industry, which fed a market of over £1.2 billion by the 1990s. The social and cultural consequences of this development were profound. Not only has the commodification of security subtly shaped the way we imagine crime, fire and other risks - it has also underpinned and facilitated fundamental transformations in social life. Guaranteeing security for valuable property and information, security products and services have preserved museum and gallery collections, shielded the assets of the rich, maintained the records of modern bureaucracies, protected state and corporate secrets, safeguarded goods in transit and through customs, and enabled the mass circulation of paper currency. In short, security commodities - provided through the market - have helped stitch together the very fabric of modern economic, social and cultural life.

This fellowship will explore the development of commodified security in Britain, 1785-1995 - from the first production of Bramah's 'unpickable' lock to a key Parliamentary inquiry into the security industry. Focusing on five key security commodities - locks, safes, alarms, guarding and secure transit services - the research will illuminate the business history of the security trade, the social and technical history of security systems (or 'ensembles'), and the cultural history of attitudes towards risk and security. It will provide a holistic account of how security was commodified, analysing shifts in the design, production and consumption of products and services, and tracing them through society - into banks, warehouses, offices, public institutions and private homes. The research will provide a revealing insight into how security firms have shaped our understanding of risk, and how engagements with security refract wider attitudes towards privacy, trust and responsibility for protection. It will demonstrate the role security commodities have played in social change - how everyday products and services were implicated in the emergence of modern record systems, the preservation of historic and cultural artefacts, the formation of cultures of secrecy, and more besides. In these ways, the research will highlight the economic, social and cultural consequences of security commodification, reaching far beyond immediate problems of crime and fire into the heart of everyday social life. Furthermore, working with archives, museums and private security organisations, the fellowship will highlight the value of 'security heritage' - paper records, material artefacts and other fragments of security's pasts - and advocate for the preservation and utilisation of such historic resources. It will also engage with members of the public, harnessing creative uses of security heritage to illustrate the contemporary relevance and resonances of the research in an age of 'smart' security. In these ways, the fellowship will connect contemporary issues in security with a rich history, demonstrating the value of historical research in addressing concerns regarding how best to live with risk in our own time.

Planned Impact

This fellowship will benefit a range of stakeholders including archives and museums, private security organisations and wider publics. Collaborating with three project partners (London Metropolitan Archives (LMA), Corps Security and Chubb Fire & Security), I will demonstrate the value of security heritage to these stakeholder groups. This will lead onto a wider programme of knowledge exchange, drawing on the expertise of representative organisations (British Security Industry Association; Business Archives Council) to mutual benefit of the research and external organisations. Finally, the fellowship will use engagements with security heritage to explore ways of living with risk and insecurity in an age of 'smart' security.

Security heritage collections (archives, material artefacts, audio recordings, etc.) are highly fragmented, and seldom recognised in their own right. There is no dedicated effort to care for or utilise them. Most security companies - preoccupied with new threats and solutions - pay little regard to their heritage. Major industry collections have previously been lost, and many are presently at risk. I will counteract these difficulties through collaboration with industry partners, showcasing how security heritage can serve their articulated aims, and thus help to protect security's past for the future.

Collaboration with project partners will yield concrete impacts. Work with LMA to survey and list parts of the Chubb & Son archive will vitally extend their work on this collection, and pave the way for a complete catalogue. Work with Corps Security to develop listings for their archive will enhance the company's awareness of its heritage. Further work with Corps Security and with Chubb Fire & Security to develop heritage-based branding, marketing, communications and training materials will deliver commercial impacts, and more broadly showcase the application of heritage to security enterprise today.

These discrete work packages with partners will underpin a wider programme of knowledge exchange with archives, museums and private security organisations to preserve, make accessible and utilise security heritage collections. Archives and museums with relevant collections (e.g. Science Museum, Locksmith's House Museum) will benefit from the breadth of the research, which will enable them to locate security-related artefacts in broader historical contexts and pinpoint connections with wider historical themes. This will make it easier for curators to utilise ubiquitous but hitherto underexplored heritage assets, with knock-on impacts on public understanding. For security organisations (firms, trade associations and industry bodies), research indicates security consumption is often perceived as a 'grudge purchase' (Loader et al 2015), with resulting downward pressure on price and standards. Drawing on heritage resources provides untapped opportunities to alter the terms of engagement with consumers and hence fulfil a longstanding objective of the industry (Gill et al 2007). Drawing on heritage value also provides an alternative to techniques in security marketing which tend to exacerbate fear and insecurity (Zedner 2009). Hence, the fellowship will make an impact in security corporate practice, with potential for knock-on impacts on commercial performance.

By utilising security heritage for public engagement - through archives, museums and the media, making use of creative formats such as film and literature - the fellowship will benefit various wider publics, from security enthusiasts and collectors to lay audiences. The present moment is rich with both new (cyber)security threats and ('smart') techniques of prevention. Engaging audiences with previous waves of security innovation - via cultural representations in diverse media - will harness historical distance to establish more detached, nuanced and critical perspectives on our changing security landscape, helping to reframe public understandings.


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Description Men of Service: The Corps of Commissionaires and Transitions from Military to Civilian Life in Twentieth-Century Britain
Amount £70,840 (GBP)
Funding ID 2610568 
Organisation Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 08/2021 
End 01/2025
Title Chubb & Son box-listing 
Description A comprehensive box-listing of uncatalogued records in the Chubb & Son archive, held by the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA). This listing provides details of over 360 boxes/volumes of uncatalogued archive materials. The listing itself is extensive, comprising around 2200 rows of data. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2022 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact The listing makes over 70 linear metres of records accessible to the public for the first time. The listing has just recently been completed and the LMA will make it available to their users in response to queries/access to catalogued sections of the Chubb & Son archive. This material will also be used in forthcoming public engagement events. 
Description Chubb archive listing 
Organisation London Metropolitan Archives
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution The research team has conducted a full box-listing of uncatalogued records in the Chubb & Son archive. This listing will be made available to prospective researchers, making accessible over 70 linear metres of records previously inaccessible.
Collaborator Contribution Archivists at LMA have provided access to the relevant records, trained a member of the research team to undertake the listing, and supervised the listing process over several months.
Impact Chubb & Son box-listing.
Start Year 2021
Description Comparative history of security 
Organisation German Historical Institute London
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Engagement by the PI in collaborative discussions with Marcus Boick (as visiting fellow at GHIL) and Pieter Leloup (Ghent University), resulting in co-convened conference hosted by University College London/GHIL on comparative historical perspectives on private security.
Collaborator Contribution GHIL provided room hire, administrative and technical support, catering, travel and accommodation expenses to support a two-day international workshop (3-4 March 2022), co-convened by Marcus Boick, Pieter Leloup and the PI, arising from shared research interests of the co-convenors.
Impact Comparative history of private security conference
Start Year 2021
Description Quantum Sauce talk 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact One of three invited speakers at the regular 'Quantum Sauce' public engagement event in Farsley, Leeds. Informal talk and light-hearted talk followed by questions and discussion with audience members.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022
Description Security heritage hub webpage 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Webpages showcasing history and heritage of security and security industry to a general audience as well as security organisations/professionals. A source of information in itself and a channel for promoting other outputs of the research.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021