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

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. Almost everywhere, it seems, we navigate everyday risks through the purchase of security commodities – products and services that 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, with far-reaching social and cultural consequences of this development were profound. Not only have security commodities subtly shaped the way we imagine crime, fire and other risks – they have also helped stitch together the very fabric of modern economic, social and cultural life.

This AHRC Leadership Fellowship project explores 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 aims to 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 seeks to 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 asks 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 also explores 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 various ways, the project highlights 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.


This project aims to benefit archives, museums and private security organisations, and to inform and engage the wider public. Working with external partner organisations and others, it seeks to highlight the value of 'security heritage' – paper records, material artefacts and other fragments of security's pasts – and to advocate for the preservation and utilisation of such historic resources. It will also develop a programme of public engagement initiatives, 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 project seeks to 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.

Publications and outputs

Previous publications relevant to the themes of this project include:

  • Churchill D. 2020. The Politics of Security in Liberal Society: Responsibility for Crime Prevention in Mid-Victorian Britain. In: Churchill D; Janiewski D; Leloup P (eds.) Private Security and the Modern State: Historical and Comparative Perspectives. Routledge SOLON Explorations in Crime and Criminal Justice Histories. Abingdon: Routledge.
  • Churchill D. 2017. The Security Industry. In: Turner J; Taylor P; Morley S; Corteen K (eds.) A Companion to The History of Crime and Criminal Justice. Bristol: Policy Press, pp. 228-230.
  • Churchill D. 2016. Security and visions of the criminal: technology, professional criminality and social change in Victorian and Edwardian Britain. British Journal of Criminology. 56(5), 857-876.
  • Churchill D. 2015. The spectacle of security: lock-picking competitions and the security industry in mid-Victorian Britain. History Workshop Journal. 80(1), 52-74.

Project website