As the name suggests, the Suffolk latch originated in the county of Suffolk in the East of England. It predates the similar Norfolk latch but differs from it in that the thumb piece or thumb plate, the lever that passes through the door and raises the latch bar, or lifter, off the keep, passes through the handle, or pull (you’ll note here that there are as many variations to the part names as there are designs of latch!).
In the Norfolk latch, the pull is mounted on a backplate and is independent of the thumb piece. The latch bar is usually mounted on the opening side of the door, the end of the thumb piece on that side invariably having a downward curve so as to act as a basic handle or else the latch bar has a knob to lift it by. To restrict the travel of the latch bar and to prevent it being levered off the door by accident, a staple is fixed across it, the points of which are driven straight through the door and clenched over to secure it fast.
Traditionally, rosehead nails would have been used to mount both the staple and the pull; they still are today but screws are also often used. Even though the Suffolk latch is more often than not an internal latch, most come with a locking pin that prevents the latch bar from moving for a bit of extra privacy. The Suffolk latch is commonly positioned at about two-thirds the height of the door.
Suffolk latches were first introduced around the end of the 16th century and were popular until well into the 19th century. Then, mass-production, ever the curse of the traditional artisan, brought cheaper, less complicated and more secure methods of closing and securing a door within the budget of the average household.
There were many different styles available and as always, the variations were only limited by the ingenuity and skill of the local smith. Most styles centred upon the designs for the cusps which are the mounting plates at the end of the pull and the mount for the latch bar. The shapes are easy to guess from the names they were given: penny, broad bean, heart, arrow, tear-drop, tulip, gothic etc. The thumb piece was invariably heart-shaped and slightly convex, as this was the most efficient and comfortable design for repeated use an early example of ergonomic engineering!
Hand forged Suffolk latches are one of the most evocative period pieces available to you if you are after recreating an authentic feel and atmosphere with your restoration project. There is a uniquely satisfying clanking sound as the thumb plate is depressed or the latch bar clicks into the notch of the keep. Moreover, the door acts as a soundboard, amplifying the noise around the room. Each door has its own unique sound, too, depending on its method of construction and quality of the timber used. Over the years you’l eventually get to know each one as it’s opened “and by whom“ almost as if each room has been given its own voice!