"The door was on the latch" - what does that mean?

I hear this in British movies and tv shows set prior to, say, 1970-ish. Usually, because “the door is on the latch,” people are able to enter the house and murder, burgle, or rescue someone. (Yeah, it’s mostly crime shows that I watch.)

The door latch and the lock are two separate pieces of hardware, so it’s possible to shut the door against the wind and weather without locking it. A door on the latch hasn’t had the deadbolt locked.

Okay, that’s helpful. Is there a handle on the outside of the door that operates the latch so the murderer/burglar/police can open the door from the outside? Are these old doors, or are doors still made this way?

Yup, something like this.

Note the handle that goes through to the other side of the door allowing someone to open it:

This comes from an old fantasy novel but, in the book, most cottages’ outer doors had a latch that kept the door closed and had a string attached. If a door was “on the latch,” the string was put through a hole in the door, meaning guests were welcome to enter and/or the inhabitants weren’t home. If the string wasn’t outside the door, the door was “off the latch,” the inhabitants were home and didn’t want unexpected company.
Shorter version, “on the latch” meant welcome, come on in.

Ninja’d by three. Accidentally hit submit instead of preview.

Back in the '70s, Jim Nabors had a summer variety show and would close with, Keep the latch string out and the dogs tied up; I’m comin’ home. Had to have Mom explain that to me.

Very interesting! Thanks, y’all.

Loads of modern doors are still made like that today: there is a bolt which locks the door, and also a separate spring-loaded latch which keeps it closed when you shut it. When the door is unlocked, it can be opened from either side by turning a handle which pulls back the latch. It is not some old-timey thing; no string though.

Our old front door didn’t have a handle on the outside, but it did have a little catch (which we called the “latch”) which you could slide down, while holding the interior handle downwards, and it would keep the spring-loaded latch (ie the bit that engages in the hole in the door frame) held in even when you released the handle.

That way, you could close the door but the latch wouldn’t spring into place and fasten the door. We called that “leaving the door on the latch”. All you had to do was push the door to open it. It had the disadvantage (apart from security) that there was nothing to stop the wind blowing the door open, either.

I’ve also heard that called the snib, as in “the door’s on the snib”.

Years ago, we used to feel slightly superior when we watched an American movie, where a New Yorker would close their apartment door and drop two or three deadbolts to keep the nasties out. Sadly, as in many things undesirable, we have now caught up. People no longer leave the front door key on a string inside the door, so that the kids can fish it through the letterbox to let themselves in after school. The “latches” described above are now only found on garden gates and sheds.

We never had the key on a string - my key was on elastic sewn into my coat and run down one arm.

I can honestly say I’ve never in my 35 years on this planet experienced a door of this nature and the idea thoroughly baffles me, to the point that I’m having trouble even visualizing it. Every house door I’ve ever experienced has had a knob with a key-lock, a deadbolt with a separate key-lock, and possibly a chain-lock or bar-lock on the inside.

You’re telling me there’s a bar on the outside of the door which can somehow be set from inside, but can also be opened at liberty by anyone who comes calling, unless a string is somehow involved? I’d never in my wildest dreams have trusted an arrangement like that to keep me safe.

The door I am talking about had no knob or handle on the outside, just a keyhole. You put the key in and turned it, which would retract the spring-loaded latch and let you open the door (you had to hold the key in its turned position to keep the latch in while you pushed the door open).

On the inside, there was a small knob that you could turn to retract the same latch and let you open the door. It also had a slider switch which (IIRC) you would slide one way to lock the latch, so that it couldn’t be opened with the knob, or by pushing it in with a credit card through the slot of the door, I suppose. You could still open the door with the key from outside, which would unlock this locking switch.

If you twisted the knob and held it in the open position and then slid the slider switch the other way, you could lock the latch in the open position, as I described above.

This is similar to what I mean: Traditional Rim Cylinder Nightlatch

That page calls it a “slide snib”:

Of course, all these security arrangements were pretty nominal because the main part of the door consisted of a 6ft x 2ft 6in piece of patterned, un-reinforced glass. :smack:

What Colonphon describes is what I know as a Yale lock, which is pretty much universal for the front door of most British houses and flats.

Other doors may be more like internal doors with a sprung handle on both sides and a deadlock or mortice lock.

The original source of the phrase would be the kind of door that had a simple latch, suc has you’d find on a garden gate or a shed, and a separate bolt or deadlock, which would have been much more common in the days when people really did leave their front doors unlocked for most of the day. Nowadays I’d understand it as simply meaning “I left the door unlocked”, without worrying too much about what kind of lock it might be.

It’s not so much an English thing, it’s just an old fashioned way of keeping the door shut- there’s a long description of Pa making one in The Little House on the Prairie.

The purpose of a latch like this was not to “keep you safe” but simply to hold the door shut. Very often there would be one or two dead-bolts on the inside for security. A lot depends on the time and place; in a village fifty or sixty years ago, people tended not to worry too much about intruders.

Doesn’t the knob with the key lock also have a little button in the center that you can turn so that the door won’t lock when you close it? That’s what I have on my apartment door, along with a deadbolt and a chain. I wouldn’t typically leave it unlocked unless I was inside, or doing my laundry downstairs and wanted to easily go back and forth without using the key.

I grew up in a typical 1970’s suburb, and we never locked our front door. Friends and neighbors were pretty much free to wander in. I never had a house key until I went to college.

While these latches do exist in the US, it seems to primarily be something from long, long ago. I grew up in a house built in 1870 and our cellar door had such a latch on the side of the door in the kitchen. One of our cats was clever enough to work out how to open it and let herself down stairs!

I can’t quite remember what the latch looked like on the inside of the cellar door, but I know it didn’t involve a string of any sort to let yourself back into the house.

Surprising to me that you haven’t seen other arrangements. Not a string, but my front door, and many others I see have a key operated deadbolt, and an unlockable thumb operated latch on the outside, which is essentially equivalent. Like this: