A history of British Safe Making Part 1

In the beginning

As long as humans have had things they treasured, they have searched for ways to keep them secure. The Assyrians and ancient Egyptians are known to have designed rudimentary locks and affluent Romans were said to keep valuables in locked boxes.  But the development of the modern safe did not begin until many centuries later.


In the mid 1700’s the Industrial Revolution was beginning to gather pace as new mechanised methods of production were invented.  Large corporations inevitably replaced smaller producers and as they grew they conducted more and more business on credit.  Their ledgers became complex and more valuable, sometime recording outstanding balances totalling many thousands of pounds.  Often these early machines were housed in unsuitable buildings and powered by coal-fired steam-engines. Mishaps would occur and fire was an ever present danger.  Unprotected, these valuable ledgers could be destroyed in a serious conflagration.  This was a disaster that frequently led to bankruptcy, so it was understandable that early industrialists were desperate to find ways to protect their accounts.

Often these early machines were housed in unsuitable buildings and powered by coal-fired steam-engines

Insurance companies thrived on the back of these concerns.  To reduce the likelihood of having to settle major claims, many of the larger underwriters recruited their own private fire brigades.  Fire plaques or ‘fire marks’ displaying the insurers trade mark were fixed to the front of buildings so observers would know which brigade to call if they saw a blaze. But however well insured they were it did not protect industrialists from incurring major losses when their ledgers were destroyed.  Of course, debtors could be asked how much they owed, but they were unlikely to trip over themselves in the rush to pay.  Added to which, the very records that the policyholder required to substantiate an insurance claim would also have been reduced to ashes.

On the mid 1700’s ledgers and valuables were often placed for safekeeping in cast-iron chests fashioned by local blacksmiths. They were frequently secured by elaborate ‘box-of-wards’locks but in spite of their complexity, these locks were easily picked.  Cast iron was also very brittle and would shatter if struck by a heavy sledgehammer. To make matters worse, cast iron rapidly conducted heat, so when exposed to fire their contents were rapidly incinerated.

One company regularly producing strongboxes was a long established family business run by Mr Edward Tann and his son Edward junior.  They were based in a wooded area just outside the City of London, known as Moor Fields.  When his father died, Edward Tann junior moved the business to Hackney Road in Middlesex and as the 18thcentury drew to a close, his iron foundry was flourishing, producing chests, iron boxes, steel doors and iron-clad rooms.  Eventually Edward’s son John became the third generation to join the family business.

Young John quickly recognised that there was an urgent need for chests able to provide some measure of fire protection.  He experimented, first by fitting a light steel interior body to create what he referred to as ‘air chambers’.  This slowed the transmission of heat a little, but not sufficiently. He tried filling these chambers with various materials but eventually a loose mix of sand and sawdust and moisture generating gypsum was found to keep the interior cooler for much longer. This was an instant success and in 1845, with order books bulging, the business was transferred into his ownership and took his name.  The newly named company began to concentrate entirely on making ‘fire proof safes’ and today John Tann is widely acknowledged as having established the world’s first firm of safe makers.

Meanwhile, Charles Chubb was born in Fordingbridge, Hampshire in 1772 and together with his younger brother Jeremiah, established a blacksmiths shop in Winchester.  In 1804, they decide d to move the business to Portsea close to the busy Portsmouth Dockyards. The harbour was full of floating hulks waiting to sail to the British territories with cargos of transported convicts.  Repairing and making locks for these floating prisons became an everyday part of their business and they became highly knowledgeable. 

Crime was rife and in response the government launched a competition to design a lock that could not be picked.  Jeremiah designed what he later termed as a ‘detector lock’.  Any attempt to insert picks triggered a mechanism that blocked the lock so it could not be opened.  When a genuine key was later inserted, it would not operate until it was turned in the opposite direction to re-set the mechanism.  This also gave the key-holder a warning that someone had tried to overcome their lock.

Jeremiah’s detector lock won the competition, was quickly patented and two-and-a-half million such locks were made in the first century of the firm’s existence.  Since then, millions more.  Charles and Jeremiah’s business was now given over entirely to making locks and a factory was established in Wolverhampton where they were soon manufacturing 28,000 locks a year.  Meanwhile, in 1827, Charles opened an office at 57 St Paul’s Churchyard right in the centre of the City of London.

In 1835 Charles Chubb was granted a patent for a safe, “..proof against the tools of thieves and burglars.” This is recognised as the first burglar resistant safe.  Until now, Chubb and Tann had traded together with many orders for safes being placed with Tann but now they were to become competitors and would remain so for many years to come.

A more comprehensive and detailed account of the Tann family’s history can be found at www.safeman.org.uk

This article is the property of Mike Palmer and cannot be replicated or used without Mike’s express permission.



24 November 2019


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