A History of British Safe Making Part 3

Where did it all go wrong?

The 1960’s was a golden age for UK safe makers.  Chubb’s factory in Wolverhampton was going full blast.  Visitors to their Wolverhampton factory would see a brimming copular pouring molten aluminium into waiting body shells on the foundry floor.  They would be taken to the R&D area to see an automated oxyacetylene rig cutting through a two inch mild steel sheet like a knife through butter until it encountered a two inch slab of their torch and drill resistant alloy at which point the cutting ceased as it encountered the TDR alloy. 

The grand finale was a thermic lance penetrating a large concrete slab.  They were given eye protectors but within a few moments the doors to the yard would be opened to allow visitors to escape from the choking oxide smoke.

At Tann’s heavy factory in Billericay visitors would be invited to watch safes being tested to destruction using a wide range of tools, even inviting observers to ‘have a go’ themselves.  Later they would be escorted onto the factory floor to see massive vault doors being fitted with anti-insurgency locks before shipping to a South American central bank.

All principal insurance companies had Chief Surveyors whose job was to witness these demonstrations, inspect drawings, assess the strength of the various safes and suggest cash ratings.  The most experienced Chief Surveyors would be very well informed and even demand their suggestions were incorporated into the in-house tests.  Both Chubb and Tann employed Insurance Liaison Managers whose job was to visit all senior insurance personnel to persuade  Chief  Surveyors to increase the cash ratings of their company´s  products.

Chubb had acquired their major rival Chatwood Milner with both companies selling the same safes but with different livery.  Stratford Safes merged with Ratner and then with Tann to produce domestic and commercial safes at their other factory in Borehamwood. 

Dudley Safes, as the name suggested, made light to medium security safes at their Dudley safe works.  Just down the road Guardian manufactured low grade cash safes and security cabinets whilst new kids on the block, SMP and SLS were both breaking new ground.  Dreadnought, Secure, Fort Knox and a host of other smaller manufacturers were exploring the expanding market for under-floor safes.

There were suggestions that safes should be independently tested and certified to specified security levels thereby taking away the responsibility from Chief Insurance Surveyors.  STAR (Standards for Testing and Rating safes) was launched but quickly fell by the roadside.  Most of the major manufacturers were against it.  ‘Who will test the testers?’ was their main argument.  There was also the risk that a tester working on Safe A would acquire information on the pros and cons of this type of safe and therefore be wiser and quicker when working on Safe B.  There could never be a level playing field. 

Foreign manufacturers were desperate to carve out a chunk of the UK market.  It was an expensive business as experienced Chief Surveyors would need to observe manufacturing and testing.  This included flights to foreign factories plus hotels, meals and entertaining. Leading French safe maker Fichet Bauche and Swedish manufacturer Rosengrens were already grasping the nettle.  Safe makers in Israel, South Africa and even Australia were watching from the side-lines.  The introduction of standards for testing and rating safes could be the opening they were all looking for.

There was considerable resistance from UK safe makers and for some years they were successful in holding back the tide.  There was considerable debate but eventually a draft was circulated and it seemed certain that it was only a matter of time before EN 1143-1 was introduced and eventually ratified.

The effect was almost immediate.  Safe makers no longer strived to design better safes than their competitors; now it was simply a matter of cost.  Which elements could be omitted from their safes whilst still achieving the required EN1143-1 Grade?  This was a battle that UK safe makers were almost certain to lose.  Foreign manufacturers were far more experienced at cutting corners with cheaper steel and lower labour costs.  Share prices tumbled and Dutch conglomerate Gunnebo quickly moved in to acquire Chubb Safes, Churchill Lock & Safe, John Tann, Ratner, Stratford and Fichet Bauche.

Chubb´s safe works in Wolverhampton, John Tann ´s factories in Billericay and Borehamwood were closed with production moved to France and Indonesia.  Today Chubb survives solely as a brand name and Churchill´s production has moved to China.  John Tann, the world´s first safer maker has disappeared along with Stratford and Ratner.

Chief Surveyors were no longer interested in attending R&D demonstrations, if a safe was tested to EN1143-1 and awarded a resistance grade, that’s all they needed to know. 

Meanwhile, safes from Eastern European countries were being submitted to an Eastern European test house and achieving seemingly impossibly high grades.  It was very confusing for both buyers and insurers and confidence in EN1143-1 was beginning to decline.

In mainland Europe there was Eurosafe, a trade association representing the interests of a number of European manufacturers.  They suggested that a similar organisation should be formed in the UK with a view to restoring confidence in standards.  A meeting of principal safe makers, importers and distributors voted overwhelmingly in favour and Eurosafe UK was formed in 2011 as an associate of Eurosafe.

With a strict constitution and code of practice, Eurosafe UK has gradually gained ground with approximately 30 members representing a substantial majority of the UK safe industry.  There is still a way to go but the recent change of name from Eurosafe UK to the British Safe and Vault Trade Association (BSVTA) led by the newly appointed Chair, Allan Bullock, signals interesting times to come.

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



30 January 2020


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