A History of the British Safe Industry


Provided by Alan Bullock of Insafe International

The term ‘a SAFE’ first came into use in the early 1800’s to describe a thief-resistant chest or cupboard which also gave protection for the contents against serious fire and subsequent building collapse.  Initially it took the form of a cell or closet formed within a building and on which an iron door was mounted.  Up until this time security containers which were of cast or sheet iron formed in a single skin without any insulation, relying on protection against fire by being enclosed in masonry.  In 1834, Wm. Marr of Cheapside in London registered what is believed to have been the first fire-resisting patent.  It was followed four years later by Charles Chubb, the lockmaker, then in 1840 by Thos. Milner a sheet metal worker in Sheffield, followed by Edw.Tann and Sons in 1843.  The first two patents consisted a combination of inert insulating materials incorporated within a double or triple skinned body.  The Milner and Tann patents went further by utilising a mixture of chemicals which upon being subjected to heat, would create steam which in turn would dampen the contents thereby lowering the flashpoint.  On expiry of these patents this same compound then became available for all the subsequent fire-resisting safe manufacturers in this country of which there were to be almost a hundred, ranging from two man workshops of the Midlands to the great factories of Liverpool and Wolverhampton.

When considering the Who’s Who of British safe-makers the list is limited in the first instance to the companies who numbered the main British Stock Banks among their customers and who had a number of patents registered in their name. They also gave themselves the title of Banker’s Engineers. A second group of about twenty smaller companies also competed with safes and doors for the home and overseas markets.  At the bottom end of the trade were another twenty or so makers of boxes which should never have borne a ‘safe’ badge. 

At the Great Exhibition in Crystal Palace in 1851 the main safe-making exhibitors were Chubb & Son, Milner & Son, and Edw.Tann & Son.  In the years immediately following three new companies were founded, Hobbs & Co., later to become Hobbs Hart & Co., Chatwoods

Patent Safe & Lock Co., later to become the Chatwood Safe Co., and Ratcliff & Horner, later to become the Ratner Safe Co., and together these form the foundation of the British Safe Industry as it existed right up until the mid 1900’s.

Chubb & Sons Lock & Safe Company Limited

Charles Chubb was a locksmith who opened a factory in Wolverhampton in 1818.  Famed for his Patent Detector Lock, he named the Duke of Wellington and the Prince Consort among his patrons.  Receiving enquiries for the supply of strong boxes but not being able to supply, he sub-contracted the orders to Edward Tann & Sons, an arrangement which lasted until Chubb’s set up their own manufactory in Cowcross Street, London in 1837.  In 1866 a new safe factory was built in Glengall Road, Old Kent Road, London by which time Charles Chubb had died, passing on control of the company to his son John Chubb.

In 1894 a Company was formed to deal with Chubb’s export business in South Africa and two later a similar exercise in Australia. In 1908 the London works were closed and safe making moved to the Lock Works at Wolverhampton.

In terms of technical development Chubb followed the trends of the times except in the area of drill resistance in vital areas around the lock. Whereas other companies tended towards the use of laminated hard plates, or case hardening as George Price preferred, Chubb’s studded the area in front of the locks with hardened screws set into blind holes as their form of drill deterrent. 

The greatest single development was in the early 1960’s when Chubb introduced TDR – Torch and Drill Resisting – material.  This was as a result of the prevalence of the delamination techniques being successfully applied to high quality anti-blowtorch safes whereby the entire mild steel body plates were being stripped to expose the slabs of anti-torch anti-drill material such as chrome iron which could then removed in their entirety.  The TDR – aluminium and aloxite – was cast in one seamless bell section around the inner steel body lining and the door contained a slab of the same material.  Aluminium, although having a much lower melting point than steel had, through it’s high conductivity, the ability to prevent the oxy-acetylene torch from making a penetration.  An even more potent barrier for use in the top grade safes was AA, or anti-arc material which combined the use of the more conductive copper with the drill-proof aloxite.

In 1956 Chubbs took over the famous lock and safe maker Hobbs Hart & Co.Ltd.  In 1959, they then acquired the Chatwood-Milner safe company.  The Chubb & Sons Lock & Safe Co.Ltd. was in its turn taken over by Racal Electronics in 1984 by which time they had split off the lock division from the safe manufacturing side of the business.  Thereafter the movements within the companies became very complicated and outside the scope of this article.

The Milner Safe Company

The founder, Thomas Milner, originally a tinsmith and metal box-maker from Sheffield, set up a safe manufactory in Liverpool in 1830 where he set about producing tin-plate and sheet iron boxes with his newly patented fire-resisting composition and was employing 35 men.  From 1846, he moved on to strong plate iron safes and chests.  Thomas died in 1849 leaving his son William as a partner in the newly named Milner & Son and so rapidly was the company growing that by 1851 they were employing 110 men.

By this time they had developed and patented a gunpowder-proof and unpickable key lock in conjunction with Hobbs & Co..

His son-in-law Daniel Rowlinson Ratcliff had by this time joined the company as a partner.  Considerable animosity had developed between Milners and George Price, a rival safe-maker from Wolverhampton with each indulging in very unprofessional practices.  This was to lead to an incident when each party was publicly testing the others safes with gunpowder when Milner’s representative was over zealous in the charge he placed in one of Price’s safes resulting in a fatality.  Shortly after this incident William Milner retired.

In 1874, now called the Milner Safe Company, the factory was employing 480 men.  By this time they were the largest manufacturer of safes and other security work in the world, a fact which they claimed in the London Trades Directory of 1900.   

Most familiar among the company’s products must be what is usually referred to as the square “church door Milner”- which is correctly known as the List 2 and which in the earliest models carried a cast iron moulding on the face of the door shaped like a Gothic arch.  The heavier range of cash safes such as the List 3, 4 and 5 were still being made in the 4-corner bent banded body right into the 1900’s by which time every other maker had changed to the fully 12-corner bent body.  In 1911, five Milner safes were supplied to Harland & Wolff for installation on the Titanic.

In 1955, Milners were acquired by Hall Engineering Products and were eventually merged with the Chatwood Safe Company to become known as Chatwood-Milner.  The factory at Speke was closed in 1964 with all production moving to Chubb which had taken over Chatwood-Milner in 1959.

Hobbs Hart & Company

This company originated after the visit to the Great Exhibition of 1851 by A.C. Hobbs, a talented American lock designer and lock-picker. Having successfully picked two of the best British locks he achieved overnight fame and decided to remain in this country where he established a factory producing unpickable locks of his own design under the name Hobbs & Company with offices at Cheapside, London. 

He formed a very successful association with the Milner Safe Company whose original gunpowder-proof locks had been made by Thomas Turners.  The Hobbs “Protector” Lock then became standard on Milner’s fireproof safes for the next 20 years.  In a reciprocal arrangement, Milner made the majority of safes sold by Hobbs & Co..  Their lock-making factory and offices later moved to Arlington Street, London.

The firm became known as Hobbs, Ashley & Company with substantial business from the Government and the Bank of England.  Shortly before A.C.Hobbs returned to America in 1860, the company was renamed Hobbs, Hart & Company,  John Methias Hart having been one of the founding partners. 

In 1956, Hobbs, Hart and Company became members of the Chubb group of companies

Chatwood Safe Company

In partnership with William Dawes, Samuel Chatwood started manufacturing safes as Chatwood & Dawes in 1861.  Chatwood’s vision was to produce safes of superlative quality and strength.  The partnership broke up in 1862 with Dawes moving to work with rival safemaker George Price of Wolverhampton.  Chatwood’s factory was at Bow Street in Liverpool and trading under the name of “Chatwood Patent Safe & Lock Company”.

 The locks for his safes at that time were being made by the highly skilled and famous Charles St. Aubin, who also, in his time worked for George Price and Milner.

In early pursuit of his vision, Chatwood would not use wrought iron body plates of less than ¼” thick, machine dovetailed and riveted on all sides. This was later improved to a minimum body plate thickness would be ½”.  As he had publically stated early in his career that no safe could be called a safe without a body thickness of 2”, it was not long before he achieved this by building the safe body from two ½” plates with the cavity between them filled with a molten alloy of steel and manganese.  At the time, this was to prove to be inpenetrable by drill and in later years, by oxy-acetylene cutters.

Chatwood is credited with having produced and installed the first bank night deposit safe in 1930 for the Midland Bank.  Sadly they too became part of Hall Engineering in 1956 to become Chatwood-Milner.  This arrangement came to an end in 1959 when

Chubb bought the company.  Chatwood-Milner safes continued to be sold for some time but they were just the badged products of a double production line of Chubb safes in Wolverhampton.

John Tann Limited

The first British safe maker, John Tann Ltd, claims to have been established in 1795 but in fact the founder Edward Tann, appears in the listings of a 1790 London Trades Directory as an Iron Chest Maker of Crown Street, Moorfields.  An early Book of Accounts dating from 1828 to 1840 shows that Edward Tann and his son who had established a factory in Hackney Road, London, were making iron chests, cast boxes, panelled boxes, iron doors and locks.  Their principal customer at this time was Charles Chubb.  The first and most important patent which was registered in 1843 in the name of Edward Tann and Sons was for the “Reliance” Lock which by the use of one or two ‘guarded’ levers and anti-pressure device made it a leader in the field of safe locks. The name “Reliance” was taken as the trademark for the company, later becoming “Anchor Reliance”.

The company concentrated mainly on banking and overseas trade with the result that its commercial products were not to be as frequently encountered as the like of Milner whose fire-safes were commonplace in almost every solicitors or registrar’s office throughout the land.

Tann’s main showpieces are the London Silver Vaults and Chancery Lane Safe Deposit which was built in 1953, and more recently the doors for the Jewel House in the Tower of London.

The Ratner Safe Company

The last of the 19th.Century safe companies to be formed, the founder, Daniel R. Ratcliff, who had been a partner in Thomas Milner & Son and son-in -law of William Milner, along with John M.Horner, also from Milners, established a new safe manufacturing company in Bromley-by-Bow in East London in 1889.  As safemakers were fairly unique as skilled workers, Ratcliff managed to tempt a number of families from the Milner workforce such as the Wynns’, Lowes’, and Larkins’ to join him in the new enterprise.  The company was called Ratcliff & Horner until 1896 when it was incorporated as a limited company under the name Ratner Safe Company Ltd.

Initially they concentrated in the manufacture of safe deposits and by 1925 had 26 such deposits to their name across the world including the first Chancery Lane Deposit extension, Selfridges, Harrods, Rotterdam, and the Bank of Athens.

Their most successful product was the Grade 3 safe, fitted with the first automatic anti-explosive device, and with a 3/8” thick fully bent body.  This safe withstood every explosive attack from the 1930’s to the 1970’s and was greatly favoured by the Cooperative movement and Dairy Companies of the day for overnight cash holdings in their retail shops.

The business combined with the Griffiths Safe company in the early 40’s, this company being used mainly as an outlet for second-hand safes taken in part-exchange.  The company, after some years of financial difficulty, was sold to Tann International in 1970.

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