Edward Tann & Sons - Iron Safe Makers

Established 1795

The Story of Britain's First Safemaker



Missing from the above family portraits is an image of the founder of the company, Edward (b.1747), named Edmund on his marriage entry, a smith of St. Luke's, Old Street, London, who was known to have been making iron chests under his own name in Crown Street, Moorfields in 1790, and had for some years before been working as a smith in Chiswell Street, Finsbury.

By 1814, with his first son Edward (b.1783), they occupied a manufactory at 1 Hope Street, Hackney, then called Harvey Street and subsequently renamed Treadway Street in 1881. The family residence was in the adjacent building at number 2 Minerva Terrace, a section of Hackney Road. The advertisement incised in the gable facing Hope Street (below) dates around 1890. Young Edward's brother Thomas had sons and nephews who were also smiths but it is not known if they worked together as a family.

Edward the younger had a large family of twelve children, two of whom, George (b.1813) and John (b.1816) were to follow in the iron chest business, John working with his father and grandfather but George setting up on his own in nearby premises at 18 Hope Street by 1842.

In 1843 Edward's company designed and patented their "Reliance" lock, a name which was to become the company's trademark, sometimes extended to "Anchor Reliance". The lock and their chemical compound fire-resisting material were patented under the joint names of Edw. Edw. & John Tann. In 1845 Edward transferred the business to his son becoming John Tann Ltd, a name which was to last through the remainder of the company's history. Much later, on the death of his father in 1862, they traded for a period under the title 'late E.Tann & Sons'. By 1870 they had taken additional premises at 37 Hope Street.

Meantime, George's heirs, his widow Amelia and subsequently her son Robert, manufactured lower quality safes under the trade name of "Defiance". This company ceased trading in the early 1900's when they eventually sold the goodwill of their company to John Tann in 1917.

An early example of their first 'fire-proof ' safe was exhibited at the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in 1851, and about the same time they opened their first city office at 30 Walbrook. By 1888 the Tann City office had moved to 11 Newgate Street, and by 1900 the factory had also moved to St.Stephen's Road, Old Ford. With the construction of the Old Bailey on the site of Newgate Prison, the offices had to move again in 1912, but only across the street to number 117. Tales of hangings in the prison yard having been witnessed from the office widows at number 11 have been passed down from earlier generations of employees.

The fourth generation of Tanns came into the business around the time their father died in 1900. They were John (b.1841) and Edward (b.1853), John died in 1904 leaving his brother as Governing Director. The last of the line was Edward's son John Laurance Tann (b.1890) who, having no male heir, decided that the best course for the future would be for it to become part of a larger engineering group, and accordingly the business became part of the Clayton Dewandre company in 1965. This was a brief and less than happy relationship which made it possible for Walter Runciman, owner of the Stratford Safe Company, to acquire John Tann later the same year.




Edward Tann's marriage certificate gives his profession in 1788 as that of smith and ironfounder in the Parish of St.Luke's, Old Street, London.

It is said that with his son Edward, "... they walked together to their place of work across the Moorfields". The first known records are from an early Account Book which provides details of their customers and products from 1828 to 1840, the latter including Plain Boxes, Plate Iron Boxes, Cast Boxes, Panelled Boxes, Strong Panelled Boxes, Bookcases, Iron Doors and Locks. Their main agent for chests and bookcases was Bailey & Sons, 71 Gracechurch Street, and Gibbons & Co. Oxford Street for locks.

Cast iron chests had been in use prior to the turn of the Century, the major manufacturer being the Darby family's Coalbrookdale Iron Works, and to a lesser extent, the Carron Iron Works in Scotland. The latter only came into prominence when the Derby's, a Quaker family, refused to make cannons and the contracts then went to Carron who went on to develop the famous Carronade, a favourite piece of ordnance with the Royal Navy.

London however was the location for the first iron chests and bookcases to be made of wrought iron, a much stronger and more malleable material with greater resistance to criminal attack and building collapse.

In the beginning this type of work was pure blacksmithing with some iron founding when necessary, the materials being sheet iron, plate iron, bar iron, cast iron, and for the best quality work, wrought iron. The use of steel, which at this time was very expensive, was mainly restricted to toolmaking. All carcases would have either been of hand rivetted or dovetailed construction, often reinforced with bar iron in a panelled form for larger sizes.

The doors were of similar construction and at this time were usually hung on hinges rather than the more familiar carriages and centres which did not come into use until chests, which were used on their backs with handles at either end, became upright, first as 'bookcases', then when fire protection was incorporated, as 'safes'. Prior to this the size of the chest had been limited due to the weight of the door to be lifted.

Such boxes and chests were locked by a large 'wheel' lock, known in its more complex form as a 'box of wards' lock. As such locks had to throw the locking bolt/s into position, it necessitated a large key with a correspondingly large keyway, a weakness in the days of gunpowder. To overcome this and to provide dual control, some Banker's Chests were fitted with heavy escutcheon locks attached to the flat rectangular area surrounding the keyhole. The casings were rivetted to the door and had sloping edges to prevent being sheared off. ( Left - Double throw escutcheon lock for similar chest to above)

Wheel locks could be of considerable size, even to a full door height of 6 feet, being as they were the complete locking mechanism. In these larger sizes, 3-way boltwork was operated from a central wheel attached to an external handle, and subsequent to the design of locks such as the Chubb "Detector", this wheel and its boltwork would in turn have been secured by such a lock. See (fn.1). (Chubb catalogues in later years describe their Diagonal Boltwork as being thrown by Chubb's Wheel Lock).

From the limited output in these early days it would appear that father and son were working more or less single handedly without the benefits of machinery. Not until Edward Jnr's son John, born in 1816, came to work with his father in the 1830's when the Industrial Revolution was taking hold, would companies such as Tanns have had access to steam-driven machinery.

Tann's largest customer from 1828 to 1836 was Charles Chubb, who, although by then a well established lock maker with offices at 57 St.Paul's Churchyard, is not believed to have yet been making safes. Through his lock business he would no doubt have received enquiries for other secure equipment which at the time he sourced from E.Tann & Son.

Any such equipment would no doubt have been badged by Chubb, as for instance, a large double-door wrought iron bookcase at one time on display in the Science Museum, London, stated to have come from Bridgewater House St.James in 1832 (sic), and bearing a plate "Patent FireProof Safe, Charles Chubb, Inventor, Patentee, 57 St.Paul's Churchyard", suggesting that, although not made by his company, by its method of manufacture, conformed to his patent of 1835. (fn.1)

Not only chests and boxes were made for Chubb. In 1836 for instance, they ordered 3 iron rooms, one of them demountable, two wrought iron bookcases one of which was 6'8" high and 3' wide, the other being descibed as an arch top bookcase to take 2 pieces 5'6" high by 4' wide by 2'9" deep, the latter costing £165 or about £14,500 today. In all, over that year, Mr.Chubb gave Mr.Tann over £1,201 of business which would compare to about £100,000 today. In total, it is understood that between 1828 and 1836, Tann supplied Chubb with 1,102 iron chests, bookcases and doors. (fn.2)

The interesting detailed specification of one item in 1838 reads as follows. For a Mr.Hyde, A plain box like Chubbs 26 -21 -21 with 2 linings turned wide, 3 hinges, no dogs. One inside door with a handle to fasten it. Inside lining fitted with whitening. The key like Chubb Barrons patent. This has clearly been a one-off fire-resisting 'safe' as indicated by the inner fastening door and the application of gypsum.




John, with his father and eldest brother, experimented on fire-resisting compounds. Up until this time, iron chests and doors were unable to protect against fire as they had been made from sheet and plate wrought iron without any form of insulation. As touched upon earlier, in 1843, in their joint names, they produced and patented a non-conducting, moisture generating fire resistant insulation composition, a principal which was to last until the middle of the 20th Century.

About this time, in fact between 1834 and 1855, all five leading British safe makers took out patents for the improvement of iron chests making them capable of protecting documents against fire, Edward Tann & Sons being the fourth to do so. It transpired however that the Tann patent was partly an infringement of Milner's with the result that they had to add a disclaimer until Milner's patent expired in 1854. It was Tann's patent however which George Price praised in his Treatise as "founded on the same principal (as Milners), but effected by different and simpler means, that the credit is due for having succeeded in producing the same vapour or steam by the use of a natural element, and thus perfecting such a valuable, certain, and scientific discovery."

The term 'safe' only came into full usage with the production of these first fire-proof boxes - 'proof' being a term which would not be acceptable by today's standards. William Marr was the first in 1834 relying on the insulative properties of inert materials within the double skinned chamber of the bodies and doors. Chubb's patent a year later also relied on purely insulation, initially using crushed building rubble and sand, and later a composition of powdered Plaster of Paris. Thomas Milner used the much more efficient principal of creating steam within the compartment by placing tubes of alkaline solution within the insulation.

Milner's patent for fire-proofing of 1840 would at that time only have been applied to tin plate chests and sheet iron boxes on which the lever lock fastened directly from the door edge into the carcase as illustrated here (right). It appears that he did not manufacture plate iron safes until 1846.

Safe makers of the day relied heavily on the use of testimonials, distributing thousands of handbills containing copies of letters from grateful customers whose documents had been preseved unscathed from the most terrible conflagrations and having remained in smouldering rubble for many days thereafter. It was also a popular practice to stage demonstrations in the major cities similar to that described in the extract below which was arranged by Tann's Liverpool agent, J.G.Harrison & Co.

Such testimonials filled many column inches of the leading newspapers of the day in addition to the handbills that were distributed. The News Exchange in 1835 offered to 'forward 10,000 handbills &c. throughout London & environs enclosed in the morning papers' for £1.6.0. Catalogues and brochures of the day included almost as many testimonials as product information.


By 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace, the gunpowder-proof lock was still unknown and the 'large lock' (and large key) was still the standard. Incidentally, interspersed among the exhibitors in the catagory of Fireproof Safe Makers were some quite unfamiliar names such as Baker, Barnwell, Leadbetter, Giesber (Dutch), and Williams as well as Chubb & Sons, Milner & Son, Tann & Son, and Whitfield.





No fire has ever destroyed the contents of a John Tann fire-resisting safe or Strongroom. (Advert 1933)



Most safe locks at this time were considered to be unpickable - by criminals at any rate. The leading lockmakers of the day spent a considerable amount of time publically criticising their competitors products and proclaiming how it had been possible to pick them in minutes. This was not good for public confidence.


In any case, few if any safes were being burgled by this method as it required skills that were really only available to locksmiths. Realistically the problems were the vulnerabilities to mechanical violence such as wedging and the ease with which charges of gunpowder could be introduced through the keyhole.A major development was Milner's revised patent of 1854 for a 'powder- proof' safe lock


From this point on, safes were locked by the boltwork being thrown by an exterior handle, and the small powder-proof lock securing the mechanism in place.


Tann's second patent of 1854 did little to improve the ability of their lock to resist gunpowder attack, concentrating on features designed solely to confound the lock picker. This had been the case with most lock makers since the "Great Lock Controversy" at the time of the Great Exhibition of 1851. Having little to do with criminality, it was more of an internal battle between the lock makers playing off against each other.


Tann's New Patent Bank Lock of 1859 was however a great step forward incorporating a nozel (sic) through which the key could only operate after having turned through 90 degrees to enter the mechanism. It also had the effect of blocking access of explosives into the lockcase. Of the anti-picking devices incorporated, the guarded lever was probably the most effective. The full specification is detailed in this early illustration. The idea of the second guarded lever with corresponding weakness in the key was dropped at an early stage.











In 1845 Edward transferred the business to his second youngest son John in whose name it remained till the end. John's youngest son Edward, born 1853, and named after his grandfather who died in 1862, eventually took over from his father in 1900.


By 1860, Tann's had set up a City office at 30 Walbrook, and the 1870 directory shows that they had also taken additional premises in Hope Street at number 37.


A lengthy article in the Islington Times in the 1860's gives a most colourful account of the work in progress, referring to the advantages of steam-driven machinery for bending, punching, drilling, and planing, and at that time employing labour force of around 80 workmen. (fn.3)





While safemakers had been concentrating on making their products resistant to fire and lock-picking, they had lost sight of the fundementals of bursting boxes - the use of the wedge and lever - as had been applied so successfully in the Cornhill Robbery of 1865, the public outcry from which led to the greatest combined improvements to British safe design. (fn.4)


The safe which had been the subject of the attack appears to have been a Milner Holdfast List 2 fitted with Hobbs Patent Protector Lock. The wrought iron body plates would have been 3/16" or 1/4" thick depending on the size of the safe. The square body was banded with 1/4"dovetailed iron bands front and back. As the safe had been puchased in 1858, it is likely that the door plate would only have been 3/8" thick. The lockcase would be attached by cheese head screws.


The weakness were that wedges driven between the door plate and the edge of the two flat plates of the body could easily open a gap sufficient to accept the point of a lever. With the door being so thin, purchase could then be gained behind the plate forcing it outwards and causing the cheese head screws to burst as the gap widens. The remaining lockcase could then be simply removed. Even if the heads of the screws held, there would have been insufficient thread in a blind hole in a 3/8" plate to offer any resistance. (fn.5)


The principal makers at this time, Chubb, the newly formed Chatwood, Milner, Price and Tann, each adopted their own method of strengthening. The methods which Tann employed were the subject of Patent No.695. 11th March, 1865 (illustrated left).


Specifically, to prevent the door from being forced outwards by wedges and levers, the patent mentioned rebated door edges and bodies, tailpiece studs to prevent the strap from deforming under force, and drill proof plates formed with alternate layers of welded steel and iron. The first model to incorporate the improvements was the List 3. (below)


There is little need to go any further into the general developments in safe construction as the subject has already been covered in earlier sections of this site, such as the advances in technology in protecting against high explosives and oxy-acetylene cutting which came about under the direction of John Laurence Tann who joined the firm in 1909. With the invaluable help of his sales director Ugo Bernard, he was successful in expanding the business overseas with contracts from state and commercial banks in Australia, New Zealand, South America, South Africa, Rhodesia, Egypt, Greece and Scandinavia. The majority of these projects called for very heavy treasury doors, a field in which Tann established an international pre-eminance, a speciality which was to continue right up until the final days of the company.


Much of this success was due to the creation of two new barrier materials called "Tannsteel" and "Tannalloy" which were developed in the 1930's and subjected to rigorous tests by the British Oxygen Company against the powerful oxygen lance. (left)


The photograph (below right) is of the stainless steel C.6 door and architrave for the new Chancery Lane Safe Deposit opened in 1953, which replaced the original 1876 deposit (below left). Intended as a secure fire and burglary depository for the very wealthy, the first safe deposit became very convenient for the nearby diamond and silver merchants in Hatton Gardens. When the building above the original deposit suffered a direct hit in the last war, although the vaults themselves were undamaged, it was decided to enlarge and rebuild a sub-divided vault, one to house the safe deposit, and the other to comprise 40 individual smaller strong rooms, each housing a silver dealer's showroom, thus creating an avenue of small shops, each lockable and secure within the main vault overnight. This is now a very popular tourist attraction for collectors and known as the London Silver Vaults.



















The above advertisement for the first Chancery Lane Safe Deposit shows the vault doors to have been made by Milner's by their distinctive style of hinge. The Ratner Safe Company also claimed to have been suppliers which suggests that there may have been a few different makers involved including John Tann. In the new 1953 reconstruction, the installation was exclusively Tanns lockers and doors.


Having come to the point where the control of the firm is about to pass out of the family, would seem the logical point at which to close the book.







(fn.1) Science Museum exhibit now in storage. Label read - ChubbSafe from Bridgewater House St.James 1832 (sic). Earl of Bridgewater. Keys lost. Opened by Chubb, found Order of Garter in diamonds. Keys lost again. Opened in 1974 by E.Smith & Co. member of MLA. Double escutcheon locks cover keyhole and removable operating handle. Internal hinging. (see right)

Lock from above descibed safe - (c)1824 . Photo Copyright The Science Museum.




















(fn.2) Chubb's first premises for the sale of their Patent Detector Lock was at 57 St.Paul's Churchyard in 1827. The lock manufactory was established in Wolverhampton in 1820 and their first safes were made at Cowcross Street, London, factory which opened in 1837, then moved to Glengall Street, Old Kent Road in 1868 before finally moving to Wolverhampton in 1899. It can not be said with certainty when Chubb actually started manufacturing their own safes in any quantity, but their 150th Anniversary leaflet published in May 1985 states that " by 1846 Chubb & Son was manufacturing its safes at 27 Cowcross Street, Smithfield, London."


The accompanying image shows the lock and badge of one of the very earliest Chubb safes which was in the Tann Museum.



The number 114303 has been very crudely stamped on a brass plate which in turn was rivetted to the inside metal sheet covering the locking mechanism. There was no external badging.


The fact that the lock is attached to the door by rivetting and not screws is also indicative of early manufacture.


The safe was lined with chambers containing Powdered Plaster of Paris which follows the Chubb Patent of 1835.


The door was of a hollow construction as favoured by many early makers. This gave the impression of a door thickness totalling an inch, but was in fact made up from outer and inner plates of sheet iron about 1/8" thick rivetted over straps of 3/4" bar iron around the edges and horizontally across the centre of the door in line with the keyhole. The cavities were, as in this case, sometimes filled with the same fire-resisting compound as the body chambers.







For a most interesting insight into the background of the Cornhill Robbery, an article written by Montagu Williams Q.C., in 1894. can be found at the following address. www.victorianlondon.org/publications/roundlondon1-11





The basic method using tools which could be carried concealed upon the person.

Method, hammering in a serrated steel wedge (serrated to prevent springing back out to the injury of the operator) measuring about 2” long x ½” wide starting from zero thickness to ¼” between the door edge and the frame, then if this ‘takes’, applying another wedge tapered from just under ¼” to almost ½” beside it.   This process is continued until the tip of a hardened steel crowbar can attain a grip in the gap created.





The photographs below are from the papers of the late WH Stanton.

Top left : John Tann Jnr.(1841-1904) The safe is a Grade 4a.
Top rght : Offices & Showrroms at 117 Newgate Street. London.
Centre : Moving heavy plant from Treadway Street Hackney to new factory in Old Ford.
Lower left : Promotional vehicle.
Lower right : Head of safemaking department Mr Bond.
Bottom : Exhibition display around 1890.

Acknowledgements and thanks to the following ;
Letitia Ferrer, Jane Insley, John Liffen, Malcolm
Barr-Hamilton, Mike Palmer,
Will Stanton, Peter Tann, Peter Trulock, Syd Waterman, and Tommy Watson.

© All the foregoing is the copyright of the author.