A concise history of safebreaking


About Safes

The early Victorians

The foundations of the British Safe Industry were laid in the mid 19th Century when cast and wrought iron chests were improved by adding an inner body and filling the resultant chambers with a compound which would not only help insulate the contents, but would also emit moisture thus raising the flash point of any paper contents.

William Marr's patent in 1834 was quickly followed by Charles Chubb in 1838, Thomas Milner in 1840, and Edward Tann in 1843, although the latter was found to be an infringement of Milners patent.

This pressed brass escutcheon plate on the earliest Milner sheet iron safes bore the following statement:



Tann also took out a patent for securing the presence of moisture by means of a chemical salt. In their patent they chose alum in combination with gypsum, but they also claimed any non-conductors of heat could be used. Milner considered this an infringement of his patent of 1840 and in an action before the Queens Bench on the 3rd of June 1851 a verdict was given upholding this contention.

Before Milner established himself as the largest safemaker in Britain he was making tin plate and sheet iron boxes as referred to above, and it was not until 1846 that he started manufacturing strong plate iron safes and chests. As with his contemporaries, his safes were constructed of sheet wrought iron of 1/8" to 3/16" thickness depending on the size of the safe. These plates were rivetted to an angle iron frame to form the outer body and a light sheet metal inner body attached inside to form the chamber to accommodate the fire-proofing material. The door plate which contained the locking mechanism and fire chamber was usually 3/8" to 1/2 " thick.

It is worth noting that although most safe bodies and doors have a total thickness of about 4", only about 1/2" of this comprises protective metal, the rest being loose fire-resisting compound. This had led to many a misleading press report of massively thick safes having been easily opened whereas in fact they were only light sheet metal document safes.

Prior to the use of smaller powderproof locks, safe doors were secured to by a bolt or bolts which were thrown by the action of the keylock itself and which of necessity required a large key and keyhole which made it vulnerable to manipulation with probes and gunpowder. The greatest weakness however was from attack by wedges and levers. Where the body plates met the rivets were easily split from the angle iron framework allowing the back or sides to be removed which in turn exposed the loose filling and the light sheet metal inner lining. The back or base plates were normally chosen as they gave easier access to any internal drawers.

The doors could also be forced open with relative ease as wedges driven in around the leading door edge would bulge the body out creating gaps into which prise-bars, correctly applied, would burst the heads off any lockcase retaining screws or bolts and release the door. The following was published in 1865 by Samuel Chatwood.

"The power of the lever is enormous on account of the fulcrum being perfectly solid, and not over 1/4in. to 1/2in. from the end. If we suppose the lever to be 3 feet long, 3/8in.fulcrum, 1lb.weight on the end of the lever would be equal to the point, and assuming that a man can push his own weight - taking this at 168lb. - we have a force exerted on the door of the safe of 18,744lbs. or about 8-1/2 tons, sufficient to wrench open the door of any safe."


As the strength of safes increased to accommodate higher value contents, so did the criminals ingenuity, and this continues to be the great motivating force in safe design and engineering to the present day.

For instance, the term 'screwing' a safe derives from the clever application of force by drilling a hole at or near the leading edge corner of the door plate and tapping a thread through which a heavy machine bolt can be screwed engaging against the inner body plate, gradually winding the door out of its engagement, bursting the lockcase retaining bolts as is progresses. Finally when a sufficiently large gap is created, a heavy lever is applied to finish the job.

The safe illustrated is one of Milner's early improvements with heavy reinforcing bands around the body and enclosed 'knuckle' hinges, probably a List 3 Quadruple Patent Strong Holdfast. In this model the door could not be displaced laterally due to the heavy banding and also the dovetail anti-wedging blocks which were the idea of a Manchester Police Detective John Sutcliffe and which Milner decided to patent and incorporate in their heavier safes.

In order to prevent this type of attack, another famous maker, George Price of Wolverhampton, offered his better quality safes with fully case-hardened doors and bodies.(Patent No.236 Jan.31 1860). This could be considered one of the most significant improvements ever in safe engineering.

So by the middle of the 19th.Century the British safe industry comprised the following, in order of age. E.Tann & Sons, factory in Hackney, London, founded in 1795 making iron chests. Chubb Lock & Safe Co., factory also in London, founded in 1818, but only making locks until about 1836.

The records of Tann show that from 1828 they supplied 1,102 chests and doors to Chubb until their own manufactory started in 1836 at Cowcross Street, Smithfield, London.

The illustration (left) depicts the safe which was exhibited at the Great Exhibition in 1851 which has an inner door containing additional fire-resisting compound. There is no bolt throwing handle, the mechanism being operated by the key. The actual safe is on display in the London Silver Vaults.

The three other leading makers, Samuel Chatwood, Hobbs Hart, and Ratner Safe Companies were founded in 1864, 1866, and 1890 respectively. In the second tier were George Price, Thos..Skidmore, Fred.Whitfield, Thos.Perry, Cyrus Price, and Samuel Withers, while in a third tier, there were another 40 or so small makers who were mostly centred around the Birmingham area with more unfamiliar names such as Brooks, Cartwright, Cotterill, Griffiths, and Hipkins.

With only one or two exceptions all the safes made by the third tier manufacturers were of fire-resisting quality only and would not resist any serious attack by the methods described earlier. In other words they do not meet the definition of the word "safe"

The following is a compilation of extracts from the London Trades Directories from 1842 to 1907, listing the leading safe makers and agents of the period who had taken premises in London.