Wolverhampton, and nearby Willenhall in particular, have been noted for their flourishing lock and key making industries since at least the end of the seventeenth century. By 1855, there were 110 lock-making concerns in Wolverhampton, 2 in Bilston, and an incredible 340 in Willenhall, making this part of the Black Country pre-eminent in the world in the manufacture of these devices, ranging from huge brass ships' locks, elaborate gate, mortice and rim door locks, to chunky padlocks and bolts, cabinet locks, and tiny attach case and bag locks.
Among the most important products of the industry were safe fittings, which were becoming all the more desirable as the wealth of the Empire's mercantile class increased, all wanting to protect their hard-earned valuables. Among the Wolverhampton makers who supplied unpickable safe and deed cabinet locks, as well as brass furniture and fittings, were Arthur E. Smith, of Powlett Street, established in 1860, and Henry Brindley, at 58 Snow Hill and Bell Street, later joined by WBS Safe Locks of Hart Road in Wednesfield and C.H. Buggins of Willenhall.
At some point, the lock-making industry added the production of actually making safes to its repertoire, and unsurprisingly, the safe-making trade continued to centre on the districts of Wolverhampton and Willenhall. Some companies, such as Richard M. Lord of Cleveland Street, simply diversified from making safe locks and fittings into the manufacture of safes themselves, while others were established specifically for this purpose.
One of the longest established firms was Cyrus Price and Co., who were based at the Britannia Works in Wednesfield Road. The firm had been established in 1840 by Cyrus Price to manufacture locks and fire resistant safes. The works provided excellent transport links, close to the railway lines of the GWR, the Midland, and the LNWR companies, and included a smiths' forge, locksmiths' and paint shops, iron and steel stores, and of course, the large safe-making shop.
When Cyrus Price died in 1895, the company became limited, with the long-serving Walter Russell Baker and W. Vaughan as directors. The firm were particularly noted for safes with "all details of construction best calculated to render them impregnable against burglarious attacks," including a safe resistant to heat of 212 degrees, unpickable locks, and the company's Rolls-Royce of safes, The First Class Extra Strong Holdfast, which was double fire resistant with reinforced doors one inch thick, making it drill, wedge and crowbar proof. The "Wolverhampton and South Staffordshire Illustrated" was suitably impressed, declaring that, "this ponderous stronghold would, we should imagine, deter the boldest burglar from his nefarious design even when equipped with the best tools employed by exponents of the 'cracksman's' handicraft."
The Wolverhampton firm of Thomas Skidmore, based at the Staffordshire Safe Works in Stewart Street, also concentrated on the heftier end of the safe market. The firm was founded in 1850 as Skidmore and Langham, being set up by two brothers-in-law of that name, and went onto specialise in bent steel safes. However, by the 1920s it was felt that it was not worth investing in the new equipment to make bent steel items. They continued to sell safes with their name on them, although these were actually produced by other firms!
One of the most colourful of safe manufacturers was George Price, born in Bilston in 1819. George had various jobs over the years, including a nurseryman, debt collector, auctioneer, and insurance agent. It was as the latter that he would have become keenly aware of the importance of security, and in the 1850s he took over Richard Noakes & Son, of Cleveland Street, "manufacturers of improved wrought iron, fire-proof deed, jewel, plate and cash chests."
George was an intelligent man, as well as a great entrepreneur, and among his advances were to make his safes fireproof by lining the cavities with non-combustible materials which, when hot, gave off steam through perforations in the walls to cool the contents. He later published a thousand page book, "Treatise on Fire and Thief Proof Depositories and Locks," the detailed illustrations leading it to be dubbed the "Burglar's Bible" by many bankers!
George died, a wealthy man, in 1887. In the early years of the twentieth century, the firm moved from the old Noakes works to Church Lane. However, the company was taken over by Gibbons in the thirties, and George Price's name disappeared. Amazingly, however, his locks remain unpickable to this day.
In around the same year that Cyrus Price was developing his safes, across town Thomas Turner was establishing his own safe-making business at the Phoenix Works in Great Brickkiln Street. Other Wolverhampton safe manufacturers over the years included John Lavender, John B. Field of 23a Bloomsbury Street, S. Griffiths & Sons of Heath Town, and J. Bates & Sons of Temple Street. The latter boasted that they had made "the most secure safe ever invented, baffles the burglar at all points."
Of course, the most famous safe maker in the Black Country - if not the world - is Chubb & Sons. Although founded as a ships' ironmonger on Portsea, near Portsmouth, in 1804, the company had moved its lock-making works to Temple Street in Wolverhampton by 1820. In 1818, the firm began making safes and bank locks, patenting their first safe in 1835, and two years later they opened their first safe works in Smithfield, in London. Later moving to a site near the Old Kent Road, throughout the rest of the century they made safes for such high-profile institutions as the Bank of England.
However, when Chubb's opened their flagship Wolverhampton works in Railway Street in 1889, the building was designed to accommodate 350 safe makers, as well as locksmiths. In 1908, safe production in London ceased when Chubb's opened "new and extensive buildings for the production of safes, strong room doors, strong rooms and safe deposits, erected on a ten acres site at Wednesfield Road." The move was designed like a military operation, with a minimal loss of production time; the safe-makers left the London factory on Thursday afternoon and were given the rest of the week off to find accommodation in Wolverhampton, ready to begin work at the new premises on Monday morning!
From Wolverhampton and Willenhall, it appears that safe-making gradually crept into other Black Country districts. Among the most prolific areas was Sedgley, with makers including R. Davies, Thomas Foster, and Stephen Cox & Sons Ltd, the latter of whom operated from works in Dudley Road. Founded in 1890, they produced strong room doors as well as fire-resistant cabinets and wall and floor safes, many of which are still to be found in church vestries to this day! In nearby Lower Gornal were Bradley & Flavell, in Upper Gornal Arthur W. Moss, one of whose safes can be seen at the Black Country Living Museum. Dudley, too, also muscled in on the industry, with Whittingham Brothers based at Union Chambers in Wolverhampton Street, G.F. Griffin & Co. in Salop Street, and Edward Hipkins & Co. in Kate's Hill's High Street.
Since Bilston had had its own fledgling lock and key industry since the eighteenth century, it comes as little surprise that this town could also boast a number of manufacturers, such as G. Lucas & Co., who had been founded back in 1856. The giant among them was, however, Thomas Perry & Son Ltd., who had begun in business as iron founders as early as 1806. Specialising in heavy engineering, especially the production of armour plate for military purposes, it was an excellent grounding for the production of safes. Such was their later reputation that they were said to have won the contract to supply the safes for the ill-fated Titanic.
In later years, Perry's moved to West Bromwich, where there was already a fine record of safe manufacture, including the Dart Safe Company in Overend Street, John Richards of 41 Bratt Street, and Jacob Cartwright at 3 Birmingham Road. The most important family were the Withers clan, with Joseph T. Withers of 104 Old Sandwell Road, T. Withers & Sons of 230 Sandwell Road, and S. Withers & Co., at the Park Works in Barton Street, all listed as safe makers in West Bromwich at various times. The latter was one of the largest concerns in the trade, being founded in 1855. Their "Samco" and "Sentry" safes bore their proud trademark of a lion surmounting a crown, and they claimed that their products were ideal for "jewels, cash, deeds, books, plate - for business, merchants, jeweller, secretaries, and others."
A feature of those early days in the Black Country safe-making industry were the open competitions between the various makers, pitting their products against one another for theft-proofing and fire resistance. In 1862, Cyrus Price won the prize for new and special improvements when they entered their "Holdfast" and fire-resistant safes against the world's leading makers at the International Exhibition in London, and repeated the feat seven years later when a similar competition was held in Wolverhampton.
However, the most flamboyant exponent of his wares was doubtless George Price. A great showman, he proved his products' fire-proof claims by giving several public demonstrations. The first, in 1854, proved to be a disaster; after placing two safes, containing books, parchment and papers, into a fire for three and five hours respectively, the parchment had disappeared, the loose papers destroyed and the leather of the books blackened. This only spurred Price on to improve his products, and the next year he turned Noakes' old works into a state-of-the-art, steam powered factory.
In 1855 George began to lecture around the country on fire-resistant safe manufacture, followed by increasingly elaborate demonstrations of the properties of his safes. Often held in fierce competition with other makers, each would try to prove that giant "burglar machines" were ineffective or that gunpowder could not be inserted into the keyholes, with explosive - and once, in Burnley in 1860 - with fatal results.
Despite the weight of their products, the safe making industry soon found a ready export market, especially to Canada and the United States, where Black Country-made safes are now highly sought after antiques.
As the safe-making industry grew, some of the bigger companies began to branch out into other security devices, such a bank strong rooms, safe deposit boxes and prison security systems. For instance, by 1953, the lock-making side of Chubb's was almost seen as a postscript to their repertoire, with that year's "Wolverhampton Official Year Book" describing them as "bankers' engineers, manufacturers of bankers' anti-blowpipe safes and doors, strong rooms and linings, burglar and fire-resisting safes and strong room doors, steel grilles and gates, safe deposits, certified safe cabinets, safe files, ledger containers, wall safes, cash and deed boxes, and all types of locks".
As thieves began to employ new technologies to crack safes, new security devices were constantly being developed to thwart them. However, although a perceived increase in crime led to an upsurge in demand in security products, the second half of last century saw a decline not only in the lock-making industry, but also in the production of safes, mainly due, as usual, to cheaper foreign imports. Thomas Turner & Co. ceased trading in the sixties, and ten years after they had moved to new headquarters in Pensnett, Stephen Cox & Sons Ltd. went into liquidation in 1982. All work at Thomas Skidmore ceased in 1990, leaving Chubb one of the few last representatives of this once great local industry.