TREATISE ON FIRE & THIEF-PROOF DEPOSITORIES
LOCKS AND KEYS
ON FIRE AND THIEF-PROOF DEPOSITRIES
The Early History of the Iron Safe Trade
Iron safes and chests are of quite modern date, and especially fire-proof ones, which were not introduced previous to the present century. Our forefathers, in the simplicity of their arrangements and requirements, were satisfied to place their valuables in an oak chest, secured by one or more locks in front, or in a brick or stone closet, with either a wood door studded with nails, or a plain iron one - in either case secured by a common warded lock, or a lock without any wards at all, or with the usual iron bands with hasps and staples and padlocks.
The most interesting specimen of the former which has come under my notice is the celebrated oak chest in which the crown jewels of Scotland were deposited in the year 1707, the lid of which was secured by three locks, all of which were forced open in the presence of the Royal Commissioners in the year 1818, as the account states, "because no keys could anywhere be found;" which circumstance may be considered to prove that so late as that year (1818) those early examples of a lock were considered too intricate and secure to be picked by a common locksmith or mechanic, and that there were no Hobbs' or scientific lock-pickers. A bent skewer would have opened the three locks without effort or difficulty, and would thus have saved this ancient relic from such unhallowed violence.
Fig. 1. - The Oak Chest 1
Many of these oak chests are still in existence and in perfect preservation, and are much valued for there antiquity and the fine carving that usually adorns them. The locks, too, upon these are highly interesting and well worth the notice of the curious; yet, when admiring their simplicity, we are often prompted to ask - "How could any one entrust to such a guard the security and valuables which we know to have been under care?" The answer is, that if locks were simple and chests made of wood, the thieves were also simple and had but rude tools and implements to mischief with which to effect their purpose. In those days the oak chest was quite as safe as the iron one now, because the strength of the chest itself would generally resist violence, while a lock of the most simple construction afforded sufficient security, from the circumstance that at that early period the means of picking such locks were not understood.
The first examples of the manufacture of iron safes or chests, are the f0reign coffers. The one of which the following is a drawing, is 35 inches long, 21 inches wide, and 23 inches deep, and is made of sheet iron strongly rivetted to hoop iron crossed at right angles on the outside. It has strong handles at each end, with a multiple lock, which throws eight bolts inside, and it has also two dogs at the back, and two bars and staples for padlocks outside. The plate covering the bolts is beautifully pierced and chased, and bears the date 1793 and the initials C.H.
The whole of the iron composing it has been hammered and not rolled, which circumstance goes far to prove that the date of manufacture must have been before rolls were intoduced into the country in which it was made.
Fig. 2. - Foreign Coffer
Another peculiarity about this coffer is the escutcheon over the key-hole in the lid, which has to be moved half round with a turnscrew, when it springs up; the key is then inserted, and with the turnscrew put through the bow for a lever, the lock is opened.1
Another specimen is known at Paris by the name of the "strong German Coffer," and Réaumer says " nothing is wanting in these coffers on the score of solidity; they are made entirely of iron, or if of wood they are banded both within and without with iron, and can only e broken open by very great violence. Their locks are almost as large as the top of the coffer, and close with a great number of bolts."2
Several smaller specimens, supposed to be of French manufacture, and of the 17th century, are in the Museum at Marlborough House, and are well worth examination. I was shown, also some months ago, a very fine specimen at the Bank of Scotland, in Edinburgh,3
The spring attached to each bolt, though of such rude manufacture, is as effective as the best constructed of the present day; and these coffers, taken as a whole, are creditable productions for that period, when evey part was elaborated by hand labour - when machinery was unknown.
These were manifestly an improvement upon the oak chest, both as regard the material of which they were composed and the locks by which they ere secured, and are the root from which all the improvements up to the present time have grown; but the security was only the rude lock multiplied by the number of its bolts, which, supposing it had twenty, could as easily be picked as if it had only one. Still, by its complexity, it would doubtless have the effect of inducing confidence in its safety.
I have not been able to ascertain for a fact whether cast or wrought iron safes were made in this country before the present century; but I believe they were not. If they were, they must have been considered curiosities. They were certainly not in use for commercial purposes, and the possession of them must have been confined to a few. Cast iron chests have been made for many years at Coalbrook-dale, Birmingham, Wolverhampton, and at some other places, and have been exported to all parts of the world; but wrought iron ones were first made in London, and the trade was confined to the metropolis until within the last twenty years, when several locksmiths in the vicinity of Wolverhampton, and some mechanics at Sedgley and West Bromwich, in the county of Stafford, commenced making them, and the late Thomas Milner, a tinner at Sheffield, who removed to Manchester about the year 1827, where he carried on a similar business for three years, afterwards settled in Liverpool, and there commenced the manufacture of tin-plate and sheet-iron boxes, and subsequently4 strong plate-iron safes and chests.
At the present time, strong wrought-iron safes, chests, and iron doors and frames for fire-proof closets and strong rooms are extensively manufactured by various makers in London, and at Liverpool, Birmingham, and Wolverhampton.
1 This antique chest was purchased some years ago at a custom-house sale, at Glasgow, and is now in my possesion.
2 Tomlinson's "Rudimentary Treatise on Locks" p.41
3 I am indebted to the gentlemen at the head of that establishment for an inspection of this beautiful specimen of antique foreign workmanship. The lock is the size of the lid, and is a most elaborate piece of mechanism.
4 About the year 1846.