A Gazetteer of Lock and Key Makers

George Price's Treatise - the Locksmith's Bible

by Pat Tempest

page 3

Demonstrations of resistance to fire

Thomas Milner had observed that the asbestos, mica or alum he used to insulate his ammunition boxes gave off steam when the boxes were heated. He reasoned that if asbestos, mica or alum were used as cavity insulation in safes, and holes punched in the inner walls, then when the safes were affected by fire, steam would escape into the interior and protect the contents from destruction. He patented this invention in 1840, and the hugely prosperous Victorians fell over themselves to buy this protection. When the patent lapsed in 1854, Price and most safe manufacturers in the country were more than ready to make use of the idea. Milners had been demonstrating their safes' capacity to preserve money and documents by placing the safes inside huge public bonfires and then dowsing the fire and removing the magically surviving contents to the astonished applause of the onlookers.

Price set up his first demonstration of a safe using Milner's principle in June 1854. One of Milner's foremen assisted. But it was not a success. He recorded this disappointment
in his Treatise:

"Soon after taking over the business of which I am now proprietor, relying on the statements of other makers as well as on the assurances of a person in my employ, as to the fire-resisting capabilities of safes made fire-proof by the use of a simple non-conductor (which activated the production of steam to preserve the contents) I had a public test of two safes made on this principle and invited my friends and fellow townsmen to be present a the trial.

One safe was in an intense fire for three hours, and the other for five hours - Mr. Milner's foreman and his agent and lock manufacturer in Wolverhampton were present and assisting me. The contents comprised books, bound in leather, loose papers and a parchment deed. After the safes were cooled and opened, the books were found to be burnt black at the edge for some distance towards the centre of the paper; the loose papers were more or less burned, the leather destroyed, and not a vestige of parchment could be found. The disappointment, vexation and chagrin I experienced at the result of this my first test, caused me to study the manufacture, not only as a mechanical art, but as a science requiring some research. From that day, it has had my undivided study and attention."

An old woodcut showing a public demonstration of the security of a safe.  In this case a group of German operatives were failing to effect an entry despite all their equipment

It was this public humiliation which motivated him to write his huge book. Milners had always claimed in their advertisements that their own safes would protect "deeds" from fire. But they must have excluded parchment deeds from their public tests. "It would invariably be assumed (by the public) that 'deeds' meant parchment deeds, even though the word parchment was excluded." Price should have remembered that Bilston's bonnet makers used to buy offcuts of parchment from his father's print shop. Parchment is made from animal skin and the bonnet makers used to boil it for size to stiffen bonnet brims. Steam could never be used to protect parchment from heat. It was melted, cooked, frazzled by steam. Paper, made from cotton waste and wood pulp, survived, as did money and precious metals. What incensed Price was that Milner's foreman had allowed - perhaps encouraged - the novice safe maker, himself, to include parchment in his first challenge, knowing it would frazzle.

He consulted experts and came up with a design for a special compartment within a safe for the storage of parchment documents which was proof against steam. He patented this, and challenged Thomas Milner’s son, William, who had inherited his father’s manufactory, to publicly admit the shortcomings of his Phoenix safe and acknowledge that only a Price safe could properly protect parchment.

From there on Price was on his high horse, the bit between his teeth, hell bent on outdoing all competitors, and above all, William Milner, son of Thomas, the founder of the company.

But Price was not above sharp practice himself. Far from it! The locks on Price's safes in the early days were made by Charles Aubin, whose lock trophy had been purchased by Mr. Hobbs. Aubin had also worked for Samuel Chatwood, another powerful competitor in the safe industry. Later Price patented Aubin's design as his own. Then there was the bad feeling caused by recruiting William Dawes, again from Samuel Chatwood. It was dog eat dog.

The 1903 Ordnance Survey Map shows the Cleveland Works (here outlined in red) on the north side of Cleveland Street and the east of Bell Street.  This area was still predominantly industrial at the time.

All this time, George Price was working on converting Noakes' old workshop to a steam-powered manufactory. The following item appeared in the Wolverhampton Chronicle for June 20th 1855:

We have inspected the new works of Mr. Price and were as much surprised as pleased with out visit .… The manufacture of wrought iron safes we have always considered one of the legitimate trades of Wolverhampton as it is well known that both the iron plates of which they are made and the locks which secure them, are made in the neighbourhood of the town. And yet, their manufacture has been almost entirely confined to London and Liverpool .… We were very much pleased with the machinery and fittings and also with the steam engine made by Thompson and Co. of Bilston. The buildings are substantial, the rooms wide, lofty and well ventilated. Crowding of workmen is completely avoided. The iron of which the safes are constructed goes in at one end of the building in sheets and comes out at the other end a finished and painted safe, ready to be lowered into the carrier's wagon.

Conflict with Thomas Milner and Son

We have to remember that William Milner, his company well established in the trade, could afford to ignore this newcomer. It was his father, Thomas, who was the inventor. William had his own fish to fry, and might have been astonished that his refusal to respond personally to Price's challenges had such a profound effect. Price, self taught, fervently committed to the principles of Freemasonry, and desperate for his invention to be noticed, went on a lecture tour of mechanics' institutes and philosophical societies in Glasgow, Belfast, Cardiff and Dublin.

He preached against the persuasive, exaggerating claims of advertising - particularly in the case of Milner - and waxed eloquent on the need for precision in disclosing the specifications of safes. He was scathing about the shortcomings of Milner's products. Still no response from William Milner, but there was a lot of public concern about the gangs of burglars who were roaming the country on the new fangled railways and raiding the counting houses of the huge new mills and factories springing up in the north.

This was the point where Price decided to publish his observations on the security trade and be damned. His Treatise was published in 1856, only two years after he began to produce his (truly) fire resistant safes. He was a man obsessed. The footnotes of the section on fire resistance contain quite libellous criticisms of Milner's specifications. But William Milner still could not be provoked into trying to protect his father's reputation.
However, Milner's agents began their own campaign of besmirching Price's name, and the battle for customers continued around new issues: how resistant or otherwise were safes to burglarious drills? Could gunpowder be inserted into keyholes, allowing safes to be blown up?

A low point was reached at Burnley in 1860 when Daniel Ratcliff, the new Liverpool agent - who later became William Milner's son-in-law - finally took on a direct challenge from Price to prove Milner locks were gunpowder proof. All the northern newspapers were present and Price's safe was shown to be far superior to Milner's, which caved in to a charge of gunpowder. Price was declared 'Champion safe maker'. But in a fit of anger, Ratcliff found an out- of-date Price safe, whose lock was not gunpowder proof, stuffed it with gunpowder and ignited it. The safe exploded and a child was killed with a shard of metal.

No-one was prosecuted, but the Coroner censured Price, along with Ratcliff, for 'attempting such a dangerous experiment in the presence of the public'.

  The title page to the Treatise. The
  drawing on it is full of Masonic

An illustration from the Treatise, showing a device for picking Bramah locks.
This injustice mortified Price. He had always been fanatically safety conscience, and felt that this moral condemnation in a courtroom meant he was unfit to continue to be a Freemason. He had a mental breakdown, and later, in 1863, he persuaded Spon to publish a four- hundred- and- twenty- line 'poem' - a Thesaurus of world religions, in which he asked the same kinds of questions he had always asked about locks, keys and safes. Which is the best?
Of this Great Church, which is the purest branch?
Of forms of worship so very numerous,
There must be some that near perfection be,
Though in all earthly institutions, Imperfections will be found.…

There are Trinitarians and Arians,
Unitarians, Socinians, Arminians,
Antinomians, Calvinists, Brownists,
Presbyterians - English and Irish.
Wesleyan Methodists - Old and New;
Independents, Mystics, Quakers, Shakers,
Universalists, and Destructionists.
Sabbatarians and Moravians;
Swedenborgians and Moravians;
Baxterians and Hutchinsonians;
Lutherans and the Millenarians...

Oh, where is Christ's Church on earth to be found?

Having withdrawn from Freemasonry, he finally converted to the Catholic Church. Before publishing 'The Church of Christ', Price had published in 1860'A Treatise on Gunpowder-Proof Locks, Gunpowder-Proof Lock-Chambers, Drill Proof Safes &c &c &c.' In this book he listed in detail how the child had been killed in Burnley.

Image opposite: In his second treatise Price is careful to describe this as "Milner's Phoenix Escutcheon, engraved from the one on the safe blown up in Burnley".

The Masonic symbolism from the first treatise is missing but there is a quotation from Robert Blair: "Although there may be some few exceptions, yet in general it holds that when the bent of the mind is wholly directed to some one object, exclusive, in a manner, of others, there is the fairest prospect of eminence in that, whatever it may be.  The rays must converge to a point in order to glow intensely".

This claim to superiority of knowledge may be a suggestion that he knew more about this matter than anyone else - including Milner. 

In January 1863 a gang using skeleton keys entered the warehouse of a woollen mill in Batley, Yorkshire. They tried breaking into the mill safe, which contained a large amount of gold. They partially succeeded but then lost patience with their implement, described as "the largest burglar machine ever constructed", and began bashing the safe with a crowbar. 

They left their machine behind when the millowner disturbed them. It was so massive that seven men had been needed to carry it in pieces, to be attached to the safe at the scene of the burglary. 

Delighted with this find, the Dewsbury Constabulary put the machine together and displayed it in the police station. As soon as his agent told him of this, George Price contacted a Dewsbury company, who had one of his safes, and arranged for it to be tested in public with this great implement. 

It survived the test without even a dent and Price's order book swelled again.

A drawing, from the second treatise, showing "The burglars' drilling, boring and cutting machine".

A baby, safe and sound, after a fire. Presumably a fanciful notion - the baby would have suffocated and been steamed.
He eventually published in 1866 a short, vindictive book entitled "Forty Burglaries of the years 1863-45", recording the regular cracking of Milner safes. But, he boasted, when burglars drilled a hole in the roof of a provision dealer in Kirkgate, Leeds, and saw a George Price safe, they left without bothering to touch it.

He recorded with glee a spectacular jewellery robbery from a shop in Cornhill, London - from a Milner safe, of course.

The safe was advertised as "Holdfast" and "Thiefproof" and the shop owner, Mr. Walker, sued Milners, his case being that it was neither. 

A well-known cracksman, who Price refers to as "Convict Caseley", gave evidence that he could open a similar safe in half an hour. "He is a man of keen wit, coarse in quality and inexhaustible in quantity, that bubbled up like bad petroleum". He showed "the instinct of an actor for effect; the craving of an orator for applause; the delight of an artist in flattery." Caseley described himself as "one of the dangerous classes who society had found out and locked up". The cleverest men at the bar, says Price, were those most struck with the cleverness of the uneducated Caseley. Indeed, it was a pity he could not be employed in Scotland Yard - a thief set to catch thieves. But Mr. Walker lost his case, with the judge ruling that he should have employed a watchman to watch his shop. Presumably Convict Caseley's claim was not accepted, and the judge commented that it took twenty four hours for the thieves to break into the safe, proving it was "strong enough". The press took up the judge's comments to condemn companies who did not employ watchmen to watch the safes and called for an increase in the pay of policemen. 

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