A Gazetteer of Lock and Key Makers

Jim Evans

this gazetteer is copyright Jim Evans, 2002


The Withers were a family of safe makers in West Bromwich where they set up a safe making firm which came to have
a commercial history as complex as that of many of the Willenhall lock makers. The people and firms concerned are:
George Withers, Mary Withers, Thomas Withers, Samuel Withers, and Jesse Withers.

The early days:  George Withers

The Withers story starts with George Withers, an iron turner, who was born in West Bromwich in 1804. He married Mary Turner (born West Bromwich in 1805) at St Peter’s Collegiate Church, Wolverhampton, on 9.1.1826.  They had the following nine children:

1.  Rebecca, christened 28.10.1827, St Peter’s Collegiate Church, Wolverhampton.  She was my great great grandmother.  She married Henry Antcliff and had four children.  She died 13.5.1867. 

Her two sons learned the safe making trade from their uncles and set up their own safe making businesses.   The older son, Richard James Antcliff, migrated to Brisbane, Australia in 1884 and was the only safe maker in the colony of Queensland.  The younger son, Harry Richard Antcliff, established the Empire Safe Works in Birmingham.    

2.  Isaac Stephen, twin of Rebecca, who died as a toddler.

3.  Edward Arundall, christened 28.2.1830 at St Peter’s Collegiate Wolverhampton.  Migrated to America and set up a very successful engineering business in Marietta, Georgia.

4.  George, aged 7 at the time of the 1841 Census. Nothing further known

5.  Mary aged 5, at the time of the 1841 Census. Nothing further known

6.  Thomas, born 1838 or 1839 Bilston, Staffordshire (birth not registered). He married Sarah Welch.  He died on 20.2.1887 of “chronic enteritis - duration of last illness: 8 months”.  His occupation is given on his death certificate as “Iron Safe Manufacture”.  He is the founder of Thomas Withers & Sons.

7.  Samuel, born 1841, Smethwick, Staffordshire (birth not registered).  He is one month old at the time of the 1841 Census, when the family was living at Grove Lane, Smethwick.  Married Rosanna Newbold.  Died 1922.  He is the Samuel Withers of Samuel Withers & Co.

8.  Jesse, born 23.7.1843, Nottingham Road, Derby.  Father's occupation on the birth certificate is “Iron Pattern Turner”.  Married Sabina Newbold.  He also had his own safe manufacturing business but was not as successful as his older brothers.  Died after 1901

9.  Elizabeth, born 1846, at Smethwick/Harborne (birth not registered).  Married Joseph Winkle.  Died 10.9.1931 aged 85

A Samuel Withers brass plate.
The birth places of some of the children suggest that George and Mary Withers moved, for some while, to Wolverhampton or Bilston (as St. Peter’s was where births, deaths and marriages in both places were registered).  According to Margaret Lincoln (another more distant Withers relative who has done a lot of work in piecing together the larger Withers family tree) George Withers moved back to West Bromwich in 1843 and set up a two storey factory in Barrows Street, originally making metal bedsteads. 

He chose this location because it was alongside a soon to be built railway line between Birmingham and Wolverhampton (which is now the line of the tramway between the two centres).   Hence the claim on some Withers safes that the firm was established in 1843.

Also according to Margaret Lincoln, George Withers was in America in 1848 with one of his cousins (this information comes from descendants of Edward Arundall Withers) but I have not been able to find any official information confirming this.

What we do know is that George and Mary Withers were the witnesses to the marriage of my great grandparents in West Bromwich on 18.10.1850.

Nobody has been able to find the Withers family in the 1851 Census and I wonder whether some of the pages for West Bromwich are missing.

But we do know that George Withers filed a Petition in the Court of Bankruptcy and obtained an Interim Order for Protection from Process [i.e enforcement of debts]. (See The Jurist No. 862 Vol XVII July 16th, 1853 page 255). 

He was listed to appear at 9am on July 20th, 1853 at the County Court of Staffordshire at Oldbury.  He is listed as George Withers, West Bromwich, Staffordshire, iron turner.

What happened in this case is not known but apparently his fortunes revived because in 1855 George Withers set up his safe manufacturing works in Roebuck Street, West Bromwich. 

Presumably this was a greenfield site as Roebuck Street doesn't appear in the 1841 or 1851 Censuses.  (The birthplaces of the four children of Rebecca Withers/Antcliff are also consistent with the Withers safe manufacturing business being established in West Bromwich in 1855).  The factory was called the Park Works.

A Samuel Withers advert from a Wolverhampton Trade Directory of 1896.

It is the establishment of this business which leads to the more widely used “Established 1855” claimed by both Thomas and Samuel Withers for their separate businesses.

George Withers first appears in a trade directory in 1861.  He is listed in the West Bromwich section of the "Corporation Directory of Birmingham 1861".  For the first time there is a category of “Iron Safe Manufacturers” in trades listings in West Bromwich.  George Withers of Roebuck Street, West Bromwich is one of the four iron safe manufacturers listed.  (The others are J. Cartwright of Roebuck St, Wm Cottom of the Vulcan iron foundry and John Hall of Bull St).

George Withers next appears in "Kelly’s Directory of Birmingham etc 1864" where his entry under West Bromwich Traders is:

"WITHERS & SON, Manufacturers of iron fireproof safes & McEntee & Withers patent locks, Roebuck St"

An advert from 1912 from a trade mark listing. Courtesy of Trevor Dowson.
The son in Withers & Son would be Thomas and the patent referred to in the listing was applied for in 1863.  

According to "Newton's London Journal of Arts and Sciences” April 1st 1863 page 253, patent application no. 417 of 1863 lodged 16.2.1863, was by "William Charles McEntee of Birmingham, and George Withers and Thomas Withers, both of West Bromwich, for improvements in locks."  There is also an entry in "Jones Mercantile Directory of the Iron District of South Staffordshire & East Worcestershire" in the West Bromwich Alphabetic Commercial and Trade section

"WITHERS, George, safe and patent lock manufacturer, Park Works"

Mary Withers

George Withers died in 1864  and his wife Mary took over the running of the business.  "Kellys Directory of Birmingham etc 1865" has the following entry under West Bromwich Commercial: 

"WITHERS, Mary & Sons, iron safe makers, Roebuck St"

She was still in charge of the business in 1868 and she not only had an entry in "Post Office Directory of Birmingham etc 1868" but she also had an advertisement. Her entry in West Bromwich Commercial is:

"WITHERS, Mary & Sons, wrought iron safe makers & patent window shutter manufacturers, Roebuck St (see advertisement)"

She had the same entry in the "Post Office Directory of Shropshire, Staffordshire, & Worcestershire 1870". 

Unfortunately the advertisements in these directories were missing from the copies at Smethwick Public Library so I don't have a copy of her advertisement.

The 1871 Census shows that Mary was still in charge of the Park Works in Roebuck Street. (The Wesleyan Chapel had a room in the  works).   The Census refers to "Mary Withers.  Head.  Widow.  65.  Iron Safemaker employing 12 men and 7 boys".  It also lists at the same address "Elizabeth Winkle. Daur., married, 24" and "James Hinchliff [sic]. Gson.  unmarried. 18.  Iron Safe Maker.

Mary was born in West Bromwich, Elizabeth was born in Smethwick and Richard James Antcliff (my great great grandfather) was born in Birmingham, Warwickshire.

Mary Withers died of a fatty heart on 27.6.1872.  Her occupation on the death certificate is Widow of George Withers Iron Safe manufacturer. The informant and his address is Samuel Withers Present at the Death Roebuck Street West Bromwich.

Three Withers’ Companies

The three safe-making sons of George and Mary Withers were probably closely connected with the original firm, at least until their mother’s final years.  At about that time three separate and competing companies appear.  There is no information on why or how this happened.

Samuel Withers had set up his own business in Barrow St, West Bromwich - presumably in George Withers' original factory.

"Whites Directory of Birmingham & etc 1869" and "Whites Birmingham  & District Directory 1870" both show Samuel Withers. His entry in both directories is the same:

"WITHERS, Samuel, patentee & manufacturer of the triple patent fire and wedge proof safes, chests &c. Barrow Street, West Bromwich (See advertisement p.80)"

Again the advertisements are missing from the copies of these directories in Smethwick Public Library.

Thomas Withers had his own business in Bull St, West Bromwich. The 1871 Census reveals that he was 32, married and his occupation was Fireproof Safemaker, employing 3 men and 2 boys.  His oldest child, Joseph Thomas Withers, was a 3 year old scholar.

Jesse Withers was, at the time of the 1871 census, in Barrow Street, where Samuel also was.  They had married the Newbold sisters, Rosanna and Sabina.  Samuel gives his occupation as Iron Safe Maker and Jesse says that he is an Iron Safe Manufacturer.

By the time "Kellys Directory of Birmingham etc 1872" was published the three brothers were in full competition, all claiming lineage from their father's business.

"WITHERS, Thomas & Son, wrought iron safe & lever lock manufacturers, Bull St. See advertisement

WITHERS, Jesse, Fire drill & wedge proof safe manufacturer, Barrows St, see advertisement.

WITHERS, Samuel (late George Withers & Son) fire drill and wedge proof safe & iron door manufacturer, Park works, Roebuck Street, see advertisement"

These are the advertisements referred to:

PATENTEES (the only one of the name) MANUFACTURERS OF 

Fire, Drill and Wedge-Proof Safes,
Patent Lever, Gunpowder Proof and Unpickable Locks, Night Latches, etc.,

A Samuel Withers safe plate from the safe below. Courtesy of Pam & David Male.

A Samuel Withers safe. Courtesy of Pam & David Male.


Manufacturers of fire, Drill, and Wedge Proof Safes for home and exportation, and Iron Doors for Strong Rooms.

Maker of every Description of SAFES for the Indian and colonial Trade, also to the Principal Banks in the United Kingdom and United States. Price Lists on Application.

The following is one of the many Testimonials received: Broad Street, Birmingham, February 5th 1868.
An Iron Safe in our Office, made by Messrs. Withers, has been subject to the Drill and a portion of Gunpowder placed in the Lock by the hands of some one at present unknown to us; It appears to have stood the test well, as a quantity of the broken Drills were found in the Lock, the safe unopened.

Only Thomas and Samuel appear in "Whites Birmingham & District Directory 1873" (no adverts) and the "Post Office Directory of Staffordshire 1876".  By 1876 Thomas has moved and now has his house and works at Loveday Street South, West Bromwich. Samuel's entry says:

WITHERS, Samuel (late George Withers & Son) fire drill & wedge proof safe & iron door manufacturer, Park works, Roebuck St, See advertisement

The advertisements are missing from the copy of the directory in Smethwick Library.

Jesse and his family were in Canada at this time.  We know this because his daughter Alice was born in Toronto, Canada in 1875.  The family returned to England and at the time of the 1881 Census were living at 9 Beswick St, Manchester.  Jesse's occupation was  Iron Safe Maker (Others 21/8) which suggests that he employed 21 men  and 8 boys.    

Thomas and Samuel's entries in "Kellys Directory of Staffordshire 1880" are exactly the same as those in the "Post Office Directory of Staffordshire 1876"

By the time "Kelly’s Directory of Staffordshire etc 1884" was compiled, Jesse was back in West Bromwich.  The three Withers entries are

WITHERS, Jesse, iron safe manufacturer, 47 Paradise St
WITHERS, Samuel, iron safe manufacturer, Park Works, Roebuck St
WITHERS, Thomas, iron safe maker, Loveday street south  

"Kellys Directory of Birmingham etc 1888" reveals Samuel no longer living next door to the Park Works.  He had built a substantial house in the new Beeches Estate. "Bombay House" at 13 Beeches Road, West Bromwich, a short walk from the Park Works, was named after the source of his first overseas order.  Unfortunately the house has been demolished and the site is now occupied by a group of medium density single storey units.

The entries for the three businesses in the West Bromwich Commercial section of the directory are

WITHERS, Sl & Co iron safe manufrs, Park works, Roebuck St
WITHERS, Thomas & Son, iron safe makers, Loveday St, south
WITHERS, Sabina (Mrs) iron safe manufactr, 50 Barrow St

A Samuel Withers safe owned by Rolie Slater.  Note the round brass plate.

The label from the inside of the safe shows the trade mark as a lion standing on a crown.

As mentioned earlier, Thomas Withers died in 1887.  It must therefore have been his eldest son Joseph Thomas Withers who moved the business to 104 Sandwell St, West Bromwich.  At the time of the 1891 Census the family is living at 104 Sandwell St, West Bromwich with Joseph Thomas Withers aged 24, unmarried, Safemaker, Employer as head of a household which contained his mother, 4 younger siblings and a 14 year old servant. 

"Kelly's Directory of Birmingham 1892" contains the following entries for the Withers in the commercial section:

Withers, Sl & co., iron safe manufrs, Park Works, Roebuck St
Withers, Thomas & Son, safe makers, Sandwell road
Withers, Sabina (Mrs) iron safe manufactr, 50 Barrows St

The 1891 Census shows Jesse Withers and family living at 52 Barrows St, West Bromwich and the birthplaces of the youngest children indicate that Jesse's business remained in Manchester until the mid 1880s. Sabina appears to have taken over the running of the business after the family returned to West Bromwich. 

Samuel Withers and family were living at "Bombay House" at the time of the 1891 Census and their household included a servant.

A Samuel Withers safe owned by Mike McLean in West Hollywood, California. 

By the time "Kellys Directory of Birmingham etc 1896", Jesse and Sabina's business had folded (presumably Jesse was an  employee of another safe manufacturer);  but Thomas Withers & Son and Samuel Withers & Co were still at Sandwell Road, West Bromwich and Park Works, Roebuck St, West Bromwich, respectively. 

The brass plate from Mike McLean's safe
(note that the plate is oval) and the label from the interior. 

Sometime just before the turn of the century Samuel moved both his home and his business.  Kelly's Directory of Birmingham 1900 has the following entries in West Bromwich Commercial:

WITHERS, Sl & Co. iron safe manufrs, Park Works, Barton st 
WITHERS, Thomas & Son, safe makers, Sandwell rd

These were the final locations of both these businesses.

The shipping label from Mike McLean's safe. 

As Mike bought the safe from a very large firm of antiques dealers, this may not be direct evidence of Wither's export trade, but they certainly did export large numbers. 

At the time of the 1901 census Samuel and his family are living at Island House, Holyhead Road, West Bromwich and they have two servants.

The Free Press reported, in its obituary of Samuel Withers, that “In 1909 [this was the year his wife died] Mr S Withers retired from active part in the business and it was transferred to his sons, Messrs Geo A Withers. F S Withers, Warwick E Withers, and Frederick A Withers.”

A Samuel Withers safe, owned and restored by John Gwiliam.  Note the round brass plate, which bears the motto "Safe Bind Safe Find".  It is thought that the cat is not part of the original equipment.  

A 24 page catalogue issued by Samuel Withers at around this time was sold on ebay in October 2007. The catalogue is headed SAMUEL WITHERS & Co., BANKERS SAFE AND LOCK ENGINEERS, SANITARY IRONFOUNDERS, &c., &c., (The word “Samuel” was underlined to differentiate the firm from Thomas Withers & Son). Then there is drawing of the works with three long parallel buildings plus another building at the front, under which is written: Makers to Her Majesty's Board of Works and all Leading Bankers and Diamond Merchants of the United Kingdom.  Park Works, West Bromwich, England.  Established 1843.  To the left of the drawing of the works is the registered trade mark  and "Prize Medals 1899-1890, 1892 & 1895"   
In 1953 a press review of the firm reported that “the Managing director Mr Phillip Denys Withers is a great-grandson of the founder. The firm has exported their goods to a world wide market and have manufactured over 34000 safes and steel chests for various Government departments. There are 70 employees who make an average of 120 safes per week.”

An advert from the mid 1950s.

K. W. "Bob" Sidbotham, in his book "Life and Tales of a Locksmith" (History into Print, 2005), says that his firm, WBS Locks, from its foundation in 1946, supplied most, if not all, the locks for Samuel Withers.

He also says that at that time the firm was owned and managed by Dennis Withers.

He died about 1962 and the company was then run by his widow. Bob Sidbotham says that Samuel Withers did not last much longer and closed sometime in the late 1960s.

During the Second World War, Samuel Withers & Company Limited produced over 45,000 products for Government departments and the American Armed Forces.

The firm also manufactured gas-proof doors.

A Thomas Withers safe plate. From Frank Sharman's collection.
The Thomas Withers & Son business was also prospering.  Proprietor Joseph Thomas

Withers married in 1901 and the local newspaper carried a report of the wedding. Joseph organized a trainload of friends and relatives to travel to Tewkesbury for the ceremony.

According to Margaret Lincoln, the Thomas Withers & Son business was bought by John Izon Chesshire, in 1943.


In the original entry in the Gazetteer of Lock and Keys, Jim Evans wrote that in the late 1970s the directors of Thomas Withers were Charles Robin Greenwood and John Peter Heweitt, who were also directors of the Churchill Lock and Safe Company and of the Dreadnought Safe Company.  The business remained at Sandwell Road until it folded in the 1980s. Jim Evans said they they went into liquidation in 1982 and were removed from the companies register in 1984. All but one wall of their factory was demolished and a street of neat, new two storey houses was built on the site.  This street is named Withers Way.

Jesse, by contrast, was not doing well. He is separated from Sabina and the 1901 Census shows him living on his own at Back 18 Ct. Unett St, Birmingham and working as a Safe Maker. Sabina had moved to Manchester with the youngest children and was working as a Private Nurse.

The life and later times of Samuel Withers

The most successful of the three brothers was Samuel Withers. When he died in October 1922 at the age of 81 The Free Press (a West Bromwich newspaper) of Friday October 13 1922 printed the following obituary:

It is with regret that we record the death of Mr. Samuel Withers, which occurred on Saturday last at his residence at Ivydene, Ombersley road, Worcester in his 82nd year.  He was about as usual on the previous day, but on Saturday morning he had a seizure, never regained  consciousness, and died the same day. 

Until recently Mr. Withers was head of the firm of Messrs. S. Withers & Co. Ltd, and his business career had about it something of the character of romance.  The firm was really founded by his father, Mr. George Withers, about 1843.  Sometime after that Mr S Withers went away to America but 56 years ago on the death of his mother, he returned to West Bromwich and revived the business at premises in Barrows St starting with one workman. [If Samuel Withers went to America then he must have returned upon the death of his father in 1864 as he married his wife in West Bromwich in 1865]

As the business grew it was transferred to more suitable premises in Roebuck Street and later to the present premises in Barton St.  In 1909 [this was the year his wife died] Mr. S. Withers retired from active part in the business and it was transferred to his sons, Messrs. Geo A. Withers. F. S. Withers, Warwick E. Withers, and Frederick A. Withers.  Frederick A. Withers subsequently died and the works are now carried on by the other three sons, under whose control the business has largely developed.

For many years the late Mr. S. Withers played his part - and a very active part - in the public life of our town. He served on the Town Council for three years from 1897 to November 1900, succeeding the late Mr. Josiah Guest. On the Board of Guardians he served as one of the representatives for West Bromwich from 1888 to 1892, and later he was one of the representatives from Handsworth from 1896 to 1907 and again from 1911 to 1912. He was a member of the old original Volunteer Force  in West Bromwich, and at one time he took a keen interest Free Masonry being for some time a member of the Dartmouth Lodge.  In July 1902 he was placed upon the Commission of the Peace for the Borough.  Mr Withers was associated in politics with the Liberal Unionists and in religion he was a churchman.

The funeral of the deceased took place at the Handsworth Cemetery on Wednesday...[pallbearers and relatives are listed].

Before the ordinary business of Police court on Monday, the Chairman (Mr. A. Long) remarked that it was with very much regret that he heard the news of the death of Mr. S. Withers, and he wished to express his deepest sympathy with the family. Mr. Withers was a colleague of his on the bench for many years, and had always endeavoured to deal out justice with mercy. He was a prominent man in the public life of the town and served for some years on the Board of Guardians where he rendered valuable services. The local Bench had sustained a great loss on the death of such a colleague, and he was sure the sympathy of the Magistrates went out to the family and relatives of Mr. Withers. Mr. Lyon Clark on behalf of his legal colleagues also regretted the passing away of Mr. Withers, who said Mr. Clark, was a man of strong views which he fearlessly expressed. On behalf of the officials of the Court, Mr. W. J. Phair (Clerk) associated himself in the sympathetic expressions.

The Midland Chronicle and Free Press of Friday March 28th, 1958 carried a lengthy article showcasing the work of the world famous West Bromwich safemakers, Samuel Withers & Co Ltd. illustrated by several photos.  The article states that George Withers started the firm in Barrows St in 1843 but soon transferred to a factory in Roebuck Street, and the move to the present works in Barton Street was made over 50 years ago.  Managing director Mr Phillip Denys Withers is a great-grandson of the founder. The firm has exported their goods to a world wide market and have manufactured over 34000 safes and steel chests for various Government departments.  There are 70 employees who make an average of 120 safes per week.

Denys Withers died in 1958 at the age of 49.  The report in the local paper stated that he had joined the firm in 1926, become Secretary in 1934, made a director in 1936 and later became Chairman and Managing Director. 

The later times of Thomas Withers
Joseph Thomas Withers, the successor to the Thomas Withers firm, died at the end of September 1927.
According to Margaret Lincoln the Thomas Withers & Son business was bought by John Izon Chesshire, in 1943. I have a photocopy of a four page catalogue from this period and the directors are listed as  W Hall-Keys, J. Izon Chesshire, J. Richard Siddons, Howard S. Siddons, and J. Ready Simcox. The word Thomas in  the name of the firm is underlined so as to distinguish it from Samuel Withers & Co. The second page has a picture of the SANDWELL security safe and then a price list for all the different sizes which could be supplied. The third page is headed “Strong room  Doors and frames”, has a picture of a door and a price list for different sized doors. The back page has a long list businesses and organizations using Thomas Withers & Sons safes starting with HM Government - War Office, Air Ministry, Royal Air Force, Office of Works, Army and Navy Canteen Board and Woolwich Royal Arsenal.
Finally the West Bromwich Mail of Tues April 3 1973 carried a lengthy piece on Thomas Withers & Son which reads as follows:

by Edward Stephens


As old craftsmen retire, there is a shortage, it seems, of youngsters prepared to undergo the five year apprenticeship needed to learn the arts and skills of safemaking.

Nevertheless for one West Bromwich company which specializes in making safes and strongroom doors business is booming. Thomas Withers Security Equipment Ltd of Sandwell Road was founded in 1855 and has been going strong ever since. This small private firm employs 30 men - all highly skilled in their own particular field. Many of them have been with the company for over 20 years, and only recently two men retired after completing more than 50 years of service. Following the present trend, however, the firm has only one apprentice. Managing director, Miss Joan E Russell, said the men worked as one large family, and everyone was on first name terms.
The products made vary from small wall safes at around 11 pounds, to anti explosive strong room doors and frames at 400 pounds. Orders come from all over the world and at the moment there is a 16 week waiting list for a Withers safe. The safes are made from mild steel and the company has its own locksmiths. The majority of them are key locks, but Miss Russell said the trend of combination locks seemed to be growing all the time.
Situated in one of the old parts of the borough the company is at present thinking of expanding. Miss Russell said they had already applied for permission to extend one of their workshops, but no decision had yet been received. If permission was received it was likely they would be taking on more staff. Although she admitted it was extremely difficult to find experienced men. There were also problems with finding apprentices and there were already some vacancies for school leavers wanting to learn the trade.
Because the men are such a close knit community, there has never been any strike or wages dispute with the employees.
The company used to make the foundation bodies for tabernacles for Roman Catholic churches. Miss Russell said this too was a very skilled job, but their specialists in this field had now retired. At one time, however, it was major part of the business. The basic shape of the tabernacle would be made in heavy steel at West Bromwich.  It was then  sent away to be covered in gold or silver and decorated in jewels. Their bread and butter lines were small to medium size safes for domestic use.
Miss Russell said it was surprising how many private individuals now bought safes.
"Perhaps it is something to do with the tremendous increases in crime in recent years" she said.
Miss Russell, who has been with the company for more than 40 years, started a junior clerk. She became secretary and later reached her present position of managing director. The only other executive of the firm is Mr Claude Potter, the Company chairman.

This Samuel Withers safe is built into the cellars of the former Bilston Town Hall (which is currently, 2008) undergoing complete restoration. 

The Town Hall was built in 1873 with additions in 1880.  This safe seems to date from that period.


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