The Rise & Fall of British Safe Making

They say, “If you remember the 60s, you probably weren’t there”.  Well, if you were in the British safe industry in the 60’s you would certainly remember being there as it was the heyday; the absolute zenith of British safe making.

Chubb’s foundry in Wolverhampton was working flat out pouring molten aluminium into moulds to produce high security anti blow-pipe safes.  Visitors to John Tann’s heavy equipment factory in Billericay stared in open mouthed wonder at the sight of massive vault doors with stainless steel architraves under construction for Central Banks on the other side of the world.  Young people queued at the personnel offices of both companies eager for apprenticeships in the certain knowledge that once trained as safe makers they would have jobs for life.  Several smaller companies also flourished, producing safes as fast as they were able at the lower end of the market.

Manufacturers sold directly to the public.  Discounts were rare; 10% to churches, universities and hospitals and 25% to the very few trade distributors.  Margins were high allowing for generous investment in research and design.  British safes were regarded as the best in the world and exports flourished.  They had never had it so good and understandably there was an element of arrogance in the way these major companies conducted their business.  Chubb swallowed up Hobbs Hart and in the latter part of the 60’s they also acquired their major competitor, Chatwood Milner.  John Tann merged with Ratner and Stratford to consolidate their strong position in the market.

Competition between market leaders was fierce but there was never any suggestion of a price war.  Instead each company vied to produce better safes than their rivals.  There were oxide nuggets, glass plates, random re-lockers, isolator bolt-work mechanisms and expensive copper inserts.  Design consultants were employed to give safes a more contemporary look; brochures became thicker and glossier.  Who could have predicted that in just a few years it would all be gone?  However, one or two perceptive people had already begun to recognise a threat looming on the horizon.  It was a call from the insurance industry for standards for testing and rating safes.

Because major manufacturers were constantly improving their safes, insurers struggled to keep up and make sense of it all.  Chief Surveyors were called upon to make value judgements, comparing one model of safe with another, trying to determine which should have the highest cash rating.   They would be invited to drawing offices to review plans for another new safe or the next Mark of an existing range.  They were called to witness factory tests; even encouraged to pick up tools and wield them themselves.  They complained constantly that they were insurance surveyors not safe engineers. Why should they be called upon to assess the effectiveness of one design over another?  Surely this should be undertaken by some independent body.  Why could there not be a British Standard for safes or safe testing?

Josh Levy, head of J W Levy & Son, probably one of the best known men in the safe industry at that time, campaigned vigorously against these proposals.  His assertion was that the moment you introduce formal standards you strangle competition. Everyone would be forced to manufacture down to the standard.  He also asserted there could be no such thing as a British Standard for safe making until the underworld signed up to a British Standard for safe breaking.  Worst of all, it would immediately open the doors to foreign competition.

The years after the war had seen a massive increase in criminal attacks on safes.  Men, trained to use explosives in World War II found themselves thrown back into civilian life.  The brave new world they had been promised did not exist.  They knew how to handle explosives and it wasn’t too difficult to get hold of.  Every night of the week a safe was blown somewhere in the country and foreign safe makers drooled at the prospect of getting a toe in the door of the British market.  However, our insurance industry was a massive hurdle to overcome.  Before foreign safe makers could peddle their wares in the UK, they had to gain their approval.  There was little point in selling a safe to a customer if the contents could not be insured.  In order to gain approval, manufacturers had to persuade Chief Surveyors that their products were comparable with British made equivalents.  They had to be flown out to factories in France, Sweden or Germany where they could inspect barriers, bolt-work and locking systems; view production lines and witness tests.  Two dozen of them had to be accommodated in good hotels; wined, dined and entertained.  This came at a price and there was no guarantee that at the end of it all their safes would receive parity with their British rivals.  Some tried and failed. Others thought it simply wasn’t worth the effort.  A very small number actually made it.

Other factors were also worrying British safe makers.  Nationalised industries such as The Coal Board and British Steel had always paid their workers in cash but agreement had been reached with trades unions and members were now receiving wages by direct transfer into personal bank accounts.  More transactions were taking place using credit cards and pundits were predicting a ‘cashless society’.

In 1973 Britain joined the Economic Union.  Soon EN standards were popping up all over the place. It was rumoured there would one day be a European standard for testing and rating cash safes and in spite of the best efforts of Josh Levy and other enlightened sceptics, EN1143-1 was finally published in 1997.  The rest, as they say, is history.

The basic tenet of the standard was to ensure there was comparability of quality and design.  In theory, a safe tested in the UK in accordance with EN 1143-1 and certified as Grade II would be the same strength and quality as a safe tested and certified anywhere else in the EU in accordance with the same standard.  Almost the moment it was ratified there were shouts of “Foul!” by UK safe makers protesting that some foreign test houses were not applying the standard with equal vigour.  After a few years confidence in EN11431- was fading and the European Fire and Security Group (EFSG) was launched in an attempt to restore faith in safeguards.  Subsequently the European Certification Board.Security (ECB.S) was founded with pretty much the same purpose.  Today, many British insurers will not accept safes tested in laboratories that either remain outside the EFSG or are not certified by ECB.S.

All this came too late.  As predicted, once EN1143-1 was ratified the market was flooded with safes of all shapes and sizes, all claiming to have been tested and certified in compliance with EN1143-1.  The prices of Eastern European safes in particular were ridiculously low.  We had also seen the growth of on-line trading and these cheap imported safes were being sold by scores of Internet companies with few overheads and no previous experience of the market.  The effect was to force down margins and savagely reduce profits.  Customers were told by on-line traders that their insurer would grant them certain levels of indemnity but after they  paid for the safe to be installed, found their insurer had either never heard of the make or did not approve the testing house and consequently gave a significantly reduced level of cover.

Chubb Safes are now owned by Gunnebo, a Swedish conglomerate.  The once mighty Wolverhampton safe works is closed with production taking place in Indonesia.  John Tann’s famous factory in Billericay has become a business park.  Stephen Cox, Guardian, Ratner, Stratford are all gone.  Chubb, Rosengrens and Churchill are just brand names owned by Gunnebo who now imports cheap safes from Eastern Europe under the name Secureline.

What can be done?  Shouting “Told you so!” is satisfying but not particularly useful.  There is no way we will ever see the return of the heady days of the 1960’s but if we act now, we may just be able to preserve the few remaining British safe makers.  Someone has to take up the banner on behalf of our home based safe industry.  The British Security Industry Association doesn’t seem remotely interested.  In spite of the fact that it was the insurance industry that called for standards, the British Insurance Association feels that it is none of their concern and the Association of Insurance Surveyors, whilst sympathetic, is primary concerned with its members interests, not propping up the failing British safe industry.

There’s a tiny glimmer of hope.  There has been talk of founding an organisation to represent the interests of British safe makers and distributors but sadly, if it doesn’t happen soon, there will be no British safe makers left to protect.

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