Safe-blowing,although not unusual at the beginning of the century,
reached its peak between 1945 and the late 1960ís. History has shown
that crime increases in post-war years. This can be attributed to
the great advances in machine and tool developments in wartime combined
with the training of personnel in their use. The use by criminals of
oxy-acetylene torches and explosives are cases in point. The major cause
however was the weakness of safes in general commercial use in these post-war
years, many of which had been made in the previous century and had
never been designed to give protection other than against fire and
basic tools. This combined with the fact that complacency had not
anticipated the levels of losses that they were about to be incurred
and the fact that due to munitions production, modern safes were just
not available to meet the new levels of risk. The only explosive risk
that had been taken into account was from gunpowder, which, being a
low explosive was relatively ineffectual.
The illustration (left) depicts a very basic lockcase and chamber from
the earliest type of fire-resisting safe which would have been in common
use from about 1850, with surprisingly many still in use today. This
lockcase would be attached to the back of the door plate by bolts
|The sliding boltwork (coloured blue) is operated by an external handle and secures the door in the frame of the safe , which in turn is held in the locked position by the bolt of the keylock shown (coloured red), and which, when unlocked with the key, would allow the bolts to be withdrawn by means of the handle and the door then opened. To force open such a safe, the bolt of the lock has to be displaced by drilling and punching, or by removing the lock entirely. The most crude but effective means of accomplishing this would be to place a small charge of high explosive into the lock via the keyhole. (picture right). If done correctly the lock would disintigrate without causing any other distortion of the boltwork and the handle would operate as normal.
For gunpowder (blackpowder) to be charged into a mechanism such as this would require that a hole be drilled through the door plate. In the early days this would have been done using either a belly brace or ratchet drill.
was not always necessary however as in the early days the keylocks
were capacious enough to accept black powder in quantities sufficient to remove the lock cap and
bolt allowing the boltwork to be withdrawn.
led to the patenting of a powder-proof lock by Thomas
Milner in 1854 which was designed in such a way as to allow only
the necessary movement of the key, levers, and bolt, the remaining
space being blocked by a casting within the lock. They even went
further and filled the voids within the lockcase with wooden inserts
which effectively prevented the insertion of black powder into the
high explosives came into commercial use at the turn of the Century,
it was inevitable that such powerful materials would fall into criminal
hands. These pliable gelignites were simply packed through the keyholes
as far into the lock as possible followed by an electric or fuse
detonator. Depending on the size of the charge, which for the relatively
unskilled was dependent on the capacity of the lock, either the
lockwould be cleanly removed allowing the door to be opened in the
normal fashion,or if excessive, would so distort the mechanism as
to render it fast.
The safemakers, as always, responded to each new weapon in the arsenal
of the safe-breaker. The Ratner Safe companywere the first when in
1914 they developed their safety bolt, or what is now known
as an anti-explosive re-locking device. This was a spring loaded
secondary locking bolt which would be connected to the main lock, and which,
if the lock was removed by whatever means, would be released to re-lock
the main bolt work. It was later improved upon in 1918 by a similar
device but with the great advantage of working in conjunction with
the keylock which put it onguard as the safe was locked, and which could only be released by the proper unlocking action of the keylock.
This model, the Grade 3, was installed in most Co-operative
branches throughout Scotland and also, to a lesser degree in the ABC
Cinema circuit and Glasgow Corporation Baths Department premises. Not
one was ever successfully blown open. As the door plate of the Grade3
was drill resistant it was necessary to cut out a small rivet with oxy-acetylene
to release the relocker. (see above) Because of the strength of the
construction it was usually possible to repair the doors to their original
the above would indicate, the safe-blower did not have unlimited
success. From the newspapers in the post-war years where safe-blowings
were being headlined on an average of three times a week in Glasgow
alone, it would be easy to misconstrue that all safes were easy
prey to the cracksman. Actually the majority of safes in commercial
use excluding banks were only of fire-resisting quality.
At the turn of the century in the Birmingham area alone there were
as many as 40 small firms making such safes, and which, through
a combination of ignorance and dubious salesmanship, were being
entrusted with overnight cash holdings far in excess of their potential
capacity to resist.
were of course many quality safemakers like Ratner whose thief-resistant
cash safes were in use in banks, jewellers, and pawnbrokers, where
the threat from safe-breakers was anticipated, and where such resistance
would also be a requirement of insurers. Another was the Milner
Safe Company who, in the London Trades Directory of 1900 claimed
to be the largest safe maker in the world. Other well known
makers were Tann, Chubb, Hobbs Hart, and Chatwood, all manufacturing
safes up to the highest level of resistance of the day.
In the pre-war years door construction fell into two types
for fire-resisting safes the lock and sliding boltwork were attached
within a chamber which also contained the fire-resisting compound,
the whole being bolted to the back of the doorplate as shown on the drawing below.
lockcase containing the lock and boltwork was formed from an angle-iron flange frame which was heavily riveted to the door plate as shown in the drawing on the right.
| In this case
the fire chamber was attached separately to the lockcase. It was only
in the latter form that anti-explosive devices could be successfully
applied as everything except the fire chamber would remain intact
in the event of a blowing.
safe bodies as illustrated are of 12 corner bend construction. This
would be mild steel from ¼ to ½ maximum
thickness and which, apart from the back plate, was formed from
a single sheet of steel. The technique of bending heavy plate did
not come into general practice until the late 1800s.
to this, the bodies were mainly fabricated from wrought iron and
all the joints were riveted or dovetailed. (Chatwood actually dovetailed ½ steel plates to form the outer bodies of such safes
as their List 2a Quality).