George Price's great treatise

Pat Tempest

[Part 4 of A Gazetteer of Lock and Key Makers, which the author has kindly shared with readers of the Victorian Web. Readers who wish to check out the original site can find it by clicking here.]

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

George Price's 1,000 page book, Treatise On Fire And Thief-Proof Depositories And Locks And Keys was published in 1856 by E. and F.N. Spon. Charles Chubb had already written a Treatise on Locks, but George's was much more detailed.  It was highly praised, although some bankers called it "The Burglars' Bible" because of the scores of detailed diagrams of locks. George Price argued in the book that progress would be speeded up if expertise were freely shared amongst competitors.  But the locksmiths and safe manufacturers -- including himself -- were just as ruthless as any burglar, forever stealing, sometimes patenting, each others' ideas.

George also used the Treatise to advertise his own wares, even though he had only been in the trade a very short time. He setup his own "Which Safe?" survey, sending the specification for his own "first class safes" - single and double door models - to his competitors, asking them to quote their prices for similar safes. In a table of prices given on pages 126 and 127, the George Price safes were shown to be twenty five per cent cheaper than those manufactured by Enemy No. 1 - Milner. Did he set his own prices before or after receiving the other manufacturers' prices? Who's to say? Perhaps he set his prices unsustainably low, in order to undercut his competitors.

An illustration from the Treatise, showing a device for picking Bramah locks.

The Cleveland Works went from strength to strength, specialising in building strong rooms in the basements of the great banks being built up and down the country, as well as manufacturing a great variety of specialist safes with very fancy names:

The war against Milner

After the publication of his Treatise, George Price set up fire resistance demonstrations again and went on to be involved in more spectacular challenges between safemakers to demonstrate that gunpowder could or could not be inserted into the keyholes of their safes. This son of a pious churchwarden had become quite a showman.

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".

But tragedy struck in 1860, in Burnley. After one of these gunpowder challenges, one of Milner's foremen packed the lock of an old out-of-date Price safe with gunpowder and trundled it back into the yard while the crowds was dispersing. He then lit the fuse, the safe shattered and a little boy was killed by one of the shards piercing his head. 

At the inquest the Coroner expressed his view that things had got out of hand and the challenges were a public danger. Both George and Milner were full of remorse.

However, George soon invented another way of getting at Milner. He set up his agents all over the country to inform him every time a Milner safe was successfully burgled by one of the gangs of increasingly violent and skilful robbers who were roaming the country. On hearing of "successful" robberies, he planned to rush to the scene of the crime, if he could, to denigrate Milner's name and to advertise his own products as superior.

In 1860 George published his second treaties "A Treatise on Gunpowder-Proof Locks, Gunpowder-Proof Lock-Chambers, Drill Proof Safes, &c, &c, &c.."  

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 George's order book swelled again.

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

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 baby, safe and sound, after a fire. Presumably a fanciful notion -- the baby would have suffocated and been steamed.

A well-known cracksman, who George 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 George, 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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Last modified: 6 February 2003