The Progress of George Price's Career

Pat Tempest

[Part 3 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.]

Demonstrations of resistance to fire

In 1854, George set up his first public demonstration of the fire-resistance of his safes. Public demonstrations were supposed to prove that manufacturers' claims and advertisements were true. George gives an account in his Treatise of this first demonstration, which he asked a Milner's foreman to assist him in setting up.

"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 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." George 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 George 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. (In writing about this, George says nothing about the fact that Noakes' advertisements had also claimed to protect deeds.)

From there on George 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 George 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 George 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.

Developments at George Price's works

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."

By this time George felt he had overcome the problem with frazzled parchment by patenting an iron box to hold parchment documents to be placed inside his safes as protection against steam in case of fire. 

He had sixty men "at full work with the aid of steam machinery and every contrivance which ingenuity could suggest". With governments, bankers, insurance companies, railway companies desperate for security, there was a lot of money to be made.

In 1855 he began to travel to give lectures on fire-resistant safe manufacture in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dublin and Belfast. "But for ill health", he wrote, "I would have visited other towns and cities in England." Instead of that, he sat down and wrote his book.

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Last modified: 6 February 2003