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  • The Safe Battle at Burnley, 1860 September 2, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

    When we think of vicious advertising campaigns today the chances are we think of burger chains and the cola fraternity. However, back in the nineteenth century across the Western world, the most intense rivalry was perhaps between different safe makers. This was, after all, a period when technology in locks and metal making had grown and yet security of banks had not: middle class families often kept their fortunes in a Yankee Iron Clad or a Milner Special.

    It was Thomas Milner and, his rival, another Briton, George Price who had perhaps the bitterest of all the duels. It all started off fairly low key by the sorry standards of the Safe Wars. In 1855 Milne was auctioning his safes off in Manchester when Price sent alongside a horse and cart with an example of his own safe and a mutilated dismembered safe from Milner that his own men had destroyed to show potential customers that the safe was not, well, safe. By 1860 the full out safe wars had begun: with companies inviting the public to come and watch them disgorge an enemy’s strong box of its precious objects. The following account is from a famous British newspaper describing the meeting of the two companies in, of all places, the tiny northern town of Burnley.

    On Monday afternoon, according to advertisement, Mr Price, the well-known safe manufacturer, attended at Burnley, to blow up one of Milner’s safes, which he had purchased as containing all the latest improvements. The place selected for the purpose was situated in a hollow, on a piece of waste ground to the right of Market Street, bounded at one end by the block of buildings containing the Exchange and at the other by a stream and the mill of Mr Parker, Hammerton Street. The space thus included might be 20 by 30 yards. Mr Price, with one or two assistants, arrived about two 0’clock with a lorry, on which were two safes – one of his own and the other Messrs. Milner and Son’s manufacture. Mr Milner was not present, but Messrs Ratcliffe and Davis his Liverpool and Manchester representatives, attended to watch the proceedings. As the experiments which subsequently took place with the safes which were blown up are perfectly useless as far as the security of the safes are concerned, inasmuch as neither of them is of the latest manufacture, it would be waste of time to describe them minutely.

    In any case, the competition began.

    Mr Price proposed to show the superiority of his own safes by blowing up one of Milner’s which he had purchased a week before in Manchester and which he said was represented to the purchaser as containing the latest improvements. Mr Davis, however, denied that the safe in question was one of the latest manufacture, and produced one which he challenged Mr Price to test, together with the one which Mr Price had brought and which he represented as both drill and gunpowder proof. This offer Mr Price declined as well as the request of Mr Davis to allow the chambers of the two alleged best safes to be examined. Messrs Milner’s safe having been bored through according to the directions of Mr Price just where a cavity is formed by the forward motion of the bolt, the powder was poured in and it was ready for firing soon after Mr Freeman’s trials. Mr Davis, however, asserted that it was unreasonable that it was not fair to suppose a burglar would buy a safe to ascertain where the cavity was, as Mr Price had done. The result was just what was expected. The large quantity of powder  – some said a pound – blew the door off its hinges and the rest of the safe about four yards from where it had been deposited. The lock itself was uninjured but the fire proof chamber was torn off the door, and the dove-tailing of the other parts of the safe was sprung in many places.

    Now it was war.

    In the meantime and immediately after Messrs Milner’s safe had been blown open, Messrs Milner’s agents brought upon the ground a Price’s safe which a manufacturer of Burnley had purchased as a fire and fraud proof safe. Powder was put in through the keyhole, and a much larger quantity of powder than was necessary was introduced. It was stated by some that that one pound two ounces, and by others two pounds, was used, but it was enough to blow the safe to atoms in all directions within a radius of thirty yards. As on the former explosion, the crowd took shelter behind stone walls, earthen embankments, within houses and under the arch which spans the stream. Some, however, seem to have stood without shelter, watching the burning of the fuse.

    A fatal error this

    Suddenly the explosion took place the concussion shaking the buildings around. The crowd emerged from their hiding-places to find that all who had exposed themselves had had a narrow escape of their lives, and that one poor boy and one man had paid a narrow escape of their indiscretion –  the former being fatally wounded in the head in sight of his father, the latter being slightly injured. A second man had some of his teeth knocked out whilst working in Mr Parker’s mill, several pieces of iron having been blown through the mill windows. The iron struck the boy on the left side of the head, which it tore open near the temple, inflicting a frightful gash. His father immediately carried him in his arms to his cottage, where two surgeons were directly in attendance, but they gave no hope of recovery, and the latest rumour was that he was dead. The boy was almost five or six years old. Of the men injured we have been unable to acquire particulars, but it is reported that their wounds are not serious. The concussion of the explosion was so powerful as to break the glass of some cottages on one side of the ground, and was felt by all who were assembled near the ground.

    The Burnley demonstration went down as the stupidest act in the safe wars. However, battles between the inventors were far from over. Lock-smiths in waiting may be interested to read:  The Battle of the Safes, describing open warfare in a Paris exhibition hall in 1867.

    Other safe wars? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com