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Arthur Briant - The Chubb Years

“For sixty years I have been concerned with locking up or unlocking other people’s money in many parts of the world. During this time I have opened some hundreds of safes, some booby trapped, others with unexploded bombs alongside.

Nearly thirty of these years was spent with the famous Chubb Safe Company where I eventually became a trouble shooter and was responsible for Installing systems in banks, both home and abroad, with vault doors weighing up to thirty tons. Working in such places as the Bank of England, Royal Mint, Tower of London, Buckingham Palace, one frequently met many famous people and not so frequently some infamous ones.

During the second world war I was reserved for special service, including counter espionage and blitz work and finally attached to the 14th Army in Burma and the Far East  to open and repair vaults and safes in banks and treasuries as we cleared Japs from towns, ready for re-occupation.

Started at Chubb's

I managed to get an introduction to the Chubb Safe Company with the prospect of becoming a locksmith. My first love was, and still is, the sea, and being a locksmith seemed dull and uninteresting compared with the romantic aspects of places like India Zanzibar and Hong Kong, where the sun was always shining. However, I went along for an interview and was rather extensively vetted about family background and forebears, which I thought rather strange as it seemed to have no bearing on the possibility of my becoming a locksmith. However, it was evidently certain that I was too poor to be anything else  but honest so I was given the job.

Later on I realised the importance of the vetting as the nature of the demands upon the firm needed strict honesty together with proficiency. The fact that when proficient one could be sent with confidence to royalty, heads of state, etc. and be in close contact with all forms of wealth and learn the secrets of security systems. This gave ample opportunities for dishonesty and the firm was most jealous of their reputation, and this attitude communicated to myself, personally.

 I remember an occasion during the war when a hint of dishonesty was levelled at me, I had to be forcibly restrained from beating up my accuser.

Learning the craft

After being enrolled in the repair & maintenance department in London, I was amazed to find that the working methods were far behind the times. In the tool room of  the factory where I had previously been employed we had every modern machine and power equipment to make the jigs, gauges and tools for the machines in the main factory. The micrometer was our third hand. In this new situation, everything was done by hand with, I must admit, much skill but also with much physical effort. My reception was rather cool from the other men whose average age seemed to be about fifty. I felt very young. I did not seem to be anyone's responsibility but eventually was given a piece of iron to file and on asking what size or shape was needed, was told “just file it, you must learn to file flat”. Now I had been taught to file by a Scotch toolmaker and had a bruised elbow to prove it. He used to hit my elbow with his straightedge and tell me to keep it in, so after squaring up my piece of iron I asked for something else to do. He then grudgingly gave me some keys to polish and I was therefore quickly introduced to the celebrated “Chubb Finish”. Every safe key had to be polished, by hand, with three grades of emery cloth. The key was then case-hardened and re-polished. The key was then tested in the lock, not to see if it would work but to try by various means to see if it would not work. If it was not thought to be correct the locksmith had to make another free of charge.

Most of the bench work was piecework and it was quite usual for twenty jobs per day would come in from the GPO, and if one had a run of bad paying jobs it was not unusual for a man to work flat out for nine hours and only make six hours. By present day standards this almost amounted to slavery but was accepted as normal in a number of industries.

Outside Work

There were constant emergency calls from a great number of branch banks, sometimes there vaults and safes could not be opened or could not be closed. Sometimes they were from short distances, but others could be two or three hundred miles away. Occasionally the job would be somewhere abroad.

All of this sort of job was much sought after, as not only was there several hours of travelling there was an allowance for food and shelter. The working day finished at 6 p.m. As the banks would be locked up by then and a urgent call would be unlikely after that hour. Often just before closing there would be a call from the office “Night train to Plymouth, who is going?”. The lucky one would probably book eighty hours for that week.

In the early days of my training, I was given a set of files and two hammers and one was expected to make all other tools such as a chisel, punches, saws and screw drivers, also slide gauges, drills, taps and screw-plate. Tools were treated with great respect and never borrowed or loaned.

The picking of locks I found was not really practised as only our own or similar makes were entertained and these, to all intents and purposes, were unpickable.

The manufacturers of “unpickable” locks was due to an American named Hobbs, who arrived in this country in 1851 and picked locks, right, left and centre, which caused our own lockmakers to re-think.

Short History of Locks

At the risk of being a bore, I think that a short history of locks might help the reader to better understand my ramblings and might deter potential crooks of whom I have a fair knowledge.

Locks and locksmithing runs a good second to the “oldest profession” in fact, it must date from the caveman who had a better axe and a more attractive woman to be protected from his envious neighbour. Chastity and prostitution have run side by side up to the present day. One of the oldest types of lock is the so-called Egyptian or pin tumbler lock. Wooden locks of this type are still used in Egypt and the region around the Mediterranean and are believed to have been in existence for some four thousand years. Our modern Yale lock, so familiar to everyone, is directly derived from this early principle. In America, Linus Yale Senior made huge bank locks directly based on this idea, his locks used up to six pins in a row with four rows set at right angles in a cruciform shape. His son, Linus Yale Junior really developed the modern type of door lock by miniaturising the cylinder mechanism and using one set of pins in a row, which allowed a neat and small key giving many thousands of variations.

Like all great inventions there are many claimants to be the true inventor of this type of lock and it has been suggested that it was independently discovered by a Staffordshire locksmith who was too poor to take out a patent. What is clear is that Yale perfected and was able to mass produce this good cheap lock with the result that every pin tumbler lock is today called a “Yale”. By the same token every vacuum cleaner is called a “Hoover”.

The early European locks were of “warded” construction. Wards are rigid obstructions riveted into the body of the lock and the key shaped to pass over or around them. At the time of the crusades, skilled locksmiths were in great demand by the crusaders who were reluctant to leave heir wives unprotected from their friends.

The drill was to find a locksmith who could make a chastity belt which no one else could pick, then to make sure the locksmith could not be bribed by the hungry wife he either cut off his head or built him into a wall! I think that this procedure taught a locksmith who was very good, to keep his ability secret and I found this attitude still prevalent when I entered the trade. If a man was on the general run of work having to make a dozen of one model he could he could make a very good living, but if he was found to be very good he would be given one off specials. The consequence was that the good locksmith hid his light under a very big bushel.

I, being very green in my earlier days, did not fall to demonstrate whatever skills I acquired  and with the consequence, landed myself in some very sticky situations during the war.

I have opened several of the iron chests of the Spanish Armada period which had excellent examples of the warded style of lock. The keys were very large and must have been very wearing on ones pockets and with the advent of gunpowder the large keyhole allowed enough powder to enter and destroy the lock. After the advent of Mr Hobbs the lockmakers modernised their products and the modern safe lock has protective elements, the key and keyhole made much smaller to reduce the amount of explosive to be inserted.

In fact, the modern safe and even door locks are of six to eight lever construction, these levers having to be lifted and held with 0.005” margin of error, with one pick whilst another pick withdraws the bolt. A barrel and curtain also installed ensured that only one pick can be used at a time. In fact, the modern lock made by reputable security firms can be safely called “unpickable”. At the same time safe and vault doors have been improved to resist explosives and oxyacetylene so that banks and similar institutions are much better protected and the crook is reduced to “hold ups” of cash in transit.

Learning The Trade

My progress at this time was helped by an older man who was not only a clever locksmith but also a cleaver business man. He lived in the East End and, I believe, made a good living as a money lender. He took me out a couple of times to carry his bag, found me useful and eventually made me his helper on every occasion. I had found out that there was a father to son tradition operating which accounted for the coolness I had encountered and the fact that this older man had no more sons to bring in allowed him to adopt me.

He would often show me a certain method with a warning not to tell the other men and although this was beneficial for me it also paid dividends to him as I was able to do quite a lot of work for which he would get paid.

Combination locks imported from America were beginning to be adopted and I noticed that the other men avoided this innovation and marked time whenever a job involving combination locks came along. There was an occasion about this time when Lady Astor telephoned from her country house to say she couldn't open her combination safe and would we send someone urgently to open it. There were only two men in the shop each of which protested that they had urgent work to complete at the Stock Exchange and a bank.

It was decided to send me on the basis that it would help to keep the lady quiet until someone else could be sent. I duly arrived and was greeted by Lady Astor with the remark, that I looked rather young. With more luck than skill I managed  to open the safe and remove the lock for repair. Lady Astor instructed me that on my return I was not to return without seeing her. On my return to the shop the other men wanted to take over the job but I dug in my heels and said that if I was cleaver enough to open the safe I was cleaver enough to repair it. When I returned to re-fix the lock and get Lady Astor to alter the combination she presented me with a £5 note. This represented a month’s wages and I could understand why the other men wanted to take over the job. This windfall enabled me to buy a secondhand power drill together with useful attachments which I kept at home for future use. From time to time I was given the odd outside job and even promoted to artificial leg repairer.

This leg belonged to Fred who was an ex labourer who had his leg amputated after a heavy safe door fell on it. He was re-employed as a packer and odd job man and the bane of his life was his artificial leg. It would have been alright if he had left the darn thing alone but he would keep thinking of so called improvements which he blackmailed who ever he could to make and fit. Occasionally we would get a message that Fred had broken down on the Embankment and I would dash down to Blackfriers and effect temporary repairs surrounded by curious passers by and on one occasion having a humorous mention in the press. With an increasing number of outside jobs coming my way, I was finally established as a fully fledged mechanic.

The repair to any kind of machinery or mechanism is comparatively simple. One merely dismantled the offending object and replaced or repaired the affected part but with safes and locks this is not so simple. First the safe has to be opened. This presents many problems as without employing strong-arm methods such as drilling or burning which entails delay and expensive repairs, one can only manipulate the lock via the keyhole or dial. All valuables and records are locked up every night for protection from theft or fire and if any of the locks refuse to function in the morning business cannot commence. It is therefore usually a matter of urgency to get the offending object open.

On arrival, one is usually surrounded by impatient personnel offering all kinds of useless advice and upsetting one’s concentration.

Occasionally death would create a problem as when an official of a well known merchant bank was killed in a car crash and his recorded combination refused to function. After a couple of hours of concentrated effort during which it was suggested that the police brought along an expert crook to have a go, I concluded that the man who was killed was of the “Smart Alec” kind who had shortened the formula to open the lock more quickly. By a process which would bore the reader I managed to open the safe, receiving many congratulations and more important, a handsome cheque.

Fully Fledged

Being now established as a fully fledged mechanic and realizing the future prospects of the job, I determined to use every means of getting to the top. Reading of the exploits of the American, Mr Hobbs, I took home every kind of lock, making drawings of any kind of vulnerable points of entry and making tools for manipulating the possible opening of them. Over the years, I accumulated details of very many locks and safes, not only British but also Continental and American. This habit of storing information was later to involve me in the not altogether enviable employment in Counter Espionage and secret work during the second world war, which was not always comfortable and occasionally dangerous. It also made my wife wonder what the heck I was up to, when sometimes at night, I was collected by car and did not return for a few days.

A fair proportion of work was connected with ships and docks which was not popular with most of the men especially in the winter and, being young and active, this work was relegated to me. My first love being the sea and ships, I was quite content to oblige and had quite a few interesting and sometimes exciting jobs in consequence.

When in dock, all mail and bullion room locks had to be inspected and repaired and in the course of a few years I met several crooks and con men. In this day and age of violence and mugging it is refreshing to recall the almost gentlemanly attitude of most crooks.

On one occasion I was handed the keys of the bullion room and warned not to leave the door unattended, as there was a quantity of silk not yet cleared. Whilst working on this door, I was engaged in conversation by a docker who informed me that at one time he had been an assistant to an escapologist and was prepared to bet me a quid that if he was locked in the bullion room he would escape in a quarter of an hour. Not wanting to antagonize the man, as I often had to walk in dark places at night I explained that although his offer of a quid was attractive, he would lose his quid but gain about a hundred yards of silk wrapped around his waist for which I would take the can back. We parted on good terms but before going, he told me that should I be in trouble with any of the lads in the docks, to tell them that “Bill Halland” was my friend.

This encounter paid dividends some time later when, leaving the docks one dark night I was “jumped” by three men and pinned against a wall whilst they rifled my pockets. When I told them I was on my way to meet Bill Halland at “The Green Man” at  East Ham they immediately returned my property and helped me to the bus stop.

I saw Bill from time to time until one day I saw him together with a couple of his gang, being taken into custody from a train, where evidently, he had been practising the “Three Card Trick”.

Although most of the work on ships was routine, there were occasions when urgency added a sence of adventure and interest. One was sometimes called to meet a ship calling at Southampton to pick up passengers and bullion with the bullion door jammed. As these ships were expected to dock for only an hour or so, one had to move pretty quickly to avoid sailing with the ship.

On one occasion, I missed sailing to South America by  matter of minutes. I well remember missing being shipwrecked by a very little margin. This was on the P & O liner, “Egypt”, in the 1920’s when I was hampered in repairing the locks on the bullion room because of the loading of tons of silver ingots. I finished the repairs with half an hour to spare, before the ship sailed. Twenty-four hours later the “Egypt” was at the bottom of the sea, off Ushant, with considerable loss of life. Mostly the bullion room doors on ships are of an elementary and not needed to resist attack by highly skilled crooks. Should an attack succeed, the only way the theives could get away would be to swim. The “Egypt” being an old ship, the bullion room door was very simple ¼” steel construction secured by two reinforced locks which could easily be forced with a couple of crowbars. At a later date, when an Italian firm was engaged in a salvage operation, I was intrigued to read an exciting account of a locksmith being sent from America to open the “Intricate” safes!

The uncertain nature of the general run of work made things very difficult for one’s wife. Most people leave home at about 8 a.m. and return at 6 p.m. to a nice hot dinner and a pair of slippers. For myself, I might return at midnight or two days later.

When I eventually left the Chubb Safe Company, my wife’s comment was, “goodbye to thirty years of burnt dinners”. On one occasion which was our wedding anniversary, we had arranged to go to dinner that evening. At 2 p.m. We had an urgent call from the P & O Company that the bullion room on the “Rawalpinde” could not be locked and she was sailing at 2 p.m. from Tilbury. A fast launch was provided which I boarded at London Bridge. The “Rawalpinde” having been told to slow down as much as possible, we eventually caught up with her just off Southend. Before boarding the liner the P & O official who was in the launch told me I was to go to Marseilles, where arrangements would be made for me to return on the next homeward bound ship. At the same time I asked him to telephone my wife to cancel our dinner date and I would be home in about a fortnight.

After completing repairs to the bullion room and handing the keys to the Captain, he told me that if I did not want to make the trip I could go ashore with the Pilot who was just about to leave. I felt I must agree to this as it would make a great difference to the cost of the job.

I very much regretted this decision when clinging to the end of a rope ladder with about 40 lbs of of tools strapped to my back waiting for the pilot boat to edge in close enough for me to jump. I might add this was in mid-winter, pitch dark, and with sleet freezing my hands. Eventually a voice shouted to me to jump and, much to my relief, I landed safely in the boat.

We were about four miles off Dover and when we landed I went to the station to look up a train and found that the only train left later that night, and wandered about the country picking up mails, etc. before landing in London at about 4 a.m. I decided to travel on this train and pocket the hotel money. I boarded the train and went to sleep.

I was awakened by a porter calling out “East Croydon”. Now I lived at Croydon so I jumped out, walked the odd mile home and found myself bolted out. I did not get a very good reception when my wife eventually let me in. As she said, some wives might have been consoling themselves with the milkman.

I consider myself fortunate that I was able to work on some of the famous ships of that time, the Aquitania, Majestic, Berengaria, Queen Mary to name a few. These ships were the embodiment of gracefulness and power and were the ambassadors of the prestige of the premier maritime power that we were at that time.

When the Queen Mary was launched during the depression, she created such admiration that people travelled from all over the country to Southampton and paid five shillings just to walk along the dockside, just to see her. I went on board several times to several times in her early days to service the safes in the pursers’ offices and the various banks, and was consequently known to the officials who issued passes to go on board.

I think it was my third visit that I decided to take my daughter, who was about nine years old and was very keen to visit the ship. On the train it occurred to me that if I was unable to take her on board, what the heck could I do with a nine year old girl.  Listening to the conversation of an elderly couple who were evidently going to see the Queen Mary, I asked them if they would look after my daughter if I was unable to take her on board, to which they agreed. When collecting my pass, I asked the official if I could take my young daughter aboard. He sternly replied that it was strictly “No Visitors” and handed me my pass on which I was thrilled to read - “and Party”. It gave me great pleasure to see the excitement of the elderly couple when I told them that they were coming on board with me, with the added thrill of having lunch as well.

In 1978 when I realised that the days of the liner were numbered, my wife and I decided to spend more money than we could really afford and make a first class return trip to South Africa. I recall my wife’s remarks to the chief steward on our return to England: “Thank you for a month of Gracious Living. I have been waited upon hand and foot, and treated like a Queen by you and your staff. Tomorrow, I shall be scrubbing floors.”