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Antique Safes/George Titterton


QUESTION: Hello. At my church we have a safe...containing wedding records amongst other things... For which the keys have been lost. The safe has a brass plaque on the door with the name George Titterton. I'd appreciate some advice on who might be able to open this safe....what sort of costs would be involved... would the process destroy the lock... Would/could we replace the lock.. Or would it be more cost effective to buy a new safe ( once we've retrieved the documents).?

ANSWER: Hello Stephen,

Thank you for your question.  Your George Titterton safe is likely to be well over 100 years old.  The body is filled with sand and sawdust, a primitive fire resistant mix.  Over the years this will almost certainly have compacted and leaked to leave large voids in the body through which heat could be transmitted.  Consequently, it is unlikely that it will offer much protection for these important documents in the event of a serious fire.  These old safes are also easy to force open and are vulnerable to vandalism.

Any good Master Locksmith with safe engineering experience should have no difficulty in opening the safe so your records can be retrieved.  They may be able to pick the lock or failing this, they will drill it open. Go to to find your nearest Master Locksmith.  I would ask at least 2 or 3 to provide estimates.  As the safe is pretty worthless, there is no point in getting the lock repaired or replaced.

If there are no valuables to be protected, I recommend purchasing a modern tested and certified document fire safe.  If you would like to tell me where you are based, I can suggest the nearest Eurosafe UK* member company who can provide information and prices. If you wish you can contact me directly on

* Eurosafe UK is an association of UK safe manufacturers, importers and suppliers.


Mike Palmer FSyI
Mike Palmer Consultancy

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Thank you for your very helpful response. I've begun to investigate replacing the safe....and, in the process come across the suggestion that our old safe might contain hazardous asbestos. I'd be very pleased if you were able to throw some light on this question.
Thank you in anticipation.
Stephen Whitehead

Hi Stephen,

I don't know where this suggestion would have originated but they were misinformed.  I have been dealing with antique safes for over 40 years and have never come across a late Victorian safe containing asbestos.  Whilst it was used in some safes made in the USA, asbestos was recognised in the UK as a poor fire resister.  It doesn't burn but it does transmit heat.  

Most safe makers of this era used a mixture of sand, sawdust and alum crystals.  When heated, alum converts much of its bulk to moisture, damping down the sand, sawdust mix.  Until all the moisture was driven off, the interior temperature of the safe should not exceed 212 degrees F, way below that at which paper chars.

Some modern fire resistant cabinets use Chrysotile asbestos tape as a door seal and should be avoided if considering purchasing a second hand document fire cabinet or filing cabinet.

In the early 1930's some safes used Diatomite as a fire resistant fill.  This was a fossil based, chalky material which is often mistaken as asbestos but is actually non toxic.

If you are considering purchasing a burglar resistant safe or a fire resistant document safe, make sure you check it with your insurer before you order it or come back to me for an independent assessment.  Many safes featured on the internet are not accepted by UK insurers.


Mike Palmer FSyI
Mike Palmer Consultancy

Antique Safes

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Mike Palmer


I earn my living identifying safes and suggesting cash limits for risk advisors and insurance surveyors in the UK. I'm am pleased to comment on safes manufactured in the UK or Mainland Europe but I am unable to accept questions regarding safes made in the USA or elsewhere.


I have been in the UK safe industry for 40 years and have one of the largest archive databases of old safe literature and serial numbers in the country. I started with Chubb in 1960 and became Assistant Manager of their Bank Security Division before moving on to become the Insurance Liaison Manager with the John Tann Group. I became Sales & Marketing Director for Guardian Safes Limited before semi-retiring. I am a Fellow of the Security Institute and ex-Chairman of Eurosafe UK, a trade body representing the interests of UK safe makers and distributors. I now work as a part time consultant.

I am an advisor to the Safe Committee of the Association of Insurance Surveyors, a Fellow of the Security Institute and founding Chairman of Eurosafe UK.

I have had literally scores of articles published in various security trade publications. So far this year I have had 24 features published in various journals including Keyways, Professional Security, Pawnbroker and Safe India. I have published one book, Peckham Boy, the life and times of the world's greatest safe cracker.

No relevant educational credentials.

Awards and Honors
In 1997 I was awarded the annual shield by the Association of Insurance Surveyors for "..outstanding services to crime prevention"

Past/Present Clients
I have represented or been an agent for the John Tann Group (Stratford, Ratner, Dreadnought and Tann safes); Churchill Safes, Chubb Safe Co Ltd, SLS Safes, SMP Safes, Dudley Safes and several others

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