The Withers were a
family of safe makers in West Bromwich where they set up a safe making
firm which came to have
a commercial history as complex as that of many
of the Willenhall lock makers. The people and firms concerned are:
George Withers, Mary Withers, Thomas Withers, Samuel Withers, and Jesse
The early days:
The Withers story
starts with George Withers, an iron turner, who was born in West
Bromwich in 1804. He married Mary Turner (born West Bromwich in 1805) at
St Peter’s Collegiate Church, Wolverhampton, on 9.1.1826. They had
the following nine children:
1. Rebecca, christened
28.10.1827, St Peter’s Collegiate Church, Wolverhampton. She was
my great great grandmother. She married Henry Antcliff and had
four children. She died 13.5.1867.
Her two sons learned the
safe making trade from their uncles and set up their own safe making
businesses. The older son, Richard James Antcliff,
migrated to Brisbane, Australia in 1884 and was the only safe maker in
the colony of Queensland. The younger son, Harry Richard
Antcliff, established the Empire Safe Works in Birmingham.
2. Isaac Stephen, twin of Rebecca, who died as
3. Edward Arundall, christened 28.2.1830 at St
Peter’s Collegiate Wolverhampton. Migrated to America and set up a
very successful engineering business in Marietta, Georgia.
4. George, aged 7 at the time of the 1841
Census. Nothing further known
5. Mary aged 5, at the time of the 1841 Census.
Nothing further known
6. Thomas, born 1838 or 1839 Bilston,
Staffordshire (birth not registered). He married Sarah Welch. He
died on 20.2.1887 of “chronic enteritis - duration of last illness: 8
months”. His occupation is given on his death certificate as “Iron
Safe Manufacture”. He is the founder of Thomas Withers & Sons.
7. Samuel, born 1841, Smethwick,
Staffordshire (birth not registered). He is one month old at the
time of the 1841 Census, when the family was living at Grove Lane,
Smethwick. Married Rosanna Newbold. Died 1922. He is the
Samuel Withers of Samuel Withers & Co.
8. Jesse, born 23.7.1843, Nottingham Road,
Derby. Father's occupation on the birth certificate is “Iron
Pattern Turner”. Married Sabina Newbold. He also had his
own safe manufacturing business but was not as successful as his
older brothers. Died after 1901
9. Elizabeth, born 1846, at Smethwick/Harborne
(birth not registered). Married Joseph Winkle. Died
10.9.1931 aged 85
A Samuel Withers brass plate.
|The birth places of some of the
children suggest that George and Mary Withers moved, for
some while, to Wolverhampton or Bilston (as St. Peter’s was
where births, deaths and marriages in both places were
registered). According to Margaret Lincoln (another
more distant Withers relative who has done a lot of work in
piecing together the larger Withers family tree) George
Withers moved back to West Bromwich in 1843 and set up a two
storey factory in Barrows Street, originally making metal
He chose this location because it was
alongside a soon to be built railway line between Birmingham
and Wolverhampton (which is now the line of the tramway
between the two centres). Hence the claim on
some Withers safes that the firm was established in 1843.
Also according to
Margaret Lincoln, George Withers was in America in 1848 with one of his
cousins (this information comes from descendants of Edward Arundall
Withers) but I have not been able to find any official information
What we do know is
that George and Mary Withers were the witnesses to the marriage of my
great grandparents in West Bromwich on 18.10.1850.
Nobody has been
able to find the Withers family in the 1851 Census and I wonder whether
some of the pages for West Bromwich are missing.
|But we do know that George Withers
filed a Petition in the Court of Bankruptcy and obtained an
Interim Order for Protection from Process [i.e enforcement
of debts]. (See The Jurist No. 862 Vol XVII July 16th,
1853 page 255).
He was listed to appear at 9am on July
20th, 1853 at the County Court of Staffordshire at Oldbury.
He is listed as George Withers, West Bromwich,
Staffordshire, iron turner.
What happened in this case is not known but apparently his
fortunes revived because in 1855 George Withers set up his
safe manufacturing works in Roebuck Street, West Bromwich.
Presumably this was a greenfield site as Roebuck Street
doesn't appear in the 1841 or 1851 Censuses. (The
birthplaces of the four children of Rebecca Withers/Antcliff
are also consistent with the Withers safe manufacturing
business being established in West Bromwich in 1855).
The factory was called the Park Works.
A Samuel Withers advert
Directory of 1896.
It is the
establishment of this business which leads to the more widely used
“Established 1855” claimed by both Thomas and Samuel Withers for their
first appears in a trade directory in 1861. He is listed in the
West Bromwich section of the "Corporation Directory of Birmingham 1861".
For the first time there is a category of “Iron Safe Manufacturers” in
trades listings in West Bromwich. George Withers of Roebuck
Street, West Bromwich is one of the four iron safe manufacturers listed.
(The others are J. Cartwright of Roebuck St, Wm Cottom of the Vulcan
iron foundry and John Hall of Bull St).
George Withers next
appears in "Kelly’s Directory of Birmingham etc 1864" where his entry
under West Bromwich Traders is:
"WITHERS & SON,
Manufacturers of iron fireproof safes & McEntee & Withers patent
locks, Roebuck St"
An advert from 1912 from a trade mark
listing. Courtesy of Trevor Dowson.
|The son in Withers & Son would be
Thomas and the patent referred to in the listing was applied
for in 1863.
"Newton's London Journal of Arts and Sciences” April 1st
1863 page 253, patent application no. 417 of 1863 lodged
16.2.1863, was by "William Charles McEntee of Birmingham,
and George Withers and Thomas Withers, both of West
Bromwich, for improvements in locks." There is also an
entry in "Jones Mercantile Directory of the Iron District of
South Staffordshire & East Worcestershire" in the West
Bromwich Alphabetic Commercial and Trade section
George, safe and patent lock manufacturer, Park Works"
George Withers died
in 1864 and his wife Mary took over the running of the business.
"Kellys Directory of Birmingham etc 1865" has the following entry under
West Bromwich Commercial:
& Sons, iron safe makers, Roebuck St"
She was still in
charge of the business in 1868 and she not only had an entry in "Post
Office Directory of Birmingham etc 1868" but she also had an
advertisement. Her entry in West Bromwich Commercial is:
& Sons, wrought iron safe makers & patent window shutter
manufacturers, Roebuck St (see advertisement)"
She had the same
entry in the "Post Office Directory of Shropshire, Staffordshire, &
advertisements in these directories were missing from the copies at
Smethwick Public Library so I don't have a copy of her advertisement.
The 1871 Census
shows that Mary was still in charge of the Park Works in Roebuck Street.
(The Wesleyan Chapel had a room in the works). The Census
refers to "Mary Withers. Head. Widow. 65. Iron
Safemaker employing 12 men and 7 boys". It also lists at the same
address "Elizabeth Winkle. Daur., married, 24" and "James Hinchliff
[sic]. Gson. unmarried.
18. Iron Safe Maker.
Mary was born in
West Bromwich, Elizabeth was born in Smethwick and Richard James
Antcliff (my great great grandfather) was born in Birmingham,
Mary Withers died
of a fatty heart on 27.6.1872. Her occupation on the death
certificate is Widow of George Withers Iron Safe manufacturer. The
informant and his address is Samuel Withers Present at the Death Roebuck
Street West Bromwich.
safe-making sons of George and Mary Withers were probably closely
connected with the original firm, at least until their mother’s final
years. At about that time three separate and competing companies
appear. There is no information on why or how this happened.
had set up his own business in Barrow St, West Bromwich - presumably in
George Withers' original factory.
of Birmingham & etc 1869" and "Whites Birmingham & District Directory
1870" both show Samuel Withers. His entry in both directories is the
Samuel, patentee & manufacturer of the triple patent fire and wedge
proof safes, chests &c. Barrow Street, West Bromwich (See
advertisements are missing from the copies of these directories in
Smethwick Public Library.
had his own business in Bull St, West Bromwich. The 1871 Census reveals
that he was 32, married and his occupation was Fireproof Safemaker,
employing 3 men and 2 boys. His oldest child, Joseph Thomas Withers,
was a 3 year old scholar.
was, at the time of the 1871 census, in Barrow Street, where Samuel also
was. They had married the Newbold sisters, Rosanna and Sabina.
Samuel gives his occupation as Iron Safe Maker and Jesse says that he
is an Iron Safe Manufacturer.
By the time "Kellys
Directory of Birmingham etc 1872" was published the three brothers were
in full competition, all claiming lineage from their father's business.
Thomas & Son, wrought iron safe & lever lock manufacturers, Bull St.
Fire drill & wedge proof safe manufacturer, Barrows St, see
(late George Withers & Son) fire drill and wedge proof safe & iron
door manufacturer, Park works, Roebuck Street, see advertisement"
These are the advertisements
THOMAS WITHERS & SON
(LATE G. WITHERS AND SONS)
PATENTEES (the only one of the name) MANUFACTURERS OF
WROUGHT IRON FIRE,
AND STEEL DRILL AND WEDGEPROOF
FOR HOME AND EXPORTATION
PRICE LISTS ON APPLICATION
PATENTEE & MANUFACTURER OF WROUGHT IRON & STEEL
Fire, Drill and Wedge-Proof Safes,
IRON DOORS & FRAMES FOR BANKERS' STRONG ROOMS,
DEED BOXES, &C.,
Patent Lever, Gunpowder Proof and Unpickable Locks,
Night Latches, etc.,
FOR HOME AND EXPORTATION,
GREAT WESTERN WORKS, BARROWS STREET,
A Samuel Withers safe plate
from the safe below. Courtesy of Pam & David Male.
A Samuel Withers safe.
Courtesy of Pam & David Male.
GUARD AGAINST FIRE & THIEVES,
(LATE GEORGE WITHERS & SONS)
At the Original Park Works, ROEBUCK STREET,
Manufacturers of fire, Drill, and Wedge Proof
Safes for home and exportation, and Iron Doors for
Maker of every Description of SAFES for the Indian and
also to the Principal Banks in the United Kingdom and
United States. Price Lists on Application.
The following is one of
the many Testimonials received: Broad Street, Birmingham, February 5th 1868.
An Iron Safe in our Office, made by Messrs. Withers, has
been subject to the Drill and a portion of Gunpowder placed in the Lock by
the hands of some one at
present unknown to us; It appears to have stood the test
well, as a quantity of the broken Drills were found in the Lock, the safe
CHARLES WINN & CO., for HENRY EDWARDS
Only Thomas and
Samuel appear in "Whites Birmingham & District Directory 1873" (no
adverts) and the "Post Office Directory of Staffordshire 1876". By
1876 Thomas has moved and now has his house and works at Loveday
Street South, West Bromwich. Samuel's entry says:
Samuel (late George Withers & Son) fire drill & wedge proof safe
& iron door manufacturer, Park works, Roebuck St, See
advertisements are missing from the copy of the directory in
Jesse and his
family were in Canada at this time. We know this because his
daughter Alice was born in Toronto, Canada in 1875. The family
returned to England and at the time of the 1881 Census were living
at 9 Beswick St, Manchester. Jesse's occupation was Iron Safe
Maker (Others 21/8) which suggests that he employed 21 men and 8
Samuel's entries in "Kellys Directory of Staffordshire 1880" are
exactly the same as those in the "Post Office Directory of
By the time
"Kelly’s Directory of Staffordshire etc 1884" was compiled, Jesse
was back in West Bromwich. The three Withers entries are
WITHERS, Jesse, iron safe
manufacturer, 47 Paradise St
WITHERS, Samuel, iron safe manufacturer, Park Works, Roebuck St
WITHERS, Thomas, iron safe maker, Loveday street south
Directory of Birmingham etc 1888" reveals Samuel no longer living
next door to the Park Works. He had built a substantial house in
the new Beeches Estate. "Bombay House" at 13 Beeches Road, West
Bromwich, a short walk from the Park Works, was named after the
source of his first overseas order. Unfortunately the house has
been demolished and the site is now occupied by a group of medium
density single storey units.
The entries for
the three businesses in the West Bromwich Commercial section of the
WITHERS, Sl & Co iron safe
manufrs, Park works, Roebuck St
WITHERS, Thomas & Son, iron safe makers, Loveday St, south
WITHERS, Sabina (Mrs) iron safe manufactr, 50 Barrow St
A Samuel Withers
safe owned by Rolie Slater. Note the round brass
The label from the inside of the safe shows the
trade mark as a lion standing on a crown.
earlier, Thomas Withers died in 1887. It must therefore have been
his eldest son Joseph Thomas Withers who moved the business to 104
Sandwell St, West Bromwich. At the time of the 1891 Census the
family is living at 104 Sandwell St, West Bromwich with Joseph
Thomas Withers aged 24, unmarried, Safemaker, Employer as head of a
household which contained his mother, 4 younger siblings and a 14
year old servant.
Directory of Birmingham 1892" contains the following entries for the
Withers in the commercial section:
Withers, Sl & co., iron safe
manufrs, Park Works, Roebuck St
Withers, Thomas & Son, safe makers, Sandwell road
Withers, Sabina (Mrs) iron safe manufactr, 50 Barrows St
The 1891 Census
shows Jesse Withers and family living at 52 Barrows St, West
Bromwich and the birthplaces of the youngest children indicate that
Jesse's business remained in Manchester until the mid 1880s. Sabina
appears to have taken over the running of the business after the
family returned to West Bromwich.
and family were living at "Bombay House" at the time of the 1891
Census and their household included a servant.
A Samuel Withers
safe owned by Mike McLean in West Hollywood, California.
By the time
"Kellys Directory of Birmingham etc 1896", Jesse and Sabina's
business had folded (presumably Jesse was an employee of another
safe manufacturer); but Thomas Withers & Son and Samuel Withers &
Co were still at Sandwell Road, West Bromwich and Park Works,
Roebuck St, West Bromwich, respectively.
The brass plate
from Mike McLean's safe
(note that the plate is oval)
and the label from the interior.
before the turn of the century Samuel moved both his home and his
business. Kelly's Directory of Birmingham 1900 has the following
entries in West Bromwich Commercial:
WITHERS, Sl & Co. iron safe
manufrs, Park Works, Barton st
WITHERS, Thomas & Son, safe makers, Sandwell rd
These were the
final locations of both these businesses.
||The shipping label from Mike
As Mike bought the safe from a very
large firm of antiques dealers, this may not be direct
evidence of Wither's export trade, but they certainly
did export large numbers.
At the time of
the 1901 census Samuel and his family are living at Island House,
Holyhead Road, West Bromwich and they have two servants.
reported, in its obituary of Samuel Withers, that “In 1909 [this was
the year his wife died] Mr S Withers retired from active part in the
business and it was transferred to his sons, Messrs Geo A Withers. F
S Withers, Warwick E Withers, and Frederick A Withers.”
A Samuel Withers
safe, owned and restored by John Gwiliam. Note the
round brass plate, which bears the motto "Safe Bind Safe
Find". It is thought that the cat is not part of
the original equipment.
A 24 page catalogue issued by Samuel Withers at
around this time was sold on ebay in October 2007. The catalogue
is headed SAMUEL WITHERS & Co., BANKERS SAFE AND LOCK ENGINEERS,
SANITARY IRONFOUNDERS, &c., &c., (The word “Samuel” was
underlined to differentiate the firm from Thomas Withers & Son).
Then there is drawing of the works with three long parallel
buildings plus another building at the front, under which is
written: Makers to Her Majesty's Board of Works and all Leading
Bankers and Diamond Merchants of the United Kingdom. Park
Works, West Bromwich, England. Established 1843. To the left
of the drawing of the works is the registered trade mark and
"Prize Medals 1899-1890, 1892 & 1895"
In 1953 a press review of the firm reported that “the Managing
director Mr Phillip Denys Withers is a great-grandson of the
founder. The firm has exported their goods to a world wide
market and have manufactured over 34000 safes and steel chests
for various Government departments. There are 70 employees who
make an average of 120 safes per week.”
K. W. "Bob" Sidbotham, in his book "Life and Tales of a
Locksmith" (History into Print, 2005), says that his firm, WBS
Locks, from its foundation in 1946, supplied most, if not all,
the locks for Samuel Withers. He also says that at that time the
firm was owned and managed by Dennis Withers. He dies about 1962
and the company was then run by his widow. Bob Sidbotham says
that Samuel Withers did not last much longer and closed sometime
in the late 1960s.
A Thomas Withers safe plate. From
Frank Sharman's collection.
|The Thomas Withers & Son business
was also prospering. Proprietor Joseph Thomas
married in 1901 and the local newspaper carried a report
of the wedding. Joseph organized a trainload of friends
and relatives to travel to Tewkesbury for the ceremony.
According to Margaret Lincoln, the
Thomas Withers & Son business was bought by John Izon
Chesshire, in 1943.
In the original
entry in the Gazetteer of Lock and Keys, Jim Evans wrote that in the
late 1970s the directors of Thomas Withers were Charles Robin
Greenwood and John Peter Heweitt, who were also directors of the
Churchill Lock and Safe Company and of the Dreadnought Safe Company.
The business remained at Sandwell Road until it folded in the 1980s.
Jim Evans said they they went into liquidation in 1982 and were
removed from the companies register in 1984. All but one wall of
their factory was demolished and a street of neat, new two storey
houses was built on the site. This street is named Withers
contrast, was not doing well. He is separated from Sabina and the
1901 Census shows him living on his own at Back 18 Ct. Unett St,
Birmingham and working as a Safe Maker. Sabina had moved to
Manchester with the youngest children and was working as a Private
The life and
later times of Samuel Withers
The most successful of the three
brothers was Samuel Withers. When he died in October 1922 at the age
of 81 The Free Press (a West Bromwich newspaper) of Friday October
13 1922 printed the following obituary:
It is with regret that we
record the death of Mr. Samuel Withers, which occurred on
Saturday last at his residence at Ivydene, Ombersley road,
Worcester in his 82nd year. He was about as usual on the
previous day, but on Saturday morning he had a seizure, never
regained consciousness, and died the same day.
Until recently Mr. Withers was
head of the firm of Messrs. S. Withers & Co. Ltd, and his
business career had about it something of the character of
romance. The firm was really founded by his father, Mr. George
Withers, about 1843. Sometime after that Mr S Withers went away
to America but 56 years ago on the death of his mother, he
returned to West Bromwich and revived the business at premises
in Barrows St starting with one workman. [If Samuel Withers went
to America then he must have returned upon the death of his
father in 1864 as he married his wife in West Bromwich in 1865]
As the business grew it was
transferred to more suitable premises in Roebuck Street and
later to the present premises in Barton St. In 1909 [this was
the year his wife died] Mr. S. Withers retired from active part in
the business and it was transferred to his sons, Messrs. Geo A.
Withers. F. S. Withers, Warwick E. Withers, and Frederick A.
Withers. Frederick A. Withers subsequently died and the works
are now carried on by the other three sons, under whose control
the business has largely developed.
For many years the late Mr. S.
Withers played his part - and a very active part - in the public
life of our town. He served on the Town Council for three
years from 1897 to November 1900, succeeding the late Mr. Josiah
Guest. On the Board of Guardians he served as one of the
representatives for West Bromwich from 1888 to 1892, and later
he was one of the representatives from Handsworth from 1896 to
1907 and again from 1911 to 1912. He was a member of the old
original Volunteer Force in West Bromwich, and at one time he
took a keen interest Free Masonry being for some time a member
of the Dartmouth Lodge. In July 1902 he was placed upon the
Commission of the Peace for the Borough. Mr Withers was
associated in politics with the Liberal Unionists and in
religion he was a churchman.
The funeral of the deceased
took place at the Handsworth Cemetery on
Wednesday...[pallbearers and relatives are listed].
Before the ordinary business
of Police court on Monday, the Chairman (Mr. A. Long) remarked
that it was with very much regret that he heard the news of the
death of Mr. S. Withers, and he wished to express his deepest
sympathy with the family. Mr. Withers was a colleague of his on
the bench for many years, and had always endeavoured to deal out
justice with mercy. He was a prominent man in the public life of
the town and served for some years on the Board of Guardians
where he rendered valuable services. The local Bench had
sustained a great loss on the death of such a colleague, and he
was sure the sympathy of the Magistrates went out to the family
and relatives of Mr. Withers. Mr. Lyon Clark on behalf of his
legal colleagues also regretted the passing away of Mr. Withers,
who said Mr. Clark, was a man of strong views which he fearlessly
expressed. On behalf of the officials of the Court, Mr. W. J. Phair
(Clerk) associated himself in the sympathetic expressions.
The Midland Chronicle and Free
Press of Friday March 28th, 1958 carried a lengthy article
showcasing the work of the world famous West Bromwich safemakers,
Samuel Withers & Co Ltd. illustrated by several photos. The article
states that George Withers started the firm in Barrows St in 1843
but soon transferred to a factory in Roebuck Street, and the move to
the present works in Barton Street was made over 50 years ago.
Managing director Mr Phillip Denys Withers is a great-grandson of
the founder. The firm has exported their goods to a world wide
market and have manufactured over 34000 safes and steel chests for
various Government departments. There are 70 employees who make an
average of 120 safes per week.
Denys Withers died in 1958
at the age of 49. The report in the local paper stated that he had
joined the firm in 1926, become Secretary in 1934, made a director
in 1936 and later became Chairman and Managing Director.
The later times of Thomas Withers
Joseph Thomas Withers, the successor to the Thomas Withers firm, died at
the end of September 1927.
According to Margaret Lincoln the Thomas Withers & Son business was
bought by John Izon Chesshire, in 1943. I have a photocopy of a four
page catalogue from this period and the directors are listed as W
Hall-Keys, J. Izon Chesshire, J. Richard Siddons, Howard S. Siddons, and
J. Ready Simcox. The word Thomas in the name of the firm is underlined
so as to distinguish it from Samuel Withers & Co. The second page has a
picture of the SANDWELL security safe and then a price list for all the
different sizes which could be supplied. The third page is headed
“Strong room Doors and frames”, has a picture of a door and a price
list for different sized doors. The back page has a long list businesses
and organizations using Thomas Withers & Sons safes starting with HM
Government - War Office, Air Ministry, Royal Air Force, Office of Works,
Army and Navy Canteen Board and Woolwich Royal Arsenal.
Finally the West Bromwich Mail of Tues April 3 1973 carried a
lengthy piece on Thomas Withers & Son which reads as follows:
CRAFTSMEN RETIRE, BUT TRADE STILL SAFE
by Edward Stephens
As old craftsmen retire, there is a shortage, it seems,
of youngsters prepared to undergo the five year
apprenticeship needed to learn the arts and skills of
Nevertheless for one West Bromwich company which
specializes in making safes and strongroom doors
business is booming. Thomas Withers Security Equipment
Ltd of Sandwell Road was founded in 1855 and has been
going strong ever since. This small private firm employs
30 men - all highly skilled in their own particular
field. Many of them have been with the company for over
20 years, and only recently two men retired after
completing more than 50 years of service. Following the
present trend, however, the firm has only one
apprentice. Managing director, Miss Joan E Russell, said
the men worked as one large family, and everyone was on
first name terms.
The products made vary from small wall safes at around
11 pounds, to anti explosive strong room doors and
frames at 400 pounds. Orders come from all over the
world and at the moment there is a 16 week waiting list
for a Withers safe. The safes are made from mild steel
and the company has its own locksmiths. The majority of
them are key locks, but Miss Russell said the trend of
combination locks seemed to be growing all the time.
Situated in one of the old parts of the borough the
company is at present thinking of expanding. Miss
Russell said they had already applied for permission to
extend one of their workshops, but no decision had yet
been received. If permission was received it was likely
they would be taking on more staff. Although she
admitted it was extremely difficult to find experienced
men. There were also problems with finding apprentices
and there were already some vacancies for school leavers
wanting to learn the trade.
Because the men are such a close knit community, there
has never been any strike or wages dispute with the
The company used to make the foundation bodies for
tabernacles for Roman Catholic churches. Miss Russell
said this too was a very skilled job, but their
specialists in this field had now retired. At one time,
however, it was major part of the business. The basic
shape of the tabernacle would be made in heavy steel at
West Bromwich. It was then sent away to be covered in
gold or silver and decorated in jewels. Their bread and
butter lines were small to medium size safes for
Miss Russell said it was surprising how many private
individuals now bought safes.
"Perhaps it is something to do with the tremendous
increases in crime in recent years" she said.
Miss Russell, who has been with the company for more
than 40 years, started a junior clerk. She became
secretary and later reached her present position of
managing director. The only other executive of the firm
is Mr Claude Potter, the Company chairman.
||This Samuel Withers safe
is built into the cellars of the former Bilston Town Hall (which is
currently, 2008) undergoing complete restoration.
Hall was built in 1873 with additions in 1880. This safe seems
to date from that period.
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