Ratner - Last Of The Great Safe Companies

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Ratner – The Last of the Great UK Safe Companies[edit]

Ratner was the last of the great Victorian safe companies to be formed and very quickly gained a reputation of excellence. An early contract was for the City Safe Deposit, quickly followed by installations for Harrods Safe Deposit and Chancery Lane Safe Deposit. How could a seemingly newcomer have won so many prestigious contracts so quickly in preference to well established companies such as Chatwood, Chubb, Hobbs, Milner and Tann?

The original Ratciff & Horner plate.
An early plate used after the restructuring of the company in 1895.
The company was originally known as Ratcliffe & Horner Limited and was formed in 1890 by Mr Daniel R Ratcliff, his son, Mr W M Ratcliff and Mr J M Horner who was the works manager at Milners. However due to financial difficulties the company re-capitalised in 1895 as Ratner Safe Company Limited.

Daniel Rowlinson Ratcliff, born 2nd October 1837, came from a family background of machinists and founders and was described as a safe manufacturer. He was for some time agent for Milner and joined the company about 1861. His early activities could be described as colourful. Contemporary wrangling between Milner and George Price is well documented in Prices 1854 Treatise and also in the recently published work “George Price – Champion of the Security Trade”. He married the only child of William Milner, Jane, in 1862. Daniel eventually became a partner with William Milner. When William Milner died in 1874 the executors formed a public limited company as provided for in the will. Daniel received £35,000 worth of shares and other bonuses. The reason for his disenchantment at Milners’ is unknown but the procedures and regulations relating to a public limited company probably didn’t suit one that was used to making decisions without the formality now demanded. One of Daniel and Jane’s children was William M Ratcliff who joined his father in his new venture and eventually became chairman of the company. J M Horner was the works manager at Milner who also brought several experienced workers into the fledgling new company.

One of the early innovations that Ratner brought to the industry was the twelve corner bent safe. The outer shell was made from one piece of steel, which gave great inherent strength. This was a far superior method than fabricating the individual sides and riveting them together, and probably went a long way in establishing the reputation of the new company..

As far as locks were concerned the designs adopted were developed from experience gained at Milner. Because of this experience the design remained static; there is little difference between early and late produced locks, only differing in minor details – a sure sign of an effective and sound design. In fact Ratner locks looked very similar to and included many features found in Milner locks. For example the solid block, or IDB (iron door block) as it was referred to in the works, from the now well expired Milner ‘Solid’ Patent and the integral lever whose pedigree can be traced back to Aubin and his early Nettlefold days.

(Left) The standard 7 lever lock which included a check lever, at the top of the pack locating in a slot cut into the bolt stump, and with 6 fixing bolt holes – it’s a virtually identical to the Milner design. (Centre) A 9 lever lock where the check lever is now at the bottom of the pack locating in a pocket in the bolt lath, visible adjacent the bolt head. This version effectively incorporated both false notches and a device for blocking any movement of the bolt until the levers had been lifted. (Right) Later locks only had four fixing holes and the block was more open – the gunpowder threat had receded, partly due to the development of nitro-glycerine and partly to thicker doors making it difficult to get gunpowder into the lock. This version used with detachable key bit and stem.
Ratner's Change Key Lock
Ratner Double Stump safe lock
Ratner top of the range wedge bolt lock

There were a number of standard locks in the range which only developed in minor details such as the number of levers or the projection on the bolt tail which engaged a live AED (anti explosive device), the Patented ‘Explosive Safety Bolt’ or the ‘Raternermatic’ as it was later called. It’s understood that a lock should have either false notches or an anti-pressure device, but not both. Ratner incorporated a device which locked up the bolt until the levers had been lifted, but still effectively incorporated false notches.

Locks were hand finished right up to the end. The rough castings and stampings were laboriously filed, drilled and shaped. One of the first jobs a locksmith apprentice would do is to produce his own set of jigs and hand tools for bringing and finishing the various lock parts into a highly efficient mechanism.

Ratner and Griffiths amalgamated around 1942, but still retained their separate identities, and was eventually taken over by the Stratford-Tann group in 1971. So although Ratner had started late, they were responsible for, in the 80 or so years of trading, many innovations in safe and lock design. Ratners own publicity material and catalogues proudly proclaimed that “No Ratner safe had ever been opened by burglars” and even today these locks are pretty formidable against non-destructive manipulation.

Ratner had, from their inception, their own lockmaking department. Like all safe lock makers many prototypes and specials were produced in addition to the standard production models illustrated here. There are some tantalising rumours about special Ratner projects for the South African mining community or their operations in Australia, which in some cases demanded variations to the standard lock range.

Contributors: Brian Morland, Lockpedia Team.