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The Suez Canal & The Egyptian Vault

The Suez conflict of 1956 was the culmination of events which had its beginnings in 1869 when a canal linking the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea was first proposed. Britain’s interest began in 1875 when it was offered 44% of the shares by a financially strapped Egypt. By 1904 the UK was in full administrative control of the canal after years of negotiations, relating to its neutrality even in times of war, with other European nations.

About 1906 the Bank of England acquired a de-mountable vault made by Hobbs. The vault was a Progress ‘E’ which was known as the ‘Egyptian Box Vault’. It was used to house the boxes containing the affairs and documents relating to administrating the canal. Eventually and with the canal being suddenly re-nationalised by Egypt in 1956 and triggering the conflict, was no longer a British responsibility and the vault was now redundant, although I’m sure the contents were archived somewhere.

The vault, now dismantled, languished for many years whilst a new home was sought. Surely a buyer could be found for such a piece of history that was, at the time, still capable of useful service. Eventually it was decided to consign it to the scrap man, but knowing of our interest in preserving artefacts from the past it was offered to our museum project. At that time we had no facilities to store such an item let alone put it all back together; however we did save the locks, badge and escutcheons. It is with much regret that in those days we didn’t manage to find a way of preserving the whole vault. An interesting aside which amongst other things whilst removing the locks it was noted that once the internal pan door was opened there was still the smell of ‘new paint’, the interior of that door was as if it had just left the factory some 100 years earlier! The main door slab laminated with the various specialist layers was also clearly visible.

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Hobbs E quality door

The Vault was a Progress ‘E’ and its interesting how that was achieved in a by necessity much smaller door. Hobbs’ specification for this class reads “Progress E Quality: Burglar and fire resisting safes are designed more especially for the security requisite for Branch Banks, Jewellers, stockbrokers, etc., and are constructed on HOBBS & Co.’s Bent Body system and lined throughout with HOBBS & Co.’s Compound High and Low Carbonised steel, hardened drill proof, the minimum thickness of the body being one inch (25mm) and the thickness of the door in front of the locks and bolt mechanism one inch and three-quarters (***mm). The doors are provided with heavy lockcases of angled steel carrying a series of powerful clutch bolts on all four sides, which are secured and controlled by one of HOBBS & Co.’s Patents ‘Protector’ ‘Violence’ locks and one of HOBBS & Co.’s Patents ‘Protector’ gunpowder proof locks. For the further protection of the contents of the safe from the effects of fire the whole of the interior of the safe is covered by an inner door shutting closely into a rebated frame and secured by a spring latch, the outer door of the safe being so constructed that, on closing, it shuts the inner door and presses it closely on to its frame.”

The specification calls for two locks, one a ‘Violence’ Protector, the other a ‘gunpowder proof’ Protector. The Egyptian Vault had a door that was much narrower, although still meeting the specified criteria regarding thickness, than normal and didn’t have the space in the pan for a normal violence lock due to the clenching bolts on all sides. Two identical very interesting, and very rare, locks were used both of which answered the requirements of a Progress E door.

HoL Artefact No. 286, from the BoE de-mountable Egyptian Vault, Hobbs serial No. 26606, made 1906 or 1907.

These items were acquired in 2007, exactly 100 years after it was made, and including one original key for each lock. By a fortunate chance much later, meeting with the previous owner another pair of original keys were found and added to this artefact. The provenance for the better Hobbs artefacts can always be verified by the makers’ habit of serial numbering locks, keys and escutcheons. Note the key holes, which are sideways in this configuration, one facing left, the other facing right.

Hobbs violence locks

An illustration of a Hobbs Progress E door from a catalogue around 1900. Note the huge clutch bolts which were fitted on all four sides clenching the door to the frame.

Diagram of how the violence lock and the smaller gunpowder lock fitted into doors. This arrangement couldn’t be accommodated in the Egyptian Vault so two special locks were fitted both of which had violence and gunpowder qualities.