As Safe as Houses: The Wilkinson Fire-Proof Repository

I started working at Brisbane Girls Grammar School in July. Fortuitously, as I was being introduced to the layout of the campus and the many names and faces of staff, Mrs Jenny Davis and I came across an unexpected thing of bulk, character and history.

I had to ask, ‘Is this for real?’

We were looking in wonderment at a large—and extremely old—iron safe. It was like the ones you see in a Warner Bro’s cartoon or classic movie; ones that inevitably get scoped out, stealthily broken into (aka ‘cracked’), or just dramatically blown up. However, the safe in question is still intact, some 123 years after it was procured.

Tann’s Defiance Safe, c 1900. The original paint colours appear to alternate between brown and green

Tann’s Defiance Safe (detail), c 1900

Tann’s Defiance Safe (detail), c 1900. The large plaque at the top reads: ‘Tann’s Defiance | Lock & Safe Works | London Fields | London’

So why do we have a safe and what was it used for?

I suppose the obvious answer is the logical one—to keep things safe. But more specifically, why would we need a safe at the turn of the previous century? Was it simply safekeeping money? Or was it something a little more guarded—secrets perhaps? Maybe it was to prevent theft or protection from the threat of fire.

One definitive answer we can provide is that of its current location in the Property and Facilities area, in Stores Officer, Mr Phil Hopkins’ office. And by extension, its present use is to (ever so securely) store a treasured collection of stationery. They must be some mighty fine pens! Inside the safe, lodged on the bottom, also resides the original lockbox, in very good condition.

Inside the Tann’s Defiance Safe, c 1900, pens and markers, c 2023

Inside the Tann’s Defiance Safe (detail), c 1900

The internal lockbox inside Tann’s Defiance Safe, c 1900

Other facts we can also put forward are the begetting of said safe. The Board Minutes of 1900, on the 27 July noted: ‘Small size Tann’s Safe to be procured for Head Mistress’. The Head Mistress at the time was Miss Milisent Wilkinson (1900-1912). This important detail leads us to believe the safe started its life-based in the Main Building. After this brief but significant mention, the safe is not acknowledged again.

Board Minutes, 27 July 1900

The earliest known historical reference to a safe extends far back to the thirteenth century BC. Discovered in the tomb of Pharoah Ramesses II, the safe was a wooden box with a locking mechanism that used pins that dropped into holes. This innovative design for a lock is recognisable in contemporary locks today.

John Tann Office & Showroom, 117 Newgate Street, London

Tann’s was founded in London in 1795 by the smith, Edward Tann. It was to be a successful family business spanning four generations, operating out of numerous offices in London until 1965. It was in 1843 that the company constructed and patented their ‘Reliance’ lock—a label that was to evolve into their hallmark.

The Great Exhibition Display, c 1890

Tann’s supplied safes to the Bank of England, the Royal Mint, and other financial organisations all over the world. The company had quite a reputation, even in Brisbane Town. Luckily for this researcher, there was only one stockist in Queensland, at least in 1912. A M Hertzberg & Co had the monopoly on supplying Tann’s products to Brisbane shoppers in Charlotte Street. In the below advertisement from that year, the Brisbane Courier stated: ‘On their Majesties’ recent visit to India, the Royal yacht “Medina” was equipped with John Tann’s Anchor Reliance Safe to carry the Crown Jewels’.

The Brisbane Courier, 23 August 1912, p 4

The store was founded by brothers, Abraham and Adolphus Hertzberg, who ran the shop from 1889 to 1932. Herein lies an unexpected connection to the School—their respective daughters, Pauline and Olga, were students at Girls Grammar, both attending from 1905, aged eight, and both leaving in 1914 at 17 years old. The cousins were suspected to be sisters at first, although their different home addresses contradicted this. They were both high achievers in very different ways.

A M Hertzberg & Co, Letterhead, 1915. Tann’s logo underneath. Image: Queensland State Archives

Hertzberg, Millingen & Co (left), Charlotte Street, during the 1893 Brisbane flood. Image: Queensland State Archives

Pauline was born in 1896. While at the School, she was awarded 19 prizes across all subjects, including English, Science, Arithmetic, Languages, Swimming, and Botany, as well as several Form Prizes and the Examination Prize. Pauline was the epitome of a Grammar girl, graduating with a broad and liberal education.

Pauline Hertzberg, Senior Boarder, c 1913/1914

Olga was born a year after Pauline, in 1897. She made the newspapers several times. Her first appearance was in an article from 1903, titled, ‘A Bright Little Queenslander’; she was 6 years old. It referenced her passing of the preliminary music exam of Trinity College, London, ‘receiving special praise’ for her playing. Moreover, while at BGGS, Olga excelled in sports, particularly Swimming, Lifesaving and Tennis. She won prizes for Tennis (the School Championship and Doubles), Languages and Music Improvement.

1914, Edith Day, Jean Dollar, Olga Hertzberg and Josephine Bancroft. Olga and Jean were the prize winners for Upper Doubles in 1914

Together, Pauline and Olga wrote the VI Form Notes for the inaugural School Magazine in 1913. The cousins spoke of the duality of their feelings for completing the year, approaching their final year (VIA) with ‘fearful tremors’. They explained they would be overcome with a ‘delicious thrill of anticipation… (being) known as “Varsity girls”, no longer “mere schoolgirls”‘. And as we swiftly reach the end of 2023, these words are all the more meaningful.

Then Head Mistress, Miss Milisent Wilkinson, established from the very first year of her tenure, that a wider School curriculum was required to provide for those girls who were aiming to attend university, and simultaneously for students who were intending to seek employment and not further education. In the 1904 Annual Report, trailblazer Miss Wilkinson argued: ‘Is it not fair to the girls that they, as well as the boys, should be fitted to fight the battle of life? A girl who has enjoyed the benefits of a sound secondary education should be able to perform the duties of any position to which she may be called. In a Grammar School, her mind is, as far as possible, trained on all sides, and she should be able to devote the best of her powers to whatever the future may have in store for her,’ (Annual Report 1904).

This unique tailoring of subjects that were offered, demonstrated that Miss Wilkinson had an acute awareness of her students’ needs, and she respected and supported each one of them. She also wholeheartedly believed in the benefits of sporting ventures, stating that ‘these should be potent instruments in teaching unselfishness and loyalty’.

Brisbane Girls Grammar School Magazine, 1913, p 14

Brisbane Girls Grammar School Magazine, 1913, p 15

Comparing our safe to other images of the same model, it appears that the façade originally had an additional border complete with yellow-gold curlicue details—similar to the lockbox inside—however, the ravages of time, movement from one office to the next, and the many hands that have utilised its abilities to keep unwanted hands out, have taken their toll.

Tann’s Defiance Safe with border details intact

Before Mr Hopkins adopted the safe, it was part of the Business Manager’s office furniture throughout 1984. At this point, it was used as the ‘main repository for the Board Minutes, numerous savings bank books and various School documents’. According to previous School Business Manager (1986 to 2005), Mr John Pietzner, the ‘savings bank books held monies that had been endowed to the School for prizes and awards. The Board Minutes were always classified confidential and so the safe was kept either directly in, or in the vicinity of, his office during the four times (his) office was relocated.’ The safe continued to house the Board Minutes up until 2005.

2023 Mr Phil Hopkins with the Wilkinson safe (Tann’s Defiance Safe)

The heart of a safe’s purpose is to value something so powerfully, you go to great lengths to protect it. This is how we feel about our School collection; the objects we have the privilege to see, appreciate and learn about, continue to provide us with insights about our past. It is now our turn to safeguard this somewhat rugged but charming safe and understand that it has a substantial worth all of its own.

Dr Dominique Baines



Accessed: 14 September, 2023

Accessed: 14 September, 2023

Brisbane Girls Grammar School Board Minutes, 21 July 1900, p. 429.

Accessed: 20 September, 2023

Accessed: 21 September, 2023

Accessed: 21 September, 2023

BGGS Magazine, 1913, pp. 14-15.

Accessed: 21 September, 2023

Accessed: 14 September, 2023

Accessed: 14 September, 2023

Email correspondence between Pauline Harvey-Short and John Pietzner, 21 July, 2023.

Accessed: 15 September, 2023

Accessed: 15 September, 2023

Whately Town Safe History and Description.

Accessed: 15 September, 2023

Edward Tann & Sons – Iron Safe Makers.

Accessed: 19 July, 2023

Accessed: 15 September, 2023

Accessed: 15 September, 2023

Brisbane Girls Grammar School Annual Report, 1904.

Discussion between Dominique Baines and Phil Hopkins, 28 September, 2023.

1913 Tennis Club, Back row—Jean Hurwood and Lena (Helena) Campbell; Front row—Jean Dollar, Olga Hertzberg and Laura Brünnich