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Robert Alexander Briggs and the invention of the Panic Bolt - By Patricia Lovell

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Robert Briggs' Panic Bolts, as fitted to one of the exit doors at the King's Theatre, Southsea - Courtesy Patricia Lovell.

Above - Robert Briggs' Panic Bolts, as fitted to one of the exit doors at the King's Theatre, Southsea - Courtesy Patricia Lovell.

An advertisement for Briggs' Patent Automatic Panic Bolt.When leaving a theatre one passes through the open doors without question. The experience of the performance is usually under discussion and the arrangements for locking and unlocking the doors is of no importance. But what if there was an emergency and a rapid exit was required?

There have been several tragedies as a result of people in a panic or simply being unable to open locked doors and one such tragedy led to a young man designing a bolt which is still substantially in use today.

Right - An advertisement for Briggs' Patent Automatic Panic Bolt.

On 16 June 1883 a conjuror called Mr Fay visited the Victoria Hall in Sunderland to entertain around 2,000 children, mostly between 7 and 11 years of age. Prizes were to be given to children with certain numbered tickets, and when the presents were being given to the children on the ground floor the children in the gallery became impatient and began to make their way downstairs. The door had been partially closed and bolted, probably to allow one child at a time to leave so that the ticket numbers could be checked. The pressure of the children behind mounted up on those in front and around 183 children lost their lives. Some families lost all of their children in the one incident.

A letter to the Daily Mirror "Old Codgers' Column" sometime prior to 1977 regarding the Victoria Hall tragedy brought a response from the daughter of a man called Robert Alexander Briggs who was appalled at this loss of life and determined to do something about it. She wrote:

'As a direct consequence of the disaster, my father, Robert Alexander Briggs, invented the bolt which has been in compulsory use in public buildings for many years now. He was living in Sunderland at the time, a young architect who was so shocked at the tragedy that he resolved that such a thing should never occur again. Eight years later, in November, 1891, he applied for a patent for a bolt which he had perfected. It was granted in August, 1892. The device consists of a lock operated by movable rods across the width of each exit door. Thus fitted, the lock makes it impossible for an audience to be locked in but, at the same time, such a door is absolutely secure from unauthorised entry.' - From 'Old Codgers Little Black Book No 3', published in 1977, Mirror Books, Ltd. p. 170.

Robert Briggs' Panic Bolts in the open position, as fitted to one of the exit doors at the King's Theatre, Southsea - Courtesy Patricia Lovell.Either Miss Briggs or the newspaper must have got the story a little jumbled, as it has been found that her father was aged 15 at the time of the disaster and therefore unlikely to have been a young architect. It is altogether possible though that he may have turned to engineering as a consequence of his thoughts about the tragedy, as research has found no engineers in his family.

Left - Robert Briggs' Panic Bolts in the open position, as fitted to one of the exit doors at the King's Theatre, Southsea - Courtesy Patricia Lovell.

Robert A Briggs was born on 24 April 1868 at 75 Great Dover Street, Newington Southwark. His parents were Robert Broughton Briggs and his wife Catherine. It is not known why they were in London, as in 1871 the family were living at East Street, Horncastle, Lincolnshire. Horncastle was where the family were found dating back to the 1841 census. The occupation of Robert senior was as a Currier and Tanner but he changed his occupation to being an Auctioneer and by 1881 the family had moved to Croydon.

Young Robert appears to have attended school in London, but there is a bit of a mystery here. In 1902 when he was proposed for Associate Membership of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers his proposer wrote that he had attended the City of London School in Cowper Street. Enquiries have shown that the school was never at this address but that the Central Foundation Boys' School was there from 29 February 1869, so it was quite possible that Robert was one of its pupils. As the same proposer also said that Robert was born in 1869 the evidence from this source is suspect! However it is the only source so far found which gives R A Briggs' early experiences in engineering.

He served a two year Civil Engineering apprenticeship with G B Jerram AMICE for the Walthamstow Local Board from 1883 to 1885 and became assistant to Jerram from 1885 to 1888. The Walthamstow Local Board appears to have been to do with sewage. The Journal of the Royal Society for the Promotion of Health Vol 3 No 2 indicates that Jerram was using sludge in his experiments in growing peas and other vegetables.

Frank Matcham - Click for more information on this renowned Theatre Architect.Apparently the atmosphere of the Town Hall was not to Briggs' taste, for he resigned and joined the staff of Frank Matcham, the theatre designer, which was still his employment in 1902 when he was proposed for AMIMechE. (Proposal Form for AMIMech E and C)

Right - Frank Matcham - Click for more information on this renowned Theatre Architect.

In an interview he gave to the Bognor Post, 2 December 1950, he states that his early jobs were in Lancashire representing his employer. Theatres at Bury, St Helen's and Southport were built by Matcham during this time. In the 1891 census Robert was a Boarder at 59 King Street, North Meols in Southport where he stated that he was a Civil Engineer.

Robert Briggs' work may be taken as being the same as those theatres built by Frank Matcham of which much has been written.

To return to the panic bolt, however, the patent was applied for on 2 November 1891 and was accepted on 13 August 1892. It was named 'Improvement in Bolts and Fastenings for Doors of Theatres and other Public Buildings'. (GB18871/1891). Its description states:

'The bolts on the door are connected by means of levers or cranks or a combination of levers and cranks with a push piece or push rod contained in a box affixed to the stile of the door so that in the event of pressure on the inside being applied to the push piece or push rod the bolts are automatically withdrawn from the door head and sill and the doors set free. The reverse action shoots the bolts and thoroughly secures the door.' - The address given by Briggs on the Patent application was New Empire Palace Office, 31 Nicolson Street, Edinburgh.

The New Empire Theatre was opened on 7 November 1892, shortly after Briggs' Patent was approved. It is stated in the Bognor Post interview that this was the first theatre to be fitted with the bolts.

There was a fire at the theatre on 9 May 1911 when a stage drape was ignited by a lighted torch during a performance by the Great Lafayette. While there were deaths backstage, it is reported that between 2,000 and 3,000 theatre-goers walked to safety. No mention has been found of any safety measures other than the lowering of the fire curtain. The fact that there were no locked doors passed without comment.

Briggs was a great model maker, making models to show the mechanisms for working the mechanical stages and tanks for water shows put into the London, Manchester and Bristol Hippodromes, and was also interested in other inventions of the time, building a four seater steam car after the repeal of the 'Red Flag Act' in 1896.

Between 1906 and 1908 he built a locomotive called Winnie, adapting parts of the engine of the steam car to the purpose. Winnie (named after his younger daughter) was used at Bognor Regis for the town's first miniature railway during the summer season in 1909. He later built a 450 foot circular track in his garden at Shripney in Bognor Regis and Winnie was used every summer to amuse the local children.

This continued until 1956 when Briggs gave up engine driving at the age of 88. A year before Briggs' death in 1963 the engine was saved from the scrapyard by the efforts of two engineering enthusiasts, Mr Gage and Dr Greenway on behalf of the Chichester & District Society of Model Engineers. Briggs was delighted that a home had been found for Winnie and he also presented the rails and wagons to the Society. Bill Gage, Scale Model Trains, Vol. 6 No. 10 June 1988 p. 260.

Briggs was always interested in helping young people to develop engineering skills and kept active until his death in Bognor Regis on 15 December 1963.

This article was very kindly written and sent in for inclusion on the site by Patricia Lovell.