A short-but-gruesome history

of the match

Most people may know that matches we see today are ‘safety’ matches and that they are safe because of something to do with the red tip.

But the story behind the name ‘safety match’ is one of industrialists, striking workers, unlikely saviours and one of the first mass media campaigns focussing on a terrible industrial injury.

In the 19 century, something remarkable was happening in England— for the first time people were able to have controllable light and heat on demand. And not just the aristocracy either, ordinary people could have light in their homes, encouraged by the demand for reading materials as the masses became more educated and literate. At the same time, the industrial revolution was clunking into the mainstream and workers flooded into the major cities from the countryside and the provinces.

Mines and pits proliferated, the railways rapidly expanded and great furnices were alight day and night to satisfy the demand from the British Empire for the products of British labour.

There was something these all had in common. Ignition. Fires were lit in every fireplace in every living room in the land. Fires were lit in the great iron and steelworks. Inside the great engines which replaced the slow clunking water and wind turbines, fire was providing power for locomotion and for mass production. Out of the flames came knives and guns. The great steam engines powered cotton mills and the roaring expresses which took thousands to seaside holidays for the first time.

With all that flame, it is not surprising that there was also demand for a simple ignition system: the match. A tiny piece of wood with a special chemical on the end, which when struck against something rough would burst into flame every time.

Within short order, factories were set up to satisfy the demand for this great convenience product, one of the biggest of which was that of Bryant and May.

Two Quaker merchants, Francis May and William Bryant set up their partnership in 1843, first to import matches and then they began manufacturing them.

Originally the matches they made were of a kind called the ‘lucifer’, a dubious invention claimed by Sir Isaac Holden MP. According to the Pall Mall Gazette of 1893, Isaac Holden was getting tired of using flint-and-steel to light his lamps and was interested in the explosive properties of new chemical inventions which he thought might offer an alternative. The young son of a chemist overheard him droning on about this and told his father about it. Soon after the lucifer match was born.

Others claim it was John Walker (or possibly Samuel Jones) who first sold ‘lucifer’ matches in the 1830s.

Whether the truth, by the mid 19 century there was an enormous demand for lucifer matches.

The matches were cheap and easy to produce and worked by a chemical reaction when the tip was struck. The tip contained white — sometimes called yellow — phosphorus. That is important because it is highly toxic and as a result the young women working in the match factories were permanently disfigured and died of something which became known as phossy jaw. The phosphorus would attack the lower jaw of the workers and could only be treated by removal of the whole bone. I have no idea how on earth the women continued with their lives without a lower jaw.

If that was not done, they simply died of organ failure, a truly horrific way to die.

Of course, this was an era when there was a hyper-availability of workers and so if one person refused to do a job there was always someone else more desperate. Workers in factories regularly had jobs we would today regard as ridiculously dangerous and many died.

Even that said, though, the working lives of the women who worked in the match factories were some of the worst found anywhere.

Sadly the working classes of 19 century England were typically considered disposable to be used until they could no longer provide a useful service to the great industrialists, and then thrown away.

By 1888, the low pay and conditions got to a crisis point and the women workers of Byrant and Mays walked out in one of the most famous early forms of industrial action — the great Match Girls Strike.

The great Match Girls Strike of 1888 is inextricably linked to the campaigning journalist Annie Besant and became a tussle of strength between the Bryant and May company on the one hand and the Trades Union movement on the other. Initially the protest began when Bresant published an article in her own publication called ‘The Link’ about conditions in the factory, which led on to workers being fired and eventually the whole workforce of 1400 women walking out.

The arguments raged back and forth in the pages of the London press.

In an interview in the Times of 9 July 1888, Mr Bryant claimed that he had always “wanted to see his workpeople well paid” and that the girls earned between 5 and 18 shillings a week. In the same article it was reported that Mrs Bresent thundered from a stage that the women actually earned between 4 and 13 shillings and that this was scandalous when shareholders in the company paid themselves a dividend of 34% and Mr Bryant had recently bought himself a park worth £170,000.

The Times of 10 July 1888, reported that the economic cost of striking was getting too much for the workers and some were wanting to return.

On 11 July it was reported that a strike fund had begun collecting money to support the women and on the 12 July a letter appeared from supporters, laying out the reasons for the protest, but by Friday 13 July 1888 the Times was reporting that the strikers were dejected and felt that they would not get their jobs back, never mind their demands met.

By the 18 July, the Times was reporting that the strike was over with the women having substantially had their demands met after the intervention of representatives from trade unions.

But Louise Raw in her book challenges the idea that this was a protest led by a middle class woman from the comfortable pages of the press and instead points to a strike committee of women workers who have been totally forgotten by subsequent history.

For all that, the issue of white phosphorus and phossy jaw seemed to have been overlooked altogether even though it had been well known for decades. Charles Dickens, the uber-fashionable author of his day, wrote in detail about it in 1852 in this Household Words publication.

Annie Brown is twenty years of age, of pale and scrofulous aspect. She went to work at the lucifer-factory, when she was nine years old, and after she had worked for about four years, the complaint began, like a toothache.

She was occupied in putting the lids on the boxes. She could smell the phosphorus at first, but soon grew used to it.

On uncovering her face, we perceived that her lower jaw is almost entirely wanting; at the side of her mouth are two or three large holes.
The jaw was removed at the Infirmary seven years ago.

Safety matches had been invented since at least 1862 when Bryant and May exhibited them at the International Exhibition. They used red phosophorus and were considered to be much safer because they could only be lit by striking the match on the side of the box. Unfortunately for the match workers, the demand was almost entirely for the white lucifer matches which could be struck anywhere.

According to Barbara Harrison, a factory inspector called Rose Squire recorded in her autobiography in 1927

I have a vivid picture in my mind of the awkward scramble of arms and hands of a crowd of girls working at feeverish speed to cram the handfuls of matches into boxes which, when overfull flared up and were cast upon the floor, the fumes and smoke rising into one’s nostrils.

By 1890, 60 tonnes of yellow phosphorus was being used in the industry, 50% of which was being used by Bryant and May, despite being linked to the problem. In comparison, only 3 tonnes of a harmless red phosphorus was being used.

Investigations proved that sickness and death was being caused by the match industry and following government investigations, Bryant and May was finally prosecuted for causing harm to workers in their London factory in 1898 and belated questions began to be asked of the government about it.

The silly thing was that there was no need for this to be a problem.

Into the breech stepped a new participant — the Salvation Army. Set up as a religious movement by and for the poorest of the working poor, the Sally Ann took on the match industrialists at their own game and set up a match factory using only red phosphorus. With a focus on fairness for the workers, it also offered good pay and reasonable hours for the women.

The Salvation Army campaigned for the use of red phosphorus matches and better conditions in the match factories.

In 1892 a reporter from the Star went to visit the Salvation Army match factory in Lamprill Road, London and interviewed the manager Mr Nunn who said to

“Tell them that every match they strike which is not a ‘safety’ has been produced by endangering the health and lives of the workers engaged. Tell them of the horrible character of the disease, and ask them not to use another phosphor (sic) match. Tell them we pay nearly double the wages of other firms, and that they can be sure if they help us and use our matches they are helping the women who make them lead decent, happy lives”

Unfortunately this early effort at ethical trading struggled to overcome the public’s dependence on cheap dangerous lucifer matches and the factory closed for good in 1901.

In the end it was the combination of press coverage, public campaigning and legislative change which brought an end to the manufacturing of lucifer matches in 1910, more than 50 years after the problem had first been identified.

Additional sources:

Barbara Harrison (1995) The Politics of occupational ill-health in the late nineteenth century: the case of the match-making industry Sociology of Health and Illness Vol 17

Louise Raw (2011) Striking a Light: The Bryant and May Matchwomen and their Place in History Bloomsbury

Dr Bruce Rosen Victorian History Blog



Joe Turner
Study of History

I’m just some guy who tries hard. Interested in science, philosophy and other random things http://joetnr.net http://twitter.com/bucksci