Friday 10 September 2010


I suspect one of the most important inventions of the 19th century is the humble match. Here is a great description from the Leisure Hour (1855) of its early years:

WHO, with the exception of our more youthful readers, does not remember the time when the tinder-box, with its flint and steel, ruled supreme in the kitchen, and many curious contrivances for obtaining a light prevailed on the mantelpiece of the dining-room or study. These are now things of the past; the tinder-box has utterly vanished, and the other ingenious inventions are to be found for the most part only in the laboratory of the chemist, or on the shelf of some votary of science.
    The inroad made on the joint dominion that had been exercised by the tinder-box and its more scientific friends over the kitchen and the parlour, was through the introduction of a match with an ominous name, by means of which a light was obtained simply by pulling sharply the chemically prepared match between two-pieces of sand-paper. This contrivance was denounced by the more timid portion of the community as dangerous in the extreme, and calculated to cause many accidents; but the public seemed to patronise the new discovery, and everywhere the Lucifer box was to be found holding an undisputed authority in the household.
    Since the first introduction, rapid improvements have taken place, the most important of which consisted in the sand-paper being pasted at the back of the box, and the act of passing the match over it being all that was necessary for the obtaining a light. On this closely followed the announcement of matches without any noxious smell; these at once seemed to find high favour in the parlour, as the great complaint that had been made previously was, that the perfume emitted by the new matches was not acceptable to the delicate organs of the fair sex. The original matches still continued, however, to assert their rights, and, as they had cheapness on their side, were ever to be found in the box of the housemaid, the cupboard of the cook, and the cottage of the poor; whilst they were banished from the company of the parlour as not sufficiently refined.

Matches were a big industry in Victorian London, with many factories in the East End. Children were employed in the labour, and putting together match-boxes from pre-prepared card was also a form of piece-work which could be carried out at home. Here's an account of some smaller, more miserable manufactories from the Children's Employment Commission in 1863:

Match manufacture embraces many branches, including the making of the box as well as of the match itself... Again, there are many distinct classes of match, such as the wax taper match, the common wood match, and fusees for tobacco, as well as many varieties within these large classes. There are likewise many varieties of boxes.. . At one large factory, where the whole work was completed on the premises, I counted as many as twenty distinct processes through which every match has to pass, and as many in the case of the boxes...       
    Lewis Waite’s, Wharf Road, Bethnal Green. . . is a very small place, employing about six men and eighteen boys. It consists of two small sheds, one a mere lean-to, the other a cart hovel. The latter is, I should say, judging by the eye, about 20 by 11 feet only, with no ventilation whatever. The door is at one end, and the only window close by it. This place serves for both dipping room and drying room, as well as for mixing and heating the sulphur and the phosphorous composition. The dipper is helped in mixing by a small boy whom I saw beside him paddling the mixture, actually leaning over the dipping stone. The smell on entering this place is quite suffocating, and one would think unendurable for any length of time. The other shed.., is much of the same kind, without any ventilation, and is perhaps 30 by 10 feet. In this all the remaining processes are carried on. A white vapour may be seen constantly rising from the matches. Of course, places for washing, etc. could not be looked for here... Lewis Waite has carried on this business for seven years. Has worked himself for 17 or 18 years, as a dipper for 10 or 11 years. It never caught hold of his teeth. It does of some people. The dipping is the worst part. Never finds the work hurt his people. ‘It’s not in these places that the harm is done; it is in those great places. They make more in an hour than we do in a day.’ Can always get workers when he wants. Could get a hundred every day if he could employ them. ‘They come bothering your life out all day pretty near.’
    William Lovell has dipped for six years. Is about here all day. Of course, does not dip all the time; that would be too hard work. Brings his meals with him, and eats them in here sometimes. It is too far to go home. Always goes out to dinner. Cooks on that stove (pointing to that used for heating the mixture and also the dipping stone). Goes home as he is. Keeps no change [of clothes]. Only changes if he wishes to be tidy. Can see his dress shine in the dark. ‘Mine often shines.’ Has had no toothache for seven or eight years. Has had one or two out because they ached. (Note. This witness is not a healthy looking man.)
    Halsey’s, Belle Isle, York Road, King’s Cross. A wretched place, the entrance to which is through a perfectly dark room, much like a cow- house, and after this through one end of a room stored with lucifers in small boxes, there being at the other end an open hearth with a fire burning. At the nearest endof the chief workshop, a long and fairly lighted but ill ventilated roon1i, a man was preparing the materials for the composition; at the other end was the dipping slab. Between these are ranged the children at their benches. Beyond this is a room a few feet square, with a hatch opening on to the dipping slab, and also having lucifer matches stored in it, and beyond this again... the drying room, close and hot from the stove where the mixture is heated. Nevertheless in this small room between the workshop and drying room close by the hatch, a boy and girl fill frames.
    In this drying room the late owner, Mrs Halsey’s husband, was burned to death a short time since in trying to put out a fire, said to have been caused by a child out of mischief...
    Outside at the back the arrangements are even worse. There is a water-butt with a little tub of sickly green water in it. Here, I was told, the children wash. Beyond ... is the yard, if that can be called so which is a passage a few feet wide, slightly broader at one end, filled in the middle with a stagnant gutter... Here the children eat their meals, unless it be cold or wet, when they eat them round the stove. At the end of this yard, with an open sink or cesspool in front of it, is a single privy common to all, boys and girls alike, and in a very bad state.
    On one side of the yard was a little hay hovel in which a dog lived, but I could not make out that the children were allowed to eat their meals there. It would be much better than either of the other places ...

There was a famous match-girl strike in 1888 at the Bryant and May factory - see Wikipedia - which related in part to the prevalence of the gruesome condition 'phossy-jaw' amongst the factory workers - essentially a dissolving jaw-bone, as a result of phosphorus poisoning. The match-girls did quite well from the strike, and generally they had something of a reputation for being strong characters. Here's the magistrate and writer Montagu Williams in Round London from 1894.

   Taking the class as a whole, I think the good preponderate over the bad. Most of them have an exuberancy of spirits truly astonishing. You can do nothing with them by hard words or angry looks, but a great deal by kindness. As to their drunkenness, that is mainly attributable to the fact that the male hands take them into the public-houses and “treat” them.
   Match girls come out very strong on a Saturday night, when any number of them may be found at the Paragon Music Hall, in the Mile End Road; the Foresters’ Music Hall, in Cambridge Road; and the Sebright, at Hackney; The Eagle, in the City Road, used to be a favourite resort of these girls, and in bygone summers dancing on the crystal platform was their nightly amusement. They continue to be very fond of dancing, but they are even more attached to singing. They seem to know by heart the words of all the popular music hall songs of the day, and their homeward journey on Bank holidays from Hampstead Heath and Ching­ford, though musical, is decidedly noisy.
   The police are as a rule extremely good to the match girls, and a constable will rarely interfere with them unless positively compelled to do so. It must be admitted, however, that to have half-a-dozen of these girls marching down the Bow Road singing at the top of their voices the chorus of “Ta-ra-ra ­Boom-de-ay,” or “Knocked ‘em in the Old Kent Road “—these are at the present moment their favourites—is a little irritating to quiet-loving citizens.
   Dress is a very important consideration with these young women. They have fashions of their own; they delight in a quantity of colour; and they can no more live without their large hats and huge feathers than ‘Arry can live without his bell-bottom trousers. They all sport high-heeled boots, and consider a fringe an absolute essential. As a class they are not attractive in looks; still, there are some very pretty faces among the feather-headed, brown-fringed factory girls of the East End.
   So much for their out-door existence. Their home life is not so bright, and the cause for this is not far to seek. They can sing a good song, or dance a break-down with any one; but can they wash clothes, or cook a dinner? Alas! neither the one nor the other.

I rather like the sound of match-girls.

1 comment:

  1. I find it depressing that this great nation of ours can't manufacture matches anymore. Not even the mighty Swan Vestas. Irony is most of the imported ones aren't much cop.