24th April 1871.

The 19th Century economist W.S Jevons, said that, ‘Men, women and children are not born to be matchmakers and that it is no regret if they were transferred to other areas of occupation more healthy and useful’. The same argument was used against the miners in the 1980s.

Bryant Mays ad

It was in 1871 that the Chancellor Robert Lowe facing the biggest budget deficit since 1841, proposed a tax of a halfpenny per 100 on wooden matches, whether home-made or imported, and a tax of a penny on a box of 100 Vestas, because the latter were in his words, ‘more aristocratic’. A penny would buy many things then.

The result was a violent assemblage Today in 1871, outside parliament of match workers from nearby Bow, but Lowe avoided trouble by going to the Commons by an underground passage.

Queen Victoria was worried and in a letter to Prime Minister Gladstone, said: ‘The tax will seriously affect the manufacture of matches, which is the sole means of the very poorest people and little children’. The following day Lowe dropped his proposal.(1)

The Times suggested a tax on tea instead as it considered the tax on matches: ‘To be a tax upon a necessity of life’ and gave employment to poor children, match sellers and the girls making them’.

Lowe, apart from the Budget deficit, also needed more taxes to pay for Cardwell’s army reforms, this at time of  the of the revolutionary French Commune and a possibility of invasion from across the Channel.

The government also feared support here particularly as poor conditions and low pay blighted the country, and it took Mrs. Annie Besant to rally support for the match-girls, whilst complaining that the British Trade Unionists had left it to her, ‘a woman of the middle class’ to organise the ‘oppressed match girls’.

The outcome after all the troubles was that by 1889 the Morning Advertiser could, optimistically, say that Socialist agitators would ‘find it difficult in future to influence Messrs Bryant and May’s workers because conditions had improved’.

This ignored the continued use of yellow phosphorous resulting in phosphorous necrosis (‘Phossy Jaw’), until 1898 when phosphorus sesquisulfide (P4S3 began to be used for ‘strike anywhere matches’ (2).

(1) Lowe had been advised by the leading economists, including Jevons, but humanity save the day for the

(2a) First discovered in 1844 and used as an ingredient in the match dip.

(2b) Yet The Star newspaper, reported cases of ‘phossy jaw’ in 1892 and 1898 at the Fairfield Works and there were prosecutions and official enquiries until the end of the century.


In 1997 Bryant and May closed its last factory in Britain.

wartime pack

Wartime pack

Ref: buycollectibles.com. Pic Ref for match and box.

Ref: urianami.blogspot/Pic Ref for wartime pack.

Ref: wikipedia.org/bryant and May.

Ref: Letters of W.S Jevons

Ref: Letters of Queen Victoria.

Ref. victoriancalendar.blogspot.com/match-tax.



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About colindunkerley

My name is Colin Dunkerley who having spent two years in the Royal Army Pay Corps ploughed many a barren industrial furrow until drawn to the 'chalk-face' as a teacher, now retired. I have spent the last 15 years researching all aspects of life in Britain since Roman times.

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