Gladstone and Matches

I’m not sure why, at least according to the BBC, celebrations for the ‘Grand Old Man’ of Victorian politics, William Ewart Gladstone (29 Dec 1809 – 19 May 1898) should be launched today, but his was a story linked with Bow, where I went on Sunday for the Three Mills Loop guided walk, which takes place roughly monthly.

The first half of the walk took us from the mills through the centre of the Olympic site on the Northern Outfall Sewer (rebranded in the 1990s as the ‘Greenway’) and then along the Navigation tow-path to Hackney Wick, where we turned down the Hertford Union canal, crossing this to go down Parnell Road. Here, where the walk leader went into the newsagents to buy an ice-cream, we were close to a part of the story linked to Gladstone, although the statue comes later.

© 2009 Peter Marshall.

Further on we passed Bow’s most famous factory, the former Bryant & May match works, set up by two Quaker businessmen in 1861. It’s a fine brick building, now a gated yuppie ‘village’, but was notorious in the 1880s for its low pay, poor working conditions and “phossy jaw” a disfiguring disease that led to early death for many of the young women workers caused by the white phosphorus used to cut the cost of making matches. It earned its place in labour history when Annie Besant went there and organised the Match Girls’ Strike in 1888, winning better working conditions and more pay.

But it was really the Salvation Army that changed the match industry, with William Booth buying up an empty factory close to that ice-cream shop in Lamprell Street and making ‘Lights in Darkest England‘ safety matches which used the more expensive red phosphorus in place of the cheaper but highly dangerous white allotrope.  Booth also paid his workers more and gave them safer and better working conditions  – including tea-making facilities. He promoted these matches through the cooperative movement and also with consumer power, harnessed by the ‘British Match Consumers League’ which he set up, urging members to harass their shopkeepers at least twice a week until they sold the army matches.

It was this campaign that forced the other match manufacturers to switch to the safer red phosphorus and in 1901 Booth was able to close the factory having virtually eliminated the problem, although it took another seven years before the use of white phosphorus in matches was made illegal at the end of 1908. And yes, it’s that same material as Israeli forces have been caught using illegally in densely populated areas of Gaza.

In 1871, Gladstone’s chancellor decided to impose a tax on matches, and there was a public outcry. Although the government went as far as actually producing 1/2d tax stamps with the catchy motto “ex luce lucellum” (from light a little gain) pressure from campaigners (including the Queen herself) led to the proposal being dropped. The match workers from Bow took part (urged by their employer who had threated to pass the tax on to them) in a massive march to Parliament, which although described by some as “entirely peaceful” actually involved some massive and brutal brawls with the police in Trafalgar Square and on the Embankment.

After the proposal was dropped, Bryant and May celebrated with the erection of an ornate drinking fountain in 1872 opposite Bow Road Station (it disappeared when the road was widened in 1953, but a small plaque marks the site) but the workers were less happy when the management docked their wages to pay for it. On the day it was unveiled some of the women slashed their arms in protest, dripping the blood onto the fountain.

© 2009 Peter Marshall.

It was Annie Besant who got this story mixed up with the statue of Gladstone shown here, sculpted by Albert Bruce-Joy and donated by Theodore H Bryant in 1882, and it seems unlikely that workers either had their pay docked or celebrated its erection with their blood. But in 1988, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the strike, the Gladstone statue was daubed with red paint. After the council cleaned it, someone came back and daubed it again, and you can still see it now on the plinth of the statue and also on the hands in this picture.

There is a good illustrated account covering some of the above and other relevant local history on the Kingsley Hall web site.

More pictures from the walk on My London Diary.

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