The Danger of Lucifers

Who Invented the Lucifer?

The word Lucifer is another word we associate with “the devil” or “Satan”. In Latin the word Lucifer means “light bringing”. It is safe to say the name fitted well with the product. In the year of 1829 a small tin containing matches with the name “Lucifers’ went on sale across the country. There was a huge demand as they were fast, instant to use and cheap to buy.

Lucifers were used everywhere! This was a time before electricity and people relied on matches for lighting fires, lamps and stoves. Having electrics now it makes you think how dependent people were on a box of matches. 

Who was the first person to invent the Lucifer? In 1894 article it mentions two German men of the names Roemer and Preschel. Another German article explains that the invention came from a Hungarian man Janos Irinyi. He was nineteen at the time, attending chemistry lectures at a school. Janos was intrigued by the reaction of rubbing together peroxyde of lead and sulphur. He thought that the intensity could be augmented, if he replaced the sulphur with phosphorus. He apparently shut himself away in his room for days. When his comrades knocked, he replied “I am making a discovery.” Other claims to the invention were Sir Isaac Holden. He took John Walkers work and had taken the concept, improved it. He demonstrated it to his class at the Castle Academy in Reading, Berkshire.

Matchstick Girls

 Lucifers were not a great product they gave off a foul smell once used and sparks flew in different directions. However, little did people know that white phosphorus is highly toxic and can be fatal.  These factories employed young girls as young as nine and they were using highly toxic chemicals. A typical working day started at 6.30 till 6pm with two breaks in harsh conditions. 

These young girls came from the poorest and deprived areas of the London slums. They were typically very poor, young and very thin.

The conditions they suffered in working in these factories concluded of long hours, low wages and dirty conditions. The workers were made to eat their meals at their workstations as there was nowhere else to eat.

This resulted in not only were they breathing in phosphorus they ate it when the phosphorus settled on their food. Workers started to suffer with symptoms such as vomiting, stomach pains and swollen teeth and jaws which developed into Necrosis. Women and young girls were permanently disfigured when they developed Necrosis.  Necrosis is something that can occur when using chemicals which eats away at body tissue and can be fatal.  Many of these girls died of it, others left without a jaw which became known as a phossy jaw. A woman named Caroline Hawkins became one of these victims.

In 1888 the “Matchstick Girls Strike” caused attention and shockwaves over the country. Annie Besant a strong willed woman took organisation and ordered a strike fund. The fund was sent out to local supporters and supporting newspapers. Support came in and even from the most unlikely of sources such as the London trades council.

Just like the suffragette movement, these girls and women campaigned and stood up for what they believed in around parliament and holding active demonstrations. Eventually, after the threat of bad publicity a satisfactory agreement was made with the directors of the firm. One of the terms agreed was to have a seperate room for workers to eat meals away from their workstations. The success and attention the matchstick girls brought gave a real awareness to other workers in Britain at the time. It gave a sense of strength and determination in a time where there was no equality.

In the wrong hands

The fact that Lucifers were dangerous to make they were also were extremely dangerous used in the wrong hands. Many cases and reports confirm incidents where children playing with them contributed to many so many young deaths. In 1885 it was reported an incident occurred in Gifford Street. London.

 “Fatal Fire – On Tuesday morning, soon after eleven o’clock, a fire, which was attended with fatal results occurred at 45 Gifford- Street, Essex-Street. Kingsland-road, on the premises partly occupied by R. Lewis , a lodger. It appeared  that some young children were left in the back bedroom on the first floor, and they obtained some lucifers, with which they commenced playing. The ignition of  the box set the bed and bedding in the room ablaze, and a little child, twelve months old, and named Alice Lewis was fearfully burnt about the body and limbs. Before aid could be rendered the bed was destroyed, and in a few minutes the unfortunate child expired. The inmates of the house, alarmed by the cries of the children, extinguished the flames before any material damage had been caused.”

Taken from Shoreditch Observer – Saturday 08 August 1885

Another example

LUCIFER MATCHES Mr W. Carter has held an inquest at Kennington on the body of Blanche Adelaide Barrow, aged 2 years and 10 months, whose death had been certified as resulting from phosphor poisoning. The certificate was not accepted by the registrar, and hence the inquiry. From the evidence of the mother of the deceased, and her son, Harry Barrow, it appeared that last Friday week the child was found with a box of ordinary Lucifer matches in her hand. Some of the matches were picked up on the ground with phosphor all sucked off them. The child was scolded, but nothing happened till Sunday, the 5th instant, when she became ill.  She gradually got worse, and died on Friday last, Mr W. M. Byron Hill, surgeon ,89, Camberwell Bead, deposed to being called Monday, the 6th instant, when found the child vomiting. She was cold, and the pupils of the eyes were very much dilated. He was satisfied that the child was poisoned by the phosphor. The coroner ! remarked that children dying from phosphor poisoning through playing with matches was becoming a very serious matter. He thought parents did not take sufficient pains to keep them out of their way. Mr Hill said he was afraid the majority of persons did not know the power of phosphor as a poison. One grain was enough to prove fatal to an adult, and the smallest quantities were most injurious in their effects on the system. He wished it were more widely known and acted on that there were matches which were innocuous and could be left about without any fear of danger. He was surprised to see the name of a well-known firm on the box question, and was inclined to think unscrupulous  persons were using the trade-mark to sell these dangerous Lucifers. Steps would be taken to draw the attention of the firm to the matter. The jury returned a verdict of Accidental death.”

Taken from Western Daily Press – Friday 17 September 1880

Further Reading