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London's PeopleThe Match Sellers
Posted on Sep 07, 2002 - 12:17 AM by Bill McCann

In his London Labour and the London Poor, Henry Mayhew has left us a detailed picture of London street life in the mid nineteenth century. An enormous amount of material was sold on the streets. Perhaps the most remembered street seller now is the "match girl" who sold the "lucifers". This is what Mayhew found when he went in search of the traders in this vital commodity in Victorian London.

Of The Street-Sellers of Lucifer-Matches
Under this head I shall speak only of those who sell the matches, apart from those who, in proffering lucifer boxes, mix up trade with mendicancy. The latter class I have spoken of, and shall treat of them more fully under the head of "the London Poor." Until "lucifers" became cheap and in general use, the matches sold by the street-folks, and there were numbers in the trade, were usually prepared by themselves. The manufactures were simple enough. Wooden splints, twice or thrice the length of the lucifer matches now in use, were prepared, and dipped into brimstone, melted in an iron ladle. The matches were never, as now, self-igniting, or rather ignitable by rapid friction; but it was necessary to "strike a light" by the concussion of a flint and steel, the sparks from which were communicated to tinder kept in a "box." The brimstone match-sellers were of all ages, but principally, I am told, old people. Many of them during, and for some years after the war, wore tattered regimentals, or some remains of military paraphernalia, and had been, or assumed to have been, soldiers, but not entitled to a pension; the same with seamen.

I inquired of some of the present race of match-sellers what became of the "old brimstones," as I heard them called, but from them I could gain little information. An old groundsel-gatherer told me that some went into his trade. Others, I learned, "took to pins," and others to song or tract selling. Indeed the brimstone match-sellers not unfrequently carried a few songs to vend with their matches. It must be borne in mind that, 15 years ago, those street trades, into which any one who is master of a few pence can now embark, were less numerous. Others of the match-sellers, with rounds, or being known men, displaced their "brimstones" for "lucifers," and traded on as usual. I heard of one old man, now dead, who made a living on brimstone-matches by selling a good quantity in Hackney, Stoke Newington, and Islington, and who long refused to sell lucifer matches; "they was new-fangled rubbish," he said, "and would soon have their day." He found his customers, however, fall off, and in apprehension of losing them all, he was compelled to move with the times.

"I believe, sir," said one man, still a streetseller, but not having sold matches of any kind for years, - "I believe I was the first who hawked 'Congreves,' or 'instantaneous lights;' they weren't called 'lucifers' for a good while after. I bought them at Mr. Jones's light-house in the Strand, and if I remember right, for it must be more than 20 years ago, between 1820 and 1830, Mr. Jones had a patent somehow about them. I bought them at 7s. a dozen boxes, and sold them at 1s. a box. I'm not sure how many matches was in a box, but I think it was 100. You'll get as much for a farthing now, as you would for a shilling then.
The matches were lighted by being drawn quickly through sandpaper. I sold them for a twelvemonth, and had the trade all to myself. As far as I know, I had; for I never met with or heard of anybody else in it all that time. I did decent at it. I suppose I cleared my 15s. a week. The price kept the same while I was in the business. I sold them at city offices. I supplied the Phoenix in Lombard street, I remember, and the better sort of shops. People liked them when they wanted to light a candle in a hurry, in places where there was no fire to seal a letter, or such like. There was no envelopes in them days. The penny-postage brought them in. I was sometimes told not to carry such things there again, as they didn't want the house set on fire by keeping such dangerous things in it. Now, I suppose, lucifers are in every house, and that there's not a tinder-box used in all London."
Such appears to have been the beginning of the extensive street-trade in these chemical preparations now carried on. At the twelvemonth's end, my informant went into another line of business. The "German Congreves" were soon after introduced, and were at first sold wholesale at the "English and German" swag-shops in Houndsditch, at 2s. the dozen boxes, and were retailed at 3d., 4d., and sometimes as high as 6d. the box. These matches, I am told, "kept their hold" about five years, when they ceased to be a portion of the street trade. The German Congreves were ignited by being drawn along a slip of sandpaper, at the bottom of the box, as is done at present; with some, however, a double piece of sand-paper was sold for purposes of igniting. After this time cheaper and cheaper matches were introduced, and were sold in the streets immediately on their introduction.

At first, the cheaper matches had an unpleasant smell, and could hardly be kept in a bed-room, but that was obviated, and the trade progressed to its present extent. The lucifer-match boxes, the most frequent in the street-trade, are bought by the poor persons selling them in the streets, at the manufacturers, or at oil-shops, for a number of oilmen buy largely of the manufacturers, and can "supply the trade" at the same rate as the manufacturer. The price is 2 1/4d. the dozen boxes, each box containing 150 matches. Some of the boxes (German made) are round, and many used to be of tin, but these are rarely seen now. The prices are proportionate. The common price of a lucifer box in the streets is 1/2d., but many buyers, I am told, insist upon and obtain three a penny, which they do generally of some one who supplies them regularly.

The trade is chiefly itinerant. One feeble old man gave me the following account of his customers. He had been in the employ of market-gardeners, carmen, and others, whose business necessitated the use of carts and horses. In his old age he was unable to do any hard work; he was assisted, however, by his family, especially by one son living in the country; he had a room in the house of a daughter, who was a widow, but his children were only working people, with families, he said, and so he sold a few lucifers "as a help," and to have the comfort of a bit of tobacco, and buy an old thing in the way of clothing without troubling any one. Out of his earnings, too, he paid 6d. a week for the schooling of one of his daughter's children.

"I sell these lucifers, sir," he said, in answer to my inquiries, "I never beg with them: I'd scorn it. My children help me, as I've told you; I did my best for them when I was able, and so I have a just sort of claim on them. Well, indeed, then, sir, as you ask me, if I had only myself to depend upon, why I couldn't live. I must beg or go into the house, and I don't know which I should take to worst at 72. I've been selling lucifers about five years, for I was worn out with hard work and rheumatics when I was 65 or 66. I go regular rounds, about 2 miles in a day, or 2 1/2, or if it's fine 3 miles or more from where I live, and the same distance back, for I can sometimes walk middling if I can do nothing else. I carry my boxes tied up in a handkerchief, and hold 2 or 3 in my hand. I'm ashamed to hold them out on any rail where I aint known; and never do if there isn't a good-humoured looking person to be seen below, or through the kitchen window.
"But my eyesight aint good, and I make mistakes, and get snapped up very short at times. Yesterday, now, I was lucky in my small way. There's a gentleman, that if I can see him, I can always sell boxes to at 1d. a piece. That's his price, he says, and he takes no change if I offer it. I saw him yesterday at his own door, and says he, `Well, old greybeard, I haven't seen you for a long time. Here's 1s., leave a dozen boxes.' I told him I had only 11 left; but he said, 'O, it's all the same,' and he told a boy that was crossing the hall to take them into the kitchen, and we soon could hear the housekeeper grumbling quite loud - perhaps she didn't know her master could hear - about being bothered with rubbish that people took in master with; and the gentleman shouts out, 'Some of you stop that old-mouth, will you? She wants a profit out of them in her bills.' All was quiet then, and he says to me quite friendly, 'If she wasn't the best cook in London I'd have quitted her long since, by G -.'"
The old man chuckled no little as he related this; he then went on,
"He's a swearing man, but a good man, I'm sure, and I don't know why he's so kind to me. Perhaps he is to others. I'm ashamed to hold my boxes to the ary [area] rails, 'cause so many does that to beg. I sell lucifers both to mistresses and maids. Some will have 3 for a 1d., and though it's a poor profit, I do it, for they say, 'O, if you come this way constant, we'll buy of you whenever we want. If you won't give 3 a penny, there's plenty will.' I sell, too, in some small streets, Lisson grove way, to women that see me from their windows, and come down to the door. They're needle-workers I think. They say sometimes, 'I'm glad I've seen you, for it saves me the trouble of running out.'
"Well, sir, I'm sure I hardly know how many boxes I sell. On a middling good day I sell 2 dozen, on a good day 3 dozen, on a bad day not a dozen, sometimes not half-a-dozen, and sometimes, but not often, not more than a couple. Then in bad weather I don't go out, and time hangs very heavy if it isn't a Monday; for every Monday I buy a threepenny paper of a newsman for 2d., and read it as well as I can with my old eyes and glasses, and get my daughter to read a bit to me in the evening, and next day I send the paper to my son in the country, and so save him buying one. As well as I can tell I sell about 9 dozen boxes a week, one week with another, and clear from 2s. to 2s. 6d. It's employment for me as well as a help."
It is not easy to estimate the precise number of persons who really sell lucifer matches as a means of subsistence, or as a principal means. There are many, especially girls and women, the majority being Irishwomen, who do not directly solicit charity, and do not even say, "Buy a box of lucifers from a poor creature, to get her a ha'porth of bread;" or, "please a bit of broken victuals, if it's only cold potatoes, for a box of the best lucifers." Yet these match-sellers look so imploringly down an area, or through a window, some "shouldering" a young child the while, and remain there so pertinaciously that a box is bought, or a halfpenny given, often merely to get rid of the applicant.

An intelligent man, a street-seller, and familiar with street-trading generally, whom I questioned on the subject, said:

"It's really hard to tell, sir, but I should calculate this way. It's the real sellers you ask about; them as tries to live on their selling lucifers, or as their main support. I have worked London and the outside places - yes, I mean the suburbs -in ten rounds, or districts, but six is better, for you can then go the same round the same day next week, and so get known. The real sellers, in my opinion, is old men and women out of employ, or past work, and to beg they are ashamed. I've read the Bible you see, sir, though I've had too much to do with gay persons even to go to church. I should say that in each of those ten rounds, or at any rate, splicing one with another, was twenty persons really selling lucifers. Yes, and depending a good deal upon them, for they're an easy carriage for an infirm body, and as ready a sale as most things.
I don't reckon them as begs, or whines, or sticks to a house for an hour, but them as sells; in my opinion, they're 200, and no more. All the others dodges, in one way or other, on pity and charity. There's one lurk that's getting common now. A man well dressed, and very clean, and wearing gloves, knocks at a door, and asks to speak to the master or mistress. If he succeeds, he looks about him as if he was ashamed, and then he pulls out of his coat-pocket a lucifer box or two, and asks, as a favour, to be allowed to sell one, as reduced circumstances drive him to do so. He doesn't beg, but I don't reckon him a seller, for he has always some story or other to tell, that's all a fakement." Most dwellers in a suburb will have met with one of these well dressed match-sellers. Adopting my informant's calculation, and supposing that each of these traders take, on lucifers alone, but 4s. weekly, selling nine dozen (with a profit to the seller of from 1s. 9d. to 2s. 6d.), we find 2,080 pounds expended in this way. The matches are sold also at stalls, with other articles, in the street markets, and elsewhere; but this traffic, I am told, becomes smaller, and only amounts to one tenth of the amount I have specified as taken by itinerants. These street-sellers reside in all parts of town which I have before specified as the quarters of the poor.

Note: The complete text of London Labour and the London Poor can be found on-line as part of the Perseus Project.


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