Laura Purcell

By Candlelight

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I am very pleased to report that my publisher, Bloomsbury Raven, have started sending out proof copies of THE SILENT COMPANIONS to selected members of the industry! To make them extra special, each book is going with its own box of custom matches, enabling the reader to have a candle-lit Victorian experience.

It’s an apt ‘freebie’, as matches play a large part in the story: the heroine, Elsie, grew up in her father’s match factory and at the time the book begins, she is the co-owner along with her brother Jolyon. I thought I would take this opportunity to share with you a little bit of the research I did into Victorian matches and their manufacture.

The matches our Victorian ancestors knew were much more dangerous than their modern counterparts. While the ‘strike anywhere’ heads made storytelling easier for me, you can imagine the hazard of holding a match that can catch fire when scraped across practically any surface. Accidents could and did happen, particularly in the factories, where rogue matches would spark. Even the friction from stepping on a match could cause a person to go up in flames. The ominously named ‘Lucifer box’ was a slight improvement, whereby the match was drawn sharply between two pieces of sandpaper to ignite it. These came as a little book with the matches – it was not until later on that the sandpaper was pasted to the back of box.

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However, the main risk matches posed was not to their user, but to the poor souls engaged in making them. Before the invention of the ‘safety-head’, all matches were dipped in poisonous white phosphorous. Described as ‘the Devil’s element’, white phosphorous can burn the skin. If ingested, it will corrode the stomach lining, causing vomiting with blood. Victorian match workers would have to paddle the deadly mixture of white phosphorus, sulfur and glue over a stove – sometimes, the same stove they made their own food on – inhaling the toxic fumes. Consequently, many match workers gave off a fine white vapour, or found their clothing glowed in the dark.

Prolonged exposure could give rise to the dreaded condition of Phossy Jaw. With this terrible disease the teeth fell out, the jaw swelled up and the bones rotted with a discharge that glowed. Abscesses appeared on the gums, oozing a garlicky smelling pus.  In some cases, it was possible to see straight through the skin to the jawbone beyond. The only treatment that stopped the phosphorous from damaging the internal organs was to remove the infected bones, but this wasn’t always successful, as you can imagine with the surgery of the time.

In THE SILENT COMPANIONS, Elsie is a conscientious employer who insists on the use of ventilator fans and separate buildings for the matches to dry in. Many workers were not as lucky. They would have to work in sheds, consuming their meals where the phosphorous was heated, or where the frames of ready-dipped matches were left to dry. A large number of these workers were children. Relentless, day after day exposure to a stuffy, chemical environment inevitably took its toll upon the workers’ health. But even when this was noted, and the red phosphorous ‘safety-heads’ were introduced, many factories went on making Lucifer matches in the old fashion. Why? Public demand. It was pricier to buy safety matches and some of the working classes could simply not afford them. As Dickens writes in Household Words, ‘The Lucifer Matches sometimes fail, but they cost little, and so they are freely used, even by the poorest.’

Even before the famous Match Girls’ strike of 1888, philanthropists made visits to match factories to report on the health of the workers. One of my favourite quotes comes from Mr Whites Report on the Lucifer Match Manufacturer; Children’s Employment Commission, First Report (v.18) 1863. ‘ In this drying room,’ he writes, ‘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.’ While of course I feel terrible for Mr Halsey, I love the human element of this anecdote. It is yet another reminder that children+chemicals+matches are a very bad idea … And yet they continued together for many years after.

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