Bryant & May was the largest matchstick manufacturer in Britain. Today it remains a leading premium brand of matches.
Bryant & May was established when two Plymouth Quakers, William Bryant (1804 – 1874) and Francis May (1803 -1885), joined in partnership to manufacture tallow and candles from 1844.
Bryant & May acquired the British rights to the safety match from Carl Lundstrom (1823 – 1917) of Sweden in 1855. The product was to prove so successful that Lundstrom struggled to meet demand, so Bryant & May established a factory at Fairfield Road, Bow, London, from 1861.
Initially children were numbered among the employees. This was not considered unusual at the time.
Soon, Wilberforce Bryant (1837 – 1906), the son of William, joined the partnership. Francis May left the partnership in 1864.
About 1,500 people were employed by 1871. The Graphic commented that the workforce were “by no means the miserable, emaciated, half-starved creatures whom some of our readers might expect to see. On the contrary they were, as a rule, stout, ruddy and decently dressed, and the younger children especially seemed full of spirit”.
William Bryant died, with a personal estate valued at under £160,000, in 1874.
Introduction of white phosphorous matches
Originally the firm manufactured safety matches, but soon it bowed to commercial pressure and began to manufacture “strike anywhere” matches, which used white (also called yellow) phosphorous, which could cause phosphorous necrosis among workers.
Bryant & May employed at least 5,000 people by 1876.
A visitor in 1881 commented in the New Monthly Magazine on the “cheerful labour” of the workforce, and denied the existence of cruel managers, fire risk and ill health caused by phosphorous.
Bryant & May had developed a considerable export trade by 1881. The Fairfield Works covered over six acres. Pine was imported from Canada. Matchbox making and labelling employed 3,000 females within their own homes throughout the local neighbourhood.
Bryant & May was registered as a limited liability company in 1884. That year, Bell & Black, its Bow rival, was acquired to create the largest match manufacturer in Britain.
With the Bell & Black acquisition came its secretary and manager, Gilbert Bartholomew (1852 – 1911). He was appointed managing director of Bryant & May.
The company produced around 300 million matches a day by 1886.
200 girls went on strike in 1887. 1,400 young women went on strike at the Bow factory in 1888.
Bryant & May employed around 2,000 workers in 1895, including around 1,200 to 1,500 women and girls.
Operations began in Brazil from 1895.
Phosphorous necrosis cover-up
It was passed into law from 1893 that every case of phosphorous poisoning had to be referred to the Government.
Between 1878 and 1898 Bryant & May recorded 47 cases of phosphorous necrosis amongst its workforce. Bryant & May stated that 81 percent were completely cured by a company doctor. The company admitted its guilt in attempting to cover up nine cases of death associated with phosphorous necrosis amongst its workforce.
Since the law had been passed requiring that the Home Office be notified of phosphorous poisonings, Bryant & May had failed to report 17 cases, including six deaths.
Gilbert Bartholomew readily admitted the company’s guilt. He argued that the company would support a ban on the sale of phosphorous matches, which had around 90 percent of the market. He argued that a total of nine deaths across twenty years made matchmaking a safer trade than many others such as brick-making or linen-weaving. Not one of the nine deaths was caused by necrosis poisoning, although necrosis may have accelerated their deaths.
The truth was that Bryant & May were liberal employers for the period. The cover-up was motivated by a desire to maintain that strong public image.
Wilberforce Byrant announced in 1900 that patents had been acquired that allowed the company to abolish the use of white phosphorus.
Twentieth century and growth through acquisition
Bryant & May employed an average of 2,500 workers by 1900.
A staff canteen was opened in 1901.
Bryant & May acquired the Diamond Match Company in a reverse takeover in 1901. Diamond had seriously dented Bryant & May’s market share due to its use of the superior Beecher match-making machine. The takeover gave Bryant & May the rights to the Swan Vesta brand of matches.
The number employed at the Bow factory was subject to fluctuations, but a rough average of 1,600 were employed in 1905, mostly young women.
A 34 percent stake in the Lion Match Co of South Africa was acquired in 1905.
Bryant & May had a productive capacity of over 90 billion matches and over 100,000 miles of wax vestas and tapers per annum by 1909. The Liverpool factory employed around 1,000 people.
Moreland & Son of Gloucester, manufacturer of England’s Glory matches, was acquired in 1913.
The Bow and Liverpool factories each covered seven acres by 1914.
Bryant & May employed 3,500 workers in January 1921. The company produced 95 billion matches every year.
A factory was opened in Glasgow in 1921. It originated the Scottish Bluebell matchstick brand.
Bryant & May acquired Maguire, Paterson & Palmer, match manufacturers of Garston, Liverpool, in 1921.
Bryant & May had an authorised share capital of £2 million by 1922. The company owned, or had large stakes in, factories in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa and South America.
The Diamond Match factory in Liverpool employed over 1,000 people, 800 of them girls, in 1926.
By 1926 the Brazilian subsidiary had a share capital of £600,000 and was the largest producer of matches in that country.
Merger with Swedish Match
In 1927 Bryant & May merged with the British subsidiary of the Swedish Match Company to form the British Match Corporation. The company had a nominal capital of £6 million. Swedish Match held a stake of approximately one third in British Match.
British Match produced 45 billion matches in 1934, and employed 1,000 people. British Match was the 35th largest company in Britain, with a market value of £8.1 million by 1935.
The decline of matchmaking
In 1971 Bryant & May had around 55 percent of the British match market. However the market was declining, and factory closures were to prove inevitable.
The Bow factory closed with the loss of 250 jobs in 1971. Warehousing and administration functions continued.
By 1973 British Match employed 12,200 people, including 4,600 in the United Kingdom. The firm held around 57 percent of the British match market.
In 1973 British Match acquired Wikinson Sword, best known for its shaving razors, in an attempt to diversify its product portfolio. The company was known as Wilkinson Match.
The Gloucester factory was closed in 1975.
Swedish Match sold its shareholding in the company to Allegheny of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1978. Further acquisitions by Allegheny that year saw its stake in Wilkinson Match increase to 44 percent.
In 1979-80 the marketing and administration departments at Bow were transferred to the Wilkinson Sword headquarters at High Wycombe.
Allegheny acquired the entirety of Wilkinson Match in 1980.
The decline of the match market led the company to diversify into disposable lighters.
The Glasgow factory was closed in 1981.
Between 1983 and 1986 the Garston, Liverpool factory was converted to largely automated production. The Garston factory was the sole match manufacturing facility in Britain by 1987. With 317 employees, it had a productive capacity of 35 billion matches per annum.
In 1987 Allegheny sold Wilkinson Match to Swedish Match. This resulting in Swedish Match holding over 80 percent of the British match market, and nearly half of the disposable lighter market.
The Garston factory was closed in 1994 with the loss of 96 jobs. It marked the end of match manufacture in Britain. Sales had declined due to the decline of smoking and open fires, as well as the removal of excise duty from disposable lighters.