Bryant & May was the largest matchstick manufacturer in Britain. It remains a leading premium brand of matches.
William Bryant (1804 – 1874) and Francis May (1803 -1885), two Quakers from Plymouth, entered into 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 proved so successful that Lundstrom struggled to meet demand. A factory was established at Fairfield Road, Bow, London, from 1861. As was usual for the time, a workforce consisting partly of children was employed.
Wilberforce Bryant (1837 – 1906), the son of William Bryant, 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 phosphorus matches
Bryant & May began to manufacture “strike anywhere” matches, which used white (also called yellow) phosphorous, which could cause phosphorus 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 phosphorus.
Bryant & May had developed a considerable export trade by 1881. The Fairfield Works covered over six acres. 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 form the largest match manufacturer in Britain.
Gilbert Bartholomew (1852 – 1911), the secretary and manager of Bell & Black, was appointed managing director of Bryant & May.
Bryant & May produced around 300 million matches a day by 1886.
1,200 young women went on strike at the Bow factory in 1887.
1,400 young women went on strike at the Bow factory in 1888. Bryant & May management acquiesced to almost all of the strikers’ demands. An unpopular system of fines for misbehaviour was ended. It appeared that foremen had misrepresented the strikers’ position to the company directors, who subsequently requested that complaints be addressed directly to them in future, in order to avoid further misunderstandings.
Bryant & May employed around 2,000 workers in 1895, including around 1,200 to 1,500 women and girls.
Operations were established in Brazil from 1895.
Phosphorus necrosis cover-up
Bryant & May recorded 47 cases of phosphorus necrosis amongst its workforce between 1878 and 1898. A new law meant that every case of phosphorus poisoning had to be referred to the Government from 1893. However the company failed to report 17 cases, including six deaths. None of the deaths were attributed to necrosis poisoning, but the disease may have been a contributory factor.
Gilbert Bartholomew readily admitted the company’s guilt. He argued that matchmaking was a safer trade than many others such as brick-making or linen-weaving, and suggested that Bryant & May would support a ban on the sale of phosphorus matches, which had around 90 percent of the market.
Bryant & May were liberal employers for the period. The deaths went unreported due to a desire to maintain that strong public image.
Wilberforce Bryant subsequently announced that the company would abolish the use of white phosphorus from 1900.
Twentieth century and growth through acquisition
Bryant & May soon found keen competition in the match market. The Diamond Match Company used a Beecher match-making machine which could manufacture superior matches at half the cost of the Bryant & May product. Bryant & May acquired the Diamond Match Company for £480,000 in order to avoid a costly trade war in 1901. The acquisition gave Bryant & May the rights to the Swan Vesta brand of matches, and a large factory in Litherland, Liverpool.
A 34 percent stake in the Lion Match Co of South Africa was acquired in 1905.
An Australian factory was established in Melbourne in 1909.
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 Litherland factory employed around 1,000 people.
Moreland & Son of Gloucester, manufacturer of England’s Glory matches, was acquired in 1913.
The Bow and Litherland factories each covered seven acres by 1914.
Bryant & May employed 3,500 workers by 1921.
A factory was established in Glasgow from 1921. The Scottish Bluebell matchstick brand was introduced.
Bryant & May acquired the English interests of Maguire, Paterson & Palmer, match manufacturers of Garston in Liverpool, in 1922. With the acquisition of its last substantial British rival, Bryant & May would only contend with competition from imported matches from Sweden.
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.
Bryant & May had the largest share of the Brazilian match market by 1926.
Merger with Swedish Match
Bryant & May merged with the British subsidiary of the Swedish Match Company to form the British Match Corporation in 1927. The company had a nominal capital of £6 million. Swedish Match held a stake of approximately one third of British Match.
British Match employed 1,000 people and produced 45 billion matches in 1934. British Match was the 35th largest company in Britain, with a market value of £8.1 million by 1935.
The Litherland factory was destroyed during the Blitz in 1941, and production was relocated to Garston.
The decline of matchmaking
Bryant & May held around 55 percent of the British match market in 1971. However the market was in decline, and factory closures were to prove inevitable. The Bow factory closed with the loss of 250 jobs in 1971. British Match entered into disposable lighter production as matchstick sales declined.
British Match employed 12,200 people in 1973, including 4,600 in the United Kingdom.
British Match was keen to diversify its product portfolio. It acquired Wilkinson Sword, with around half of the British shaving razor market, for £19 million in 1973. The company was renamed Wilkinson Match.
The Gloucester match factory was closed in 1975.
Swedish Match sold its shareholding in Wilkinson Match to Allegheny of Pittsburgh, a large American steel business, in 1978.
The marketing and administration departments at Bow were transferred to the Wilkinson Sword headquarters at High Wycombe in 1980.
Allegheny acquired full control of Wilkinson Match in 1980.
The Glasgow factory was closed in 1981.
The Garston site had been largely automated by 1986. It was the last remaining match factory in Britain. It employed 317 people, and had a productive capacity of 35 billion matches per annum.
Allegheny sold Wilkinson Match to Swedish Match in 1987. 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 with the loss of 96 jobs in 1994. It marked the end of match manufacturing 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. Production was relocated to Sweden.