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“Naughty Lucifers”

Victorian children were well acquainted with the hazards of matches through stories such as Struwwelpeter’s ‘The Dreadful Story of Harriet and the Matches’.  However, not all took heed of such cautionary tales.


In Ipswich and St. Etheldreda, 1840-1900, a total of nine children (seven of whom were boys) died through ‘playing with matches’, most of which were a result of the ‘habit of leaving about Lucifer matches’.[1]  As the Penny Illustrated cites in 1907, even if ‘the mother is careful to buy only matches which light on the box, if the box is not put out of the possible reach of the child’, but for example ‘left on the table’, an accident could easily occur.[2]  In Ipswich, June 1852, foundry worker’s wife Mrs Harvey went upstairs to make the beds, leaving her two-year-old son, Henry, playing on the doorstep.  ‘In the course of ten minutes she went down to look after him, when she found him in the hands of her neighbours, his dress being on fire’.  Henry ‘told his mother that “he got the Lucifers off the copper,” saying “naughty Lucifers, they burnt me”.’  He died from his injuries several weeks later.[3]  In Trimley St Martin, Susannah Page, aged three and a half years, ‘lighted a match and set fire to herself’ whilst her parents were in the garden.  The Ipswich Journal stated in response: ‘Parents […] ought to be more cautious in leaving matches within reach of young children’.[4]

However, even the most cautious of mothers could not guarantee a safe home for their inquisitive and determined children.  In 1897, Bertie Green, aged two years, was burnt to death while his mother was absent purchasing some sweets for her children, ‘the supposition [was] that prompted by infantile curiosity he raised himself on the guard in front of the fire to reach something from the mantelshelf, lost his balance, and fell forward into the fire’.  It was noted at the inquest into his death, that on previous occasions the mother had witnessed Bertie ‘draw a chair up to the fireguard and take matches and other items on various occasions.’  ‘The fireguard had three bars all around’.  This led the coroner to comment that the mother should have known it was necessary to ‘take extraordinary precautions’ and ‘asked the jury to consider whether there was any culpability on the part of the mother, or any want of precaution on her part’.  In their summary, the jury stated, ‘it is most desirable, in the interests of society, that guards for fires should be constructed with top and bottom bars only, and vertical uprights, instead of horizontal bars, thus preventing children from getting on to the guard and thus reaching the mantelpiece’.  The jury then went on to say, they ‘hope[d] that the mother would not be indiscreet enough to leave so young a child on a future occasion’.[5]

The risk of fire was not the only danger associated with matches. In 1868, The Ipswich Journal reported on the accidental poisoning of twenty-month old Hannah Hunt.  During her mother’s brief absence fetching washing water, Hannah discovered some Lucifer matches that had been left on the copper.  Returning home, Hannah’s mother found her sucking on the matches and promptly snatched them off her.  The doctor was called, but Hannah ‘died about 18 hours after’ from phosphorous poisoning.  The mother stated at the inquest that the matches were ‘generally kept on the mantelpiece’.[6]

Given that so few fatal accidents occurred as a result of playing with matches in this period, this would suggest that this dangerous domestic object was generally kept out of reach of small children.

[1] Ipswich Journal, 20 May 1848, p. 2.

[2] Penny Illustrated and Illustrated Times, 13 Jul 1907, p. 28.

[3] Ipswich Journal, 26 Jun 1852, p. 3.

[4] Ipswich Journal, 13 Oct 1846, p. 2.

[5] Ipswich Journal, 24 Apr 1897, p. 2.

[6] SROi EC5/11/3 Inquisition at the parish of Debenham on the body of Hannah Hunt, 11 Jan 1868.

The poisonous nature of these matches is well documented.  Many of those working in the production of yellow phosphorous matches developed a disfiguring disease known as ‘phossy jaw’. See William T. O’Dea, A Social History of Lighting (London, 1958), p. 241; Peter W. J. Bartrip, The Home Office and the Dangerous Trades in Victorian and Edwardian Britain (Amsterdam, 2002), pp. 171-232.

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