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The hidden collectables of Australia's pioneer match industry

As we read in Jane Clothier's excellent article on matchbox labels in the Summer 2015 issue of ACPP, the humble friction match - invented by chance by John Walker in England in 1826 - spawned a huge industry worldwide with an ever-increasing number of associated collectables. Specialist collector Jerry Bell looks at the Australian scene.

By 1840 practically every large country in Europe and North America had a flourishing match industry, based mainly on the use of white phosphorus for the match heads as opposed to the sulphate of potash used by Walker and modern match manufacturers.

The modern match industry in Australia is considered to have started in 1895 when the large English company of R. Bell & Co. set up a wax vesta factory in Swan Street in Richmond, Victoria. Vestas were a short form of 'strike anywhere' match very popular in Australia, usually made with a wax stem strengthened with cotton.

Bell subsequently moved to Church Street in Richmond and took over an old brewery that became the chosen site for Bryant & May of London, who had merged with R. Bell & Co in Australia and New Zealand. Bryant & May took over the site and built a huge factory which remains as a fine example of Edwardian commercial architecture to this day. Manufacturing commenced in 1909.

However, there had been at least eight separate attempts to establish a match industry in Australia before 1895, mostly short-lived with the longest surviving for nearly twenty years. We are reliant on digitised newspapers and old street directories for what information we have on them.

Sadly, for only two of these companies do we have any visual record in the form of photographs or collectable packaging to illustrate their existence, and a last-minute hunt is on to try to find something before it is discarded or destroyed with the owners maybe not realising the significance. As such, they are all very much part of Australia's commercial history.

If by 1840 most of the northern hemisphere could boast a match industry, this was not the case in the southern hemisphere. The first factory in Australia appeared in 1843, but this was very early compared to South Africa (1884), Argentina (late 19th century), or even New Zealand (1889). Many large northern hemisphere countries were also much later.

The first four Australian factories were all in Sydney. In 1843, Hungarian immigrant Ignatz Wortmann started making lucifer (white phosphorus) matches in Pitt Street, later moving to King Street and eventually ending up at 30 Campbell Street, where the factory, now called a Colonial Match Manufactory, remained until 1856. Wortmann was highly entrepreneurial and is even on record as having exported matches to England. He advised customers to beware of imitations such as 'Woldmann' or 'Workmann', and the mind boggles at the source of these. In 1847, his nephew, Adolphus Wortmann, assumed control and ran the operation until it was sold, of which more anon. Two packets of his matches have survived, one in a private collection in Sydney and the other at Museum Victoria. The provenance of this latter is unknown, and it was discovered by chance at the museum by a collector some years ago. It is illustrated here, by kind permission of the Museum.

The second factory was started by George Lansdell in 1846 in Chippendale, making 'Colonial Matches and Wax Lights', apparently at 22½ Church Hill, behind Pattrick's Steam Flour Mill in Abercrombie Road, Chippendale. Lansdell was also the Chief Miller for Pattrick. This was a short-lived enterprise, as in March 1848, materials for a 'lucifer match manufactory' were auctioned at the Steam Mills in Redfern and purchased by a Mr Bell, who continued to manufacture colonial matches behind Pattrick's steam mills. However, this was also short-lived, and the factory materials were once again auctioned in October 1849. There is conjecture that Bell was, in fact, Richard Bell, the son of the original Richard Bell of R Bell & Co, London, who started making wax vestas in 1832 and whose company eventually built the first modern factory in Australia in 1895, as it is known that the son left England for a while before taking over the English factory in 1859.

It could be that these factories were the source of the 'Woldmann' and 'Workmann' imitations complained about by Wortmann.

1849 also saw the start of Sydney's fourth and most successful match enterprise. An English migrant, Alfred Chabot, set up his 'Colonial Match Manufactory' in Bourke Street, Surry Hills (probably more correctly Redfern) and the factory remained there until it was sold in 1868. Chabot could possibly have purchased Lansdell and Bell's machinery, but there is no record of this. We do know, however, that he purchased all of Wortmann's plant and equipment in 1856, when that enterprise closed. Chabot initially made 'Silent Congreve Matches', congreves being an early name for matches after Sir William Congreve, inventor of a type of rocket, which was appropriate! Later on, it appears Chabot was also involved in importing matches and vestas.

In spite of its long period of operation it seems very strange that no trace has ever been found of any Chabot packaging, and it does seem to be the most likely still to be found.

With the closure of Chabot in 1868, no matches were made again in Sydney until 1913, when the large Federal factory opened in Alexandria. The centre of match manufacture in Australia shifted to Melbourne for the next 120 years.

The first factory in Melbourne, coincidentally, opened in 1869, the year after Chabot closed. Charles Barnes, John Taylor and Richard Taylor opened their 'Colonial Block Match Factory' on open ground in Victoria Street, Hotham (now West Melbourne). An 1870 photograph exists of the three with their machinery, which is reproduced here by kind permission of the State Library of Victoria.

Block matches were match splints cut into a block of wood and the matches were peeled off when required, much as book matches later came to be used. These proved to be unpopular, and the Taylor brothers (minus Barnes) moved to making conventional boxed matches in a tin shed in Bridge (now Blazey) Street, Richmond. Alas, it was short-lived, and the factory closed in late 1870.

Amazingly, relatively speaking we have a lot of material (labels, matches, boxes and advertising material) of Barnes & Taylor, presented to Museum Victoria by Edwin Bell, proprietor of the Australian Match Works (1911-27), but the Museum does not know how he obtained them. A great advertising poster is illustrated here.

In 1873, Richard Bell (yes, that name again!) opened a factory in Izett Street in Prahran, making lucifer matches. The area was heavily populated and probably not the ideal spot for a match factory, and Bell spent time before the local magistrates on several occasions, which probably prompted a move in 1875 to Gipps Street in Collingwood, where he established a wax vesta factory with Edward Webb. It is conjectured that this Richard Bell might have been the grandson of the original Richard Bell, but there is no conclusive evidence and the author has been unable to track his arrival in the colony, whereas that of Edward Webb is well documented, and it appears he was a former employee of R. Bell & Co, London. This venture, whilst comprehensively advertised, also failed quickly, and their machinery was auctioned in 1876.

However, the brand name 'Bell's' was in use continuously from 1895 until 1957 by R. Bell & Co, Melbourne, and Bryant & May P/L, Melbourne, both for matches and wax vestas, so any collectable associated with the two failed ventures described would have to bear either 'Prahran' or 'Collingwood' somewhere on the packaging to qualify. Similar reservations apply to the early Sydney venture.

In 1877, it appears that this machinery was quickly recycled by Henry Walker, a local identity who was mayor of Collingwood four times and who had a candle factory nearby. He established a vesta factory in Simpson's Road in Collingwood in 1877, but the scourge of match factories everywhere - a fire - caused its closure after a very short time.

Once again it appears as if the machinery was quickly recycled to a neighbouring suburb, and in 1877 The Australian Match Company, run by American Dallet Marcy and Englishman John Burnett, opened a wax vesta factory in Bridge Street in Richmond, either by accident or by design in the same tin shed the Taylor brothers had abandoned in 1870. We are told that the company's trademark was a lyrebird's tail in red on a white ground, surrounded by a blue ribbon bearing the words: 'The Australian Match Company, Melbourne'. Once again the venture was short-lived, and in October 1878 the familiar auction notice appeared for their machinery. And with that, all attempts at match manufacture in Australia were extinguished until the arrival of R. Bell & Co in 1895.

Today, alas, there are but a handful of factories servicing a much-reduced demand for matches as they have been superseded by superior products. In Australia, the last match was made by Hanna Match of North Richmond, outside Sydney, in 2001.

The collectables most likely to be found after this length of time are a package for Chabot probably similar to that of Wortmann, and a pillbox of vestas from the Australian Match Company, some of whose production figures still exist. These were quite impressive. Possibly more packages from Wortmann and the Taylor brothers are still out there somewhere.

If any reader of this publication thinks they have something relating to any of these factories, if they could email me a photo or scan at jjbell@netspace.net.au I will have an immediate look at it.

The author is not related to any of the Bells appearing in this article. He has been collecting matchbox covers for nearly 70 years, and he is the author of Lighting Up Australia, the story of the Australian and New Zealand match industry (see Book Reviews). All photos are included by kind permission of Museum Victoria and the State Library Victoria.

This feature first appeared in the Winter 2016 edition of Antiques and Collectables for Pleasure & Profit.