Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 37, September 1993
By John Tasker
EDITORS NOTE: A similar article was originally published by the Hawkes Bay Antique Bottle & Collectors Club in their newsletter of May 1989. This article (Abridged) is published with the permission of the author.
In New Zealand, according to Maori legend, Mahuiaka of the Underworld is credited with restoring the gift of fire to the people here after her relative, Maui, tricked her out of all but one of her fiery fingernails. In anger she threw this one remaining source of fire to the ground and set the forest alight. To escape the searing heat which followed, Maui turned himself into a hawk and flew high into the sky but the flames reached up to him and scorched his feathers. He would have been done for had not Tawhiri, the rain god, intervened. The forest stopped burning and the last vestige of fire fled into the branches of the Totara, Mahoe and Pukatea trees from which the Maori people, up to the time of European settlement, were able to release it at will, by vigorously rubbing a harder stick of one tree in a groove made in a softer piece of wood taken from a Totara.
When the Europeans came, this methodofobtaining fire was suddenly rendered obsolete. Fire was still locked up in the branches of the three trees but now there was a simpler means of calling it forth. The newcomers had brought with them little boxes containing tiny sticks which when rubbed against anything produced instant fire. These were the first matches, or wax vestas.
It was Englishman, John Walker, who in April 1827 invented friction matches as we know them today. In his pharmacy at Stockton-on-Tees he found it was possible to obtain instant ignition by rubbing a match head tipped with certain chemicals against any rough surface. And twentyseven years later, in 1854, another Englishman, Francis May, took the invention a step further by producing a match which would only ignite when rubbed against a specially prepared surface. This was the safety match, which unlike the ordinary wax vesta "may be trodden upon or exposed to any ordinary degree of heat without becoming ignited," according to an 1867 advertisement for them. But it was one thing inventing a new product, yet quite another when it came to producing and selling it for a profit.
In the first few years after Walker's discovery, commercial match making was in quite a chaotic condition. With the exception of one or two enterprises the vast majority of manufacturers floundered along producing only very small quantities each year. It took a man by the name of Richard Bell to show them how it was done. In 1832 he began a match business in London which in one form or another, and in one country or another, still flourishes to this day. It was most likely his matches the pioneers brought with them in the 1840's and it was his matches they largely carried on using all the way through, along with one or two other brands. Richard Bell had a partner in the earlier years and the resulting Bell and Black boxes represent 13% of all matches imported between 1870 and 1894 when New Zealand's own match industry was set up. After about 1880 the use of the name "Black" was found to be discontinued and the inscription on the match box lids then read simply "R Bell and Co. London."
The greatest single supplier of matches to the New Zealand market between 1880 and 1890 was the English firm of Bryant and May. William Bryant was a soap maker and sugar refiner born in 1804 and Francis May was a Bishopgate merchant born in 1803. In 1854 they teamed up in London to make matches. An application to the British Patents Office on 15th August, 1855 providing specifications for a new invention - namely, "instantaneous matches to be manufactured in such a manner that they are not liable to ignition when subjected to simple mechanical friction" - indicates that Francis May was a bit of a tinkerer as well. His invention was labelled "Improvementsin Obtaining Instantaneous Light" and was in reality the safety match.
The Bryant and May factory was a model for its day. Well run, progressive insofar as the times allowed, and sensitive to the needs of its workers, it prospered because of the enlightened attitudes and values of the two principals who were practising Quakers. Bryant and May do not appear to have exported their product to this part of the world much before 1880 but once having started they soon secured the lion's share of the market. With Richard Bell's 27% the two rival firms were now fulfilling 75% of New Zealand's needs. Other English firms - namely Palmer, Palmer and Son, Letchford and Pace and Sons - took up what little slack remained.
But towards 1890 a backlash against influences which had their beginnings in the 1840's began to alter the whole picture. The status quo was challenged and things were never to be the same again. In the early decades of colonisation in New Zealand, where almost every settler was British by birth, there had developed a fierce loyalty to the Mother Country which soon permeated all levels of society and governed every aspect of day to day life. The newcomers quite naturally patterned everything they did on values and attitudes brought out with them. Whether it was religion, politics or education, everything had to be "English" because "English" was best. And nowhere was this philosophy more vigorously applied than in the area of commerce.
Anything made in the British Isles was "the best" with all other products being "inferior", no matter how good they really were, or where they may have come from. Anyone who set out to manufacture a product here in New Zealand which was freely available from "Home" was treated as something of a heretic. When Mr Wilthew took steps in 1870 to set up a glassworks in Auckland to make bottles, for instance, the business community closed ranks and decided to "encourage the intruding industry as little as possible". This lack of enthusiasm and co-operation was probably the principal reason why Wilthew's glassworks and every other attempt at bottle manufacture in the 19th century was a failure. Many other products never got off the drawing board either and the old closeted attitude of the pioneers was by one degree or another, to affect commercial thinking in this country right up to the 1950's.
The uncompromising thinking of the original pioneers changed a little when passed on to the next generation. An independent and entrepreneurial streak began to manifest itself, which by the third generation, was becoming well and truly entrenched. A series of industrial and commercial exhibitions held between the 1860's and the 1920's underscored more and more what could be accomplished by independent thinkers - without Britain. And the concrete results of this were being seen more and more on the shop shelves. Sensing a new-found freedom to do what they really wanted, the 1880's and 1890's saw an upsurge in the numbers of capable men setting up new enterprises, not necessarily to challenge the old order particularly, but because at last the climate was beginning to favour such activity.
One of these men was William Gregg in Dunedin. Since 1861 he had been harmlessly importing and processing coffee and spices and generally behaving in a copy-book manner. For years he had built up and consolidated his enterprise by "hard work, business aptitude and indomitable perseverance", working within the confines of prevailing attitudes which prevented him from expansion into any sort of serious manufacturing. But in company with many others at this time he took the plunge. All over New Zealand new ventures were set up to produce items which had hitherto enjoyed unchallenged entry from the British Isles. And one of these was matches. About 1889 William Gregg began the manufacture of wax vestas at his Pelichet Bay factory and thus became the first person in New Zealand to do so. Following his death in 1901 the "Otago Witness" published his obituary and in that mentioned Gregg as the "first manufacturer of wax vestas in the colony".
As well as an upsurge in the establishment of factories turning out new products around the country in the 1880s. various European exporters were also beginning to chance their arm on the New Zealand market as well. The French began sending certain types of bottles and bottled products here. The Germans sent wine, toys and dolls. The Dutch stepped up their gin and schnapps trade, and the Belgians sent matches, among other things. These latter securing up to 5% of the market within a short space of time because of their low price.
Just imagine then what the firm of R Bell and Co Ltd back in England must have thought of all the sudden activity. After decades of enjoying a virtual monopoly with matches on the New Zealand market along with Bryant and May, suddenly several different things are starting to happen simultaneously to upset things. The evidence suggests that the Bell firm closely monitored these new developments with mounting concern and as a result began formulating plans to protect their share of the New Zealand market. They had to. If they had sat back and done nothing they would have been squeezed out.
The Europeans were aggressive marketers and knew how to undersell their opposition. But what must have really set the alarm bells ringing in the Bell camp was the Gregg's foray into match production. That a New Zealander should challenge the existing order of things added a whole new dimension to the matter and opened up the possibility of other "colonials" following suit.
The fact that William Gregg's venture cametonought mattered little. A precedent had been set, and it would only be a matter of time before others emerged to confirm the trend. Gregg had lost heavily on gold shares in the mid-1880s and had approached his match-making venture grossly undercapitalised. As a result, he couldn't hope to succeed in the face of the stiff competition from the cheap European product, or against the financial strength of the Bell and Bryant and May firms. So he went back to his coffee and spices, and the manufacture of commodities such as starch, which didn't need such a large initial capital outlay.
In 1894 a second New Zealander announced his intention of establishing a local match factory. He was Robert Rutherford who had been the first mayor of Caversham in Dunedin. Together with his son. Robert William Rutherford, and John Watson, an engineer, he formed the "New Zealand Wax Vesta Co Ltd". The company secured the old Immigration Barracks in David Street, Caversham, and match production began in early 1895.
It is not known whether Bells knew of the Rutherford plan in early 1894. In all probability they did and the information may well have served to firm up their own plans. Whatever the case. Bells obviously considered the New Zealand match trade too good to lose so prepared themselves to pull off one of the most daring strokes in pioneer New Zealand commercial history to protect their position. In May, 1894, Mr C R E Bell, the Managing Director of R Bell and Co Ltd in London, embarked on the "SS Takapuna" with not only enough plant to set up a match factory in New Zealand, but also a manager (Mr Walter McLay) and sufficient skilled staff to manage the operation.
The party arrived in Wellington on July 25,1894, and secured premises in Cornhill Street. Match production was begun almost right away. The immediate success of the venture can be gauged from the fact that a year later, in 1895. Mr Bell built a new and larger factory in Riddiford Street, Newton, which was opened by the Premier, the Rt. Hon. Richard Seddon in July.
At the end of 1895 there were two substantial and successful match producing enterprises in New Zealand, Rutherford's New Zealand Wax Vesta Co Ltd in Dunedin and R Bell and Co in Wellington. European imports were tailing off by now and the only serious competition remaining for the two firms was from Bryant and May in England. Early in the new century negotiations began between Bells and Bryant and May with amalgamation in mind and this finally came about in 1910 with the registration of a new New Zealand company - Bryant and May, Bell and Company. Gradually the new firm consolidated its position and after decades of refinement and expansion still produces most matches used in New Zealand today.
As for the type of matches produced by these early firms, this was dictated almost totally by public preference and demand and is best reflected in the name of the Dunedin enterprise - The New Zealand Wax Vesta Co Ltd. Wax vestas were "strike anywhere" matches. They were very convenient but did have several serious drawbacks. If stood upon, they ignited readily and as well as that, a large number of house fires in early years were attributable to rats chewing the waxed match shafts for food and scraping their teeth across the match heads, which more often than not resulted in instant flames. They were dangerous in the hands of children too. Yet despite these defects, consumers seemed unwilling to accept the alternative - safety matches -and initial attempts at introducing them on to the New Zealand market met with failure. Almost immediately after Bryant and May merged with R Bell and Co in 1910, New Zealand's first wooden safety matches appeared on the shop shelves under the brand names "Rising Sun" and "Southern Cross". But it was an exercise in futility and their production was soon suspended. It wasn't until 1933 that another serious attempt was made, and this time the move was successful, and the "Beehive" brand of safety matches has been a household word ever since.
Meanwhile, the New Zealand Wax Vesta Co delayed its safety match production until 1954 and in doing so may have left its run a little late. By then the opposition had the market sewn up and what with the steadily declining demand for the old wax vestas, and the ever increasing cost of production, the Dunedin firm entered a difficult period in 1955, from which it never recovered. Wax vestas are no longer produced in New Zealand. The decision was taken in 1962 by Bryant and May to finally end the production of their wax vestas and when stocks ran out in 1963 an era ended. The one firm from then on produced just one type of match and right up to the present day nothing much has changed. The advent of cheap cigarette lighters and a general move towards electricity for cooking and for winter heating requirements has meant that the production rate of matches these days is nowhere near as great as it may otherwise have been.
At first "matches" were called "vestas" after Vesta the Roman goddess of "hearth and home". But when a patent was taken out in 1855 by Francis May for a safety match, these came to be known as "matches", because to obtain a flame the chemical on the striking surface had to "match" that on the match head. A popular early name for all matches was "lucifer". from the Latin "lux - light" and "fero - bring". Matches were literally "light bringers". The exclamations "Strike!" and "Strike a light!" refer back to the time when the results of striking a match were viewed with some awe and surprise, and the most common slang term for a match in New Zealand was "Jack Scratcher".
Since 1827, when matches were first inventedbyJohn Walker, three basic types have been produced over the years - wax vestas, wooden safetys and book or folder matches.
WAX VESTAS: The shanks of wax vestas were formed by braiding up to 20 strands of thin cotton together then drawing them through a trough of wax-like substance on to a drum. When dry, the process was repeated a number of times until the "taper" built up to the correct thickness. It was then cut to match lengths, one end dipped into a phosphoric substance to form the heads, and after drying, the completed matches were boxed.
WOODEN SAFETY MATCHES: The secret of a good wooden match is in the selection of the timber used for its production. This must be straight-grained, easy to work, white, odourless and gum-free. It can't be too hard, or it may split or snap during production and use. And neither can it be too soft least it bend out of shape, or prove difficult to handle during the manufacturing process. Poplar was recognised early on as the one tree whose timber met all these requirements, and those poplars grown in Canada have proved most suitable to New Zealand manufacturers. There, the logs are veneered and chopped into "splints" by guillotine before export, so that upon arrival here they are all ready for cutting to length, and dipping to form the heads. The safety match head is composed of sulphur and chlorate of potash which will not ignite until struck against the red phosphorous present on the striking surface of the box.
MATCH BOOKS AND MATCH FOLDERS:
These are all "safety" matches except that instead of wooden splints, the shafts are formed from laminated paper or cardboard. They are marketed in small sheets protected by a covering folder and as each individual match is required for use it must be first torn from the rest. Match books and folders are generally given away by trading establishments as a courtesy gesture or for advertising purposes and are not usually obtainable from normal retail outlets.
MATCH CONTAINERS OVER THE YEARS:
While matches were marketed in small cardboard boxes as far back as the 1830s, they were far more likely to have first appeared in New Zealand in metal boxes formed from thin sheet steel. With the possible exception in 1889 of Gregg's matches, for which no container of any kind has yet been found, this is how it was until 1894 when R Bell and Co of Wellington began making useof both types of container simultaneously. After this, cardboard slowly but surely began to take over from metal until finally, when the use of wooden safety matches had become widespread, the manufacture of metal match boxes was discontinued.