When William Booth took on the big manufacturers of safety matches – and won

Justin Welby’s invitation to credit union’s to join with the Church and ‘outcompete Wonga’ stands in a great tradition of evangelical social reform. It reminds me particularly of the case of William Booth and the matchmaker bosses.

The manufacture of safety matches was big business in Victorian England. But shockingly many workers, who were usually women, suffered a form of jaw necrosis called ‘Phossy Jaw’. An occupational disease among those working with white phosphorus, it resulted in painful tooth and jaw-ache, swelling of the gums and, over time, chronic abscesses with a foul smelling discharge. The jaws also took on an erie greenish white ‘glow’ in the dark. Unless the affected areas were removed surgically, the results could be fatal.

This was an ugly, painful, dangerous and severely disfiguring disease that could easily be prevented by using the safer, though more expensive, red phosphorus, and following good occupational hygiene.

But the factory bosses preferred to sell their matches cheap, and their workers continued to suffer.

So in 1891 William Booth, who had founded the Salvation Army in 1865, became a match-maker. He purchased a derelict factory, did it up, installed machinery and ensured high ventilation and good hygiene. And he used only Red Phosphorus.

Then, joining with sympathetic retailers around the country, he campaigned to get them to  sell his new matches ‘for the sake of the workers’. As boxes of ‘Lights in Darkest England’ appeared in homes around the country, his competitors were made to feel the financial as well as moral pressure, and the use of white phosphorus declined rapidly.

And then William Booth closed his factory down.

Like William Booth, Justin Welby believes that we don’t have to choose between saving men’s souls and improving the quality of their lives. The one motivates the other.

But  William Booth never forgot the sense of passion and priority that led him to found his Salvation Army in the first place : ‘To get a man soundly saved it is not enough to put on him a pair of new breeches, to give him regular work, or even to give him a University education. These things are all outside a man, and if the inside remains unchanged you have wasted your labour…’

I’m praying that Justin Welby stays rooted in that tradition too.

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One Response to When William Booth took on the big manufacturers of safety matches – and won

  1. Pingback: The Church of England’s Gospel of Human Flourishing: Whatever Became of of Sin? | Greater reality

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