William Booth’s Match-girls

History offers us lessons about how we should handle wealth. The Biblical principles of capitalism led to the economic system which allowed a middle class to rise and society as a whole to advance and prosper. It was the gradual triumph of the Judeo-Christian principles that allowed Europe to rise out of the cruel and oppressive economic systems of the Greek and Roman empires.

Capitalism without restriction led to abuses, especially evident during the period of Western colonization and industrialization. Through out these periods it was Christian leaders who lead to the establishment of civil rights, including the protection of children, limitations on labor, and care for the elderly and infirm. We should be grateful for many of those steps that tempered capitalism. William Booth helping the match-girls was one of those Christian leaders. Here is his story:

The plight of Britain’s match-girls was first brought to the public’s attention in 1888. Following a widely publicized strike, General William Booth, the founder of The Salvation Army, decided to carry out his own investigations into the British match industry. It was soon discovered that many match-girls suffering from the effects of severe pain in the jaw, which was a direct result of the use of yellow phosphorus in the manufacture of the match heads. So toxic were the fumes from this chemical that, unknown to the match-girls, the phosphorus was attacking their jaws. Soon the whole side of the face turned green, then black, discharging a foul pus. This painful disease – necrosis of the bone – became known as ‘phossy jaw’. Its only outcome was death.

The factory owners were fully aware of the dangers of using yellow phosphorus but most manufacturers took very little action to remedy complaints. This was due to a fear of a cut in profits and foreign competition. Match-girls were subjected to
very long hours of labor with little or no breaks. Not only did this cause the girls to be exhausted but also meant that they frequently ate while they were working and so the phosphorus spread from their hands to their teeth. As matchbox making required no previous training it figured at the bottom of the pay scale of the industry.

Booth decided to challenge the whole industry. In 1891, The Salvation Army opened a clean, airy, well-lit factory where harmless red phosphorus was used in the match-making process. Booth called the matches ‘Lights in Darkest England’. Tea making facilities were made available and the 100 workers received decent wages – more than one third above the rate in other factories. 
Ten years after the opening of his match factory, Booth closed it, having achieved his original purpose ‘to raise the wages of the matchbox makers, to fight against sweating, and to help the poor to help themselves by labor’.



Compassionate Capitalism – A Judeo-Christian Valueby Harold Eberle, 2010, Worldcast Publishing. Pg. 131

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