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Updated: Mar 11



“. . a tax from matches. I do not mean matrimonial engagements. . . . (matches) are among the most splendid boons . . . they are among the greatest advantages we enjoy.” [1]

With this somewhat ill-judged attempt at humour on 20th April 1871, in the House of Commons, Chancellor Robert Lowe introduced his proposal to raise taxes from matches, an idea he said he’d got from America. He tried more humour by saying that he found his enquiries there “a rather combustible affair”.

His proposals were:

  • a halfpenny stamp on every box of 100 matches

  • a penny stamp on a box of 100 wax lights (considered “more aristocratic”)

  • a penny stamp on a box of 100 fusees (“instrumental in the consumption of tobacco”)


He calculated that from the 600 million boxes made in a year, he would secure £550,000, which today would be £65m!

As you can see on the stamps above, he also proposed to use the now infamous motto ‘Ex Luce Lucellum’. This translates as ‘Out of Light. A Little Profit”. Lowe was known for his Latin classic quotations, a trait for which he would come to be ridiculed.

In the same speech, he also mocked the Bryant and May trademark - the Noah’s Ark emblem - used both on boxes and the factory buildings. He described it as “a rather watery idea”.


After some debate and criticism, the motion was noted on, passed with a majority of 157, and was reported for a second debate.

This result fitted very well with the description that Lowe himself had given his Office in 1870 : “The Chancellor of the Exchequer is a man whose duties make him more or less a taxing machine. He is entrusted with a certain amount of misery which it his duty to distribute as fairly as he can” [2]

The next day a further debate [3] produced more criticism from MPs:

  • The tax in question possessed all the elements which could render it objectionable

  • There was a strong public feeling against the proposed tax

  • America put a heavy tax on lucifer matches, the effect had been to deteriorate the quality

  • It was a novel and trumpery tax and should be opposed

  • The tax should be withdrawn

  • The tax would be of no small consequences to the poor

  • No measure had tended to make the Government so unpopular as this tax

  • The making of matchboxes; if you half killed the trade you took away half the employment of these poor people

  • One of the most unpopular taxes ever proposed

Nevertheless, the House was divided and ended up supporting with a majority of 62, and the ‘Resolution on National Expenditure’ went forward for debate on Monday 24th April. However, before that debate could take place, the Queen and the people spoke!


What the Queen probably hadn’t been told was that the East End people had also been aroused. That arousal started thirty years earlier, when the Queen had been petitioned for recreational land , and had then given her name – the Victoria Park.

A notice convening a meeting for Sunday 23rd April was posted extensively over the district saying : “The cruel match tax, which means ruin to the poor in the East-end. Fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers, one and all meet in large numbers on Sunday afternoon in Victoria Park, to protest against this unjust tax before it becomes law.”

A Mr Mackey, Mr Martyn, Mr Brooker, Mr Proudfoot and Mr Vandy (all thought to be engaged at Bryant and May) were among the speakers – it was described as “a large and well conducted meeting” and it was decided a “monster procession” would start at noon the next day from Bow Road to Westminster to present a petition to the House of Commons.

Several thousand joined the march, assembling in the neighbourhood of Bow Station, and they were advised to “Keep orderly. Keep in the ranks. Do not violate the law in any way; follow the bands.” Some carried banners, while men and boys wore a printed bill in their caps. One banner read “We want to work, and old Lucifer Lowe wants to take it away from us.” It must have been a high spirited occasion with “many conspicuously emblazoned effusions on glazed calico of various colours, the procession preceded by a van with a brass band and a couple of coal wagons crowded with men and women”. A chorus threatened the Chancellor with (to the tune of John Brown’s Body):

“We’d hang Bob Lowe,

Yes, we’d hang Robert Lowe on a sour apple tree”


However, after about a mile, at Globe Bridge, they were halted by a line of police. There was confrontation, the police using staves. Some marchers got through, others split off into side streets and met up again to continue the march.

At the Embankment, a covered cart was driven up. It had placards pasted all over – “Are we to be starved to death by the thousands?”. There was a further confrontation with police on the Embankment, some placards being seized and broken up, although some got through.


There was a serious event at Palace Yard involving staves, sticks, stones and other missiles. The procession got through to Westminster Hall but were prevented from getting to the Lobby. They were driven back but stood at the road facing Palace Yard, “applauding and hooting” different members of the House. They “hissed and groaned” at Gladstone, while Disraeli received “repeated cheers”. Lowe avoided the demonstrators by entering Parliament through a tunnel [5], [6], [7], [8].

The conduct of the police was later described as “harsh and even brutal”, and questions raised as to why they interfered with “an orderly and harmless procession”, when recently “Republican demonstrations had been held with impunity[9].

Punch was later to illustrate the issue [10].


The House of Commons debate on Monday 24th April brought forth MPs’ criticisms, and here is a selection of quotes [11]:

“I have presented three petitions from the metropolitan manufacturers and their work people”

“The proposed tax would destroy the livelihood of a large class of poor people”

“The proposed petty tax”

“The obnoxious match tax”

“One of the worst proposals that the Chancellor of the Exchequer could have made”

“The right hon. Gentleman should reconsider his Budget”

“The most objectionable of duties”

“The tax would reduce the match trade by at least a third”

“The match tax a most cruel impost”

“A tax upon a trade, the occupation of the poor and upon one of their necessaries of life”

“It offended against every canon laid down by Adam Smith”

“Likely to entail inconvenience or provoke irritation in the country”

Thus, on 25th April, the Chancellor acknowledged that his proposal for a match tax had “excited considerable dissatisfaction and disapprobation”. He announced that “the measure with regard to matches will not be proceeded with further” [12].

On the 27th April, questions were asked in the Commons about the conduct of the police but the Home Secretary, Mr Bruce, claimed that the procession was ”headed by a gentleman who is partner in one of the principal firms engaged in the making of lucifer matches – I believe it was Mr May – used this expression to the inspector of police – “I have no fault to find with you, and I believe you have no fault to find with me”” [13].

Further debate on 1st May added more anguish for the Chancellor, because it revealed that he had already instructed ‘Messrs. Delarue’ to prepare stamps for his tax. He tried to mitigate by reporting that “the expense would be less than £1000” [14]. That’s about £120,000 today.

‘Messrs. Delarue’ had been set up by Thomas De La Rue in 1821, and by 1853 was already printing stamps for the Inland Revenue. It became the international De La Rue plc we know today.


In the week following the withdrawal of the Tax proposal, Robert Lowe found himself the object of ridicule.

The Hornet comic showed Lowe as a ‘Naughty Boy who played with lucifer matches’.

National Portrait Gallery D48234

Bryant and May marked the success by producing the Chancellor Match [15], and then built a relief ‘Ex Luce Lucellum’ design into its gatehouse.

The Punch Magazine made several jibes ridiculing Lowe’s liking for the Classics [16].

Matchmakers to the Rescue

“Ex luce lucellum!”

How if makers mis-tell um?

And boys cease to sell um?

And buyers expel um?

Fer, Lucifer, bellum!

Bob Lowii ocellum

Confodi tenellum!

And then came the stinging mockery [17]:

In an article entitled 'Classicality for the Humbler Classes', we have [18]:

“Box o’ Matches? Bob Lowe’s prime ones” – “Piridiculum Facuarum Robertali Lowe Prestantium”

Punch also likened the Match Tax affair to William Pitt’s Salt tax of 1805 [19].

Followed by the double jibe [20]:


[We assure everyone of the 798 contributors that he alone sent us the above epigram. Please, no more]

Two years after the Tax humiliation, the caricaturist Carlo Pellegrini added to it by producing a terracotta statuette of Lowe, standing on a box of matches inscribed ‘Ex luce lucellum’.

National Portrait Gallery 5160

Fun was still made of him as late as 1931. In its ‘Hints for Teachers’, the Classical Journal made reference with [21]:

Ex luce lucellum. Your motto we know,

But if Lucy won’t sell ’em, what then Mr Lowe?


The Chancellor Lowe thought a tax on a match

With a neat Latin motto might pass for a joke;

He made a mistake – when he came to the scratch,

His law and his lucifers ended in smoke.

Robert Lowe entered the Gladstone Cabinet as Chancellor in 1868, and his failures are remembered rather than his successes. In 1873 he was transferred to the Home Office but then the Liberal Government was defeated in 1874 at the General Election. Gladstone had described him as ‘wretchedly deficient’ and it is believed Queen Victoria had similar views but, nevertheless, Lowe was raised to the peerage as 1st Viscount Sherbrooke [22]. He died on 27th July 1892, and is buried in Brookwood Cemetery, Surrey.


The success of the protest was celebrated with the construction of a Testimonial Drinking Fountain outside Bow Station [23].


You can read more about this in our 150th anniversary Blog about the opening of the drinking fountain HERE.


[1] Hansard HC Deb 20 April 1871 vol205 cc1391-1455

[2] Hansard HC Deb 11 April 1870 vol200 cc1639

[3] Hansard HC Deb 21 April 1871 vol205 cc1528-1538

[4] G.E. Buckle (Ed) The Letters of Queen Victoria, Vol 5 p131 (1926)

[5] London Evening Standard 24th April 1871 p3

[6] London Evening Standard 25th April 1871 p6

[7] The Morning Advertiser 25th April 1871 p6

[8] East London Observer 29th April 1871 p2

[9] East London Observer 29th April1871 p4

[10] Punch 6th May 1871 p 181

[11] Hansard HC Deb 24 April 1871 vol205 cc1585-1676

[12] Hansard HC Deb 25 April 1871 vol 205 cc1685-6

[13] Hansard HC Deb 27 April 1871 vol 205 cc1774-7

[14] Hansard HC Deb 01 May 1871 vol205 cc1931-2

[15] Patrick Beaver, 1985, The Match Makers p48, Pub. Henry Melland

[16] Punch 29th April 1871, p174

[17] Punch 6th May 1871, p186

[18] Punch 15th July 1871 p19

[19] Punch 6th May 1871 p178

[20] Punch 6th May 1871 p 180

[21] The Classical Journal, W.A. Ellis et al, Vol 26, No.9 June 1931, p717

[22] The London Gazette 25th May 1880 p317

[23] The Illustrated London News, October 12th, 1872, p300

Acknowledgement: Punch Images ©

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