Tuesday, March 29, 2011

April 24, 1871 --- The Match Tax

Police outside the House of Commons clash with a stone-throwing crowd of protesters, drawn thither by a proposed tax on matches. The author of the controversial levy, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Robert Lowe, avoids the angry mob by entering Westminster via an underground passageway.

Lowe (left) proposed to meet an expected deficit with a ha'penny tax on a box of wooden matches, a full penny on the "more aristocratic" waxed matches. In a speech to the Commons, Lowe had jested that the public would not object to a tax on matches when it was explained that it did not apply to "matrimonial engagements." His confidence was premature.

The "riotous assemblage" at Westminster includes hundreds of boys and girls employed at the sprawling Bryant & May matchworks in the East End. The company had predicted the tax, which would not apply to imported matches, would drive down sales and force hundreds of workers onto the streets. Even the Queen was alarmed, "The tax will seriously affect the manufacture and sale of matches, which is said to be the sole means of support of a vast number of the very poorest people and little children, especially in London, so that this tax, which it is intended should press om all equally, will in fact be only severely felt by the poor, which would be very wrong and most impolitic at the present moment."

The march to Parliament had been peaceful until labor agitators rally the crowds with inflammatory speeches. A placard reads: "Agitate, Agitate, Agitate, and insist upon the withdrawal of this iniquitous tax on British industry." The crowd is subjected to some rather rough-handling by police ordered to clear New Palace Yard; soon "an ill-behaved gathering [becomes] a resisting, howling mob."

Support-for the tax, never very strong, quickly collapsed and a chastened Mr. Lowe - greeted with mock cheers and sneering laughter - was forced to report to the Commons that the proposed match levy had been withdrawn. Poor Lowe - who had acted on the advice of several renowned economists - was made to look the fool. The Hornet - for example - caricatured him as "The Naughty Boy who played with the Lucifer matches and burnt his fingers."

No comments:

Post a Comment