Leading Article: We shall not see their light again

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BRITAIN'S last match factory, Bryant & May in Liverpool, is to close and 94 jobs will be lost. A nation mourns? Possibly not, but the news may be greeted with a little rumination and some interesting facts. The match, like so much other technology which flared in the 19th century and sputtered in the 20th, was a British invention, first produced by John Walker, a chemist at Stockton-on-Tees, in 1827. Walker's match worked, but its white phosphorus tips caused a condition known as fossy jaw, which in turn caused smokers' teeth to fall out (as well as more terrible damage to the people, mainly young girls, who worked in match factories). Sweden refined the match and made it safe, and it was from Sweden that William Bryant and Francis May began to import matches in 1850. Now Sweden has claimed back its inheritance. Swedish Match, a subsidiary of Volvo, took over Bryant & May in 1988. From next year all those gallant names - England's Glory, Scottish Bluebell, Swan Vestas - will come out of a place called Tidaholm, though their ultimate fate is uncertain. Matches are in the position known as long-term decline. Twenty years ago, Bryant & May produced 100 billion a year from four factories. Last year it produced 16 billion from one. Smoking is on the wane; disposable lighters can be bought on the street at four for pounds 1; gas cookers are ignited with electric sparks; coal fires have almost vanished.

Much of the skill and etiquette that went with match use has disappeared. Do men still strike the match towards them, and women away? Are there still British seafarers who can light a pipe in the wind? Does anyone remember that Swan Vestas are named after Vesta, the Roman goddess of hearth and household? These were the hidden benefits of smoking and a classical education.