Opposite today’s Bow Church DLR station used to stand a much grander station, and in front was a tall Victorian memorial, erected in 1872 to celebrate a protest against a tax on matches.
The location is significant as it is just around the corner from the famous Bryant & May match factory.
In April 1871, the Chancellor of the Exchequer proposed a halfpenny tax per box on the sale of matches. This lead to massive protests by match workers, supported by their employer (for once) as there were fears this would drive down the sale of matches and lead to redundancies.
Boxes of 70-80 good “lucifer” matches that sold for half-a-penny each would double in price, and cheaper, less well made matches would almost certainly go out of business.
Due to come into effect in May 1871, it required that every box of matches sold to have a tax-paid seal on the lid so that it had to be torn to open the box. The bill also banned the sale of individual matches, which was often a way for the very poor to buy them.
The tax was probably seen as a good idea by the government as it would be levied on the manufacturer, which was easy to apply, but it struck a chord with people who saw this as an inequitable tax on the poor, not just consumers, but also the match girls who made the matches.
On Sunday 23rd April, a large protest meeting was held in Victoria Park, with speeches denouncing the tax as a “means to ruin the poor in the East-End”, and an agreement to lead a protest march the very next day to Parliament.
The reported numbers of the protest that took place on the Monday vary from 3,000 to 10,000, but whatever the numbers were, it was a huge protest for the time, being made mostly of girls and women who assembled in Victoria Park and marched all the way to the Houses of Parliament.
The police set up a number of barricades to stop the march, to no avail as they were too few in number to hold back the surging crowds. Attempts to break up the march as it got to Charing Cross were moderately successful but several thousand made it to Westminster, and around a hundred were even able to break into Parliament and protest in Westminster Hall.
MPs arriving for debates were variously cheered or booed, with Mr Disraeli applauded for supporting the protest, and the Prime Minister, William Gladstone assailed with calls to “Get rid of bobbbie”. Such was the size of the protests that the Chancellor, Robert Lowe had to get to Parliament by sneaking out of Downing Street via the back entrance, catching a tube train from St James to Westminster then taking the subway to Parliament.
The very next day, Tuesday 25th April, the government backed down and dropped the Match Tax.
So great was the publicity around the tax, and the protest, that it was decided to commemorate the event in some means. Just around the corner from the factory was a newly built railway station, Bow station, which had opened in 1850, and the impressive community hall above the station added in 1870.
Two years later, in October 1872, a Testimonial Fountain was installed in a space left open for it.
Although described as being funded by public subscription — the £600 cost was mostly paid for by companies involved in match making, recognising that their businesses had been saved by the Bryant & May girls. The choice of drinking fountain was partly down to the fashion of the time, but also as Mr Bryant was a staunch teetotaler.
Designed by Rowland Plumbe in the popular early gothic style, it had three drinking fountains, and above them a marble statue of Justice sitting on a throne. After it was unveiled, it was formally transferred to the Metropolitan Drinking Fountains Association to look after.
Relations between Bryant & May and its workers were not to remain so cordial though, and in 1888 the mostly female match makers went on strike over their working conditions, and forced the company to back down following a vociferous campaign, later to become known as the Matchgirls strike.
The fountain should still exist, but has been missing for the past 60 years.
The station itself closed to passengers in 1945, and although the station was no longer in use, the community hall was still active, although by now as the Emerald Ballroom. The memorial remained outside, then in 1953 it was removed. Nothing else seemed to change, the forecourt of the station was untouched — they just got rid of the fountain.
That may have been related to a planning application in 1953 to change the use of the upper floors into a social club, but I can’t find a specific reason for its removal. It just happened. No protests seemed to happen, nothing, it was just torn down.
The gods were clearly displeased with this affront, and burnt the social club down just a few years later, resulting in most of the building being demolished, and finally removed entirely in 1985 ahead of the arrival of the DLR. The spot where the fountain once stood is now occupied by a car rental company.
All that remains to remind us, is a small stone plaque in the wall of a building just to the east of the original site.
It reads: “Near this spot stood the Testimonial Fountain erected by public subscription in 1872 to commemorate the part played by Bryant & May and their Work People in securing the abandonment of the proposed Match Tax. Demolished 1953”
They couldn’t even put the plaque in the right place.