Lucifers Inferno & its Ghosts – Millfield, Belfast 1882

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The Lucifer Fire
The Lucifer Fire


In December 1882, as the inhabitants of Belfast were preparing for the Christmas festivities, a tragedy occurred that cast a pall over at least one area of the town.

A factory fire in one of the poorest areas, Millfield, left 4 dead. That these were all young people added to the shock and sorrow. For some it seemed a vindication that only misfortune could result from a business named Lucifer Matchstick Factory. However, fire was not the only hazard for those working in the matchstick industry.

Lucifer Matchsticks – Convenient and Deadly

One of the most useful inventions of the 19th century was the advent of the friction matchstick. Matchsticks had been around, in various forms, since Egyptian times, but in 1827 an English chemist, John Walker, produced a matchstick tipped with chemicals that could be ignited on sandpaper.

Seemingly a simple, reliable and convenient source of combustion that was used in every household, business and industry. However, nothing is ever that simple.

Mr Walker did not patent his invention but in 1829 an exact copy was patented by a Mr Samuel Jones of London. He launched a ‘friction light’ matchstick under the name of Lucifers. The name was said to originate from the Latin word ‘lucifer’ meaning ‘light bringing’. However, for most folk at the time, it probably conjured up images of hellfire!

Growth of Lucifer Matchstick Production

The match was quick and cheap to produce. Lucifer Match factories sprang up in their hundreds to meet the demand. Young girls were hired to pack the matchsticks in boxes. The combination of a sliver of wood tipped with flammable chemicals seemed a godsend to the growing population who wanted light and heating in their homes. It was also invaluable for industry and transport. However, the chemical that produced the flame was phosphorous.

The Horror of Phosphorous/ ‘Phossy Jaw

White phosphorous is highly toxic. The young women who worked day in and day out in close proximity to the poison developed a horrendous condition Phosphorus Necrosis, known as ‘phossy jaw’.

Vapour from the chemical destroys the bones of the jaw. Early symptoms were persistent painful toothache and swollen gums. Tooth loss and abscesses came next. By 6 months the lower jaw bone was perforated with tiny holes and was dead bone. The affected area would glow greenish-white in the dark.

If left untreated, the decay would spread and organs would fail. It resulted in a slow and painful death. Disfigurement and foul-smelling discharge ensued as the victim basically rotted away. Organ failure and brain damage followed with fatal consequences.

“Words do not adequately describe the pain and disfigurement the patient suffered. The condition was sometimes called ‘matchmakers leprosy’ and these victims were ostracized like lepers. The smell of necrotic tissue and the drainage was so bad that family members could not stay in the same room as the patient”

Howard Fischer, A Journal of Medical Humanities, 2022

Contemporary Treatment

Treatment at that time was drastic, the cutting away of the ‘necrosed’ (diseased / dead) bone. Removal of the lower jaw was a traumatic operation, sometimes carried out without anaesthetic. With little in the way of antibiotics, recovery was slow and painful. The patient was left deformed and with a life-long reduced ability to chew, often leading to malnutrition.

Factory Workers
Factory Workers

The Advent of ‘Safety Matches’

By the 1830’s the illness was known and documented by doctors. However, it took nearly 70 years of campaigning before the lethal chemical was banned and a safer (and more expensive) phosphorous was used in match production of ‘Safety Matches‘ – the red-tipped matches still used today.

Finland was the first country in the world to ban white phosphorous in 1872. In England, and therefore Ireland, it was not prohibited until 1910.

“The demand for the new ‘strike-anywhere’ matches was enormous, creating a profitable international industry. It also led to a new industrial disease that lasted until roughly 1906, when the production of phosphorous matches was outlawed by the International Berne Convention”

Susan Isaac, ‘Phossy Jaw’ and the Matchgirls, 2018
The approximate location of Millfield Place today - at Castlecourt car park
The approximate location of Lucifers Factory, Millfield Place today – at Castlecourt car park

Millfield’s Lucifer Matchstick Fire

The Cause of the Fire

Around 11:45 am on Friday 15th December 1882, work was carrying on as usual in the Lucifer Matchstick Factory in Millfield Place.

From evidence given at the inquest what happened next occurred in an instant. A young man named John Mullen from 87 Market Street, who had been employed for about 10 weeks, was walking through the drying shed.

He unknowingly stood on a drop of composition (the flammable chemical compound) that had fallen on the earthen floor. A witness saw a spark fly up and land on the nearby drying frames. These were iron frames that held the matchstick wood while the sulphur dried before cutting, boxing and marketing.

The Fire Starts
The Fire Starts

Within seconds the 54 frames were ablaze and the flames had reached the low roof. In 4 minutes the whole shed was alight and spreading rapidly to the adjoining rooms.

“In less than five minutes the whole building was a mass of flame, fed by a large stock of matches, phosphorous compositions, and other highly ignitious compounds, which no water could quench”

Belfast Telegraph, 15th December 1882
Newsletter report on the fire, 16th Dec 1882
Newsletter report on the fire, 16th Dec 1882
News of the fire, Belfast Evening Telegraph 15th Dec 1882
News of the fire, Belfast Evening Telegraph 15th Dec 1882

John Carbery from 10 Townsend Street, who was employed as a dipper in the factory escaped outside. However, on hearing that others were trapped inside at the far end of the burning building, broke a window in the boxing shed and attempted a rescue. He shouted inside but heard nothing. Visibility was nil as the room was filled with noxious black smoke and fumes.

The fire was like a wall of flames, trapping those on the far side

John Carbery's Deposition, Irish News 18th Dec 1882
John Carbery’s Deposition, Irish News 18th Dec 1882

The Victims

“The four unhappy creatures on the other side of the scorching barrier were entirely isolated and cut off. Their cries for succour were as heartrending as the fate which in three or four minutes overtook them was appalling”

Belfast Morning News, 16th December 1882
Escaping the fire
Escaping the fire

The police were quickly on the scene from the Peter’s Hill Barracks, Head Constable Cosgrove and Constables Hanna and Busby.

The Fire Brigade arrived at 5 minutes to noon, led by Superintendent George Reilly. They had two manual engines, but even using several jet hoses it took three hours to put out the blaze.

Fighting the fire
Fighting the fire

The factory premises were gutted but the neighbouring row of terraced houses saved. Four young people however, had lost their lives.

“…. there were found among the debris the charred remains of the four unfortunate workers, hardly distinguishable from the mass of burning and blackened matter in which they were embedded. Friendly hands were found to carry the corpses to a neighbouring house, and to have the relatives of the unhappy victims apprised of the awful fate that had befallen them”

Belfast Telegraph, 15th December 1882

Melancholy Occurrence, Northern Whig 6th Dec 1882
Melancholy Occurrence at Lucifers, Northern Whig 6th Dec 1882

The four people who died in the inferno were –

  • John Phillips aged 18
  • Maggie Johnston aged 16
  • John Brown aged 16 and
  • Mary Lavelle 16.

The girls had been working in the boxing-shed. Three others managed to escape by running through the flames, Lizzie Rippett, Maggie Pyper and Sarah Martin. One employee who was due to work in the boxing-shed that day was Bella Maguire. However, she was late arriving for work and was locked out.

Attempts to save the victims
Attempts to save the victims

Local Community Reaction

A large crowd gathered in the narrow lane outside as news of the tragedy spread though the close-knit community. At dinner time, thousands of millworkers congregated at the scene in commiseration with their fellow workers.

Onlookers view the ruins
Onlookers view the ruins

A cordon of policemen was formed to block off the street. Neighbours, friends and families united in their distress “the female friends of the girls falling into paroxisms of grief”.

Several of Belfast’s elite visited the site during the day including the Lord Mayor Sir E P Cowan, Mr David Cunningham, Mr J A Taylor and the Rev I H Deacon.

The Lucifer Factory

The Lucifer Matchstick Factory was owned by Messrs Samuel Osborne. It is first mentioned in the street directory at 2-4 Millfield Place in 1870. Previously the property was a grocery store run by Mr John McManus.

The narrow lane was packed with residential houses, not an ideal location for such a potentially dangerous enterprise. On the day in question there were 18 employees in the building.

It was a single-storey brick building, composed of 3 rooms, with the drying shed at right angles to the other rooms. The earthen floor was watered every day as a safeguard.

The boxing-shed was 55ft long and 12ft wide with work benches all along the walls. There were two windows, one of which was blocked up. The other window was big enough for the victims to climb through but it is thought they were almost instantly overcome by the poisonous fumes.

The ceiling was of pitch tarpaulin. There was also a skylight but too high to be reached. There was one door. This room was furthest from the outdoor exit. All the deceased were found here.

Ironically a new fireproof building had recently been erected on the opposite side of the drying shed. It was due to come into operation the following day.

“If it had been called into requisition, therefore, but one day sooner, the calamitous results above related would not in all probability occurred”

Belfast Morning News, 16th December 1882

The Inquest

The inquest began at 3:00pm on Saturday 16th December in Mr Roden’s public house at the corner of Divis Street and Lettuce Hill. It was convened by the Borough Coroner Dr R F Dill. The foreman of the jury was Mr Walter Burns. Inspector of Factories, Mr H J Cameron and Inspector of Explosives, Mr George Hewson were present. Mr Samuel Osborne, proprietor of the factory was also there.

Representatives of the owners and the families also took part. It was shown that the factory had been regularly inspected and no concerns raised. (It is interesting to note that under the Factories Act, no safeguards specifically designed for matchstick businesses were ever enacted).

The layout of the premises was discussed, particularly the fact that there was only one route to enter or leave the building.

Sadly, it seems that even when the fire had started at one end of the building, not everyone understood the seriousness of the situation. Martha Watson, of 1 James Pass, was working in the factory on the day in question. She gave evidence that she had run into the drying room and called out to the employees to run as the place was on fire. One of the victims, Maggie Johnston, replied “You would run if it was only a match on fire!

Martha was later commended by the jury for risking her life by carrying out two bowls of highly flammable composite from the building, before they too added to the blaze.

The Inquest begins, Newsletter 20th Dec 1882
The Inquest recommences, Newsletter 20th Dec 1882

The Verdict

The inquest concluded on 19th December. Mr McErlean, who appeared on behalf of the victims’ relatives ended his speech thus

“Could you [the jury] swear by your oaths that that man [Mr Samuel Osborne] did all the business required of him? It was not insured, and his thought was to work the business as cheaply as possible without regard to the safety of the employed. There was another not free from blame, and that was the inspector of factories. It was his duty to visit these places. He should have seen that the factory was at least life-safe”

Belfast Morning News, 20th December 1882

However, the verdict did not allot guilt to any party though they did add “the jury do recommend that the said match factory be conducted with greater care and caution in the future

Earlier Incidents at the Same Site

This was a time when the health and safety of employees was not, generally, high on an employer’s priorities. The working classes had no voice, no vote and were easily replaceable. One local newspaper notes the inherent dangers of having such an industry in the midst of a built-up residential area

“To the uninitiated, the premises in Millfield Place must appear singularly unsuited to a business of the nature of matchmaking, but wisdom follows the event”

Belfast Newsletter, 16th December 1882

However, this was not an isolated, unforeseen incident. The original Lucifer Matchstick Factory in Millfield Place had burnt down just 6 years earlier in 1876. The 1882 fire occurred in the replacement building.

Also, the Fire Brigade had been called out to blazes in the Lucifer Factory at least 3 times in the past 2 years, although, thankfully, no-one had died on those occasions.

The Four Victims

Unfortunately, we know very little about the 4 victims of the Lucifer Factory fire. The lives of ordinary folk were rarely recorded.

Maggie Johnston

We do know that Maggie Johnston was the eldest daughter of the factory manager, Mr Samuel Thompson Johnston.

Mr Johnston tried desperately to save Maggie and the others when the fire broke out. He himself suffered burns and had to be restrained by the workers from further attempts to enter the burning building.

Maggie’s remains were returned to the family home, 14 Wilson Street. She was buried in Belfast City Cemetery on 17th December.

Wilson Street Today
Wilson Street Today

John Phillips

John Phillips was the oldest of the victims, being 18. He resided at 2 Quadrant Street, which ran from Albert Street to Cullingtree Road. He had been working in the factory for about 3 years. It was reported that John could be heard shouting “Save me!” three times, then silence.

John Brown

John Brown lived at 33 English Street, near Milford Street. He had been employed in the factory for a year. Both John Phillips and John Brown worked in the dipping-shed closer to the exterior door. But as their bodies were recovered in the boxing-room, it is believed the boys ran further into the building to try to save Maggie and Mary.

Mary Lavelle

Mary Lavelle, only 16, lived at 33 Cupar Street. She had only been working in the factory just over a week. The cause of death for all four cases was listed as ‘suffocation, effects of burns’.

The Haunting of the Factory

However, this was not the end of the story. Although the Lucifer Factory was uninsured, Mr Osborne must have had sufficient funds, for it was rebuilt in the same location. Obviously Mr Osborne still had no qualms about siting his factory in the midst of a crowded, residential neighbourhood.

The factory is recorded in 1890 and 1892. Notably the name ‘Lucifer’ was dropped. The restored match factory resulted in a terrible time for the residents of Millfield Place. It was said that screaming and crying could regularly be heard emitting from the building during the night. Local people thought that the souls of the victims still believed themselves trapped in the burning factory.

Whether this had anything to do with the factory closure we will never know. The building was knocked down a short time later. Millfield Place in 1894 is just recorded as ’21 small houses’. With the demolition, the ghostly wailings ceased.

The Haunted Matchstick Factory
The Haunted Matchstick Factory

In Conclusion

If you are looking for the story of the Lucifer fire, it usually comes under the heading of Belfast ghost stories. However, this is more than a spooky tale, it is evidence of our social history.

Millfield Place had the dubious ‘distinction’ of being described as the worst slum in Belfast when it was visited by the health inspectors in September 1896 (see link to Millfield post below).

Poor housing with little in the way of sanitation coupled with a meagre diet led to rampant disease, hunger and a high infant mortality rate. Many employers seem to have placed little value on the lives of their workers. However, we can be sure the Johnston, Brown, Phillips and Lavelle families did not consider their children ‘expendable’.

Osborne's Lucifers / Millfield
Osborne’s Lucifers

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Smithfield Mill Collapse (adapted from The Sphere Magazine 1 Feb 1902)
On Monday 20th January 1902, a section of the Smithfield Flax Spinning and Weaving Mill collapsed killing 14 and maiming many. (Image: Smithfield Mill Collapse adapted from The Sphere Magazine 1 Feb 1902)

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