Robert Lowe, the chancellor of the exchequer, proposed a new duty on matches in 1871. Each box was to bear a stamp, with the image of a flame and the words “Ex luce lucellum” – or “from light, a little gain”. The joke remarked one Liberal politician, might “divert a college common room”, but the thought of Oxford dons smiling over a tax on the poor was bad politics.
A leading economist rallied to the defence of the tax, arguing that the poor should contribute to the state in proportion to their means. If they did not, surely taxes would fall on capital which would flee to foreign countries and so lead to unemployment. Such arguements were no match for the bad politics of Latin puns, and the tax was abandoned in a matter of weeks. Bryant and May, the great match manufacturer, erected a celebratory drinking fountain on Bow Road to mark the defeat of the tax:
The Stamps were produced but unissued.