The Many Indignities of John Walker: Inventor of the Friction Match (Stockton-on-Tees)

Images which have all at some point been claimed to depict Stockton-born inventor John Walker. None of the attributions have been proved (the middle one is Civil Engineer James Walker)

Perhaps the least inspiring piece of public art we’ve seen is the one below. A low-effort plastic sign paying tribute to a man who deserves much better: Stockton-on-Tees’ own John Walker – the creator of the friction match and a man who seemingly can’t get a posthumous break.

Behold! Public art.

Walker – born in 1781 – was a chemist who noticed that a stick coated with chemicals burst into flames when he scraped it across his fireplace. From this he devised his famous matches, which he sold from his pharmacy on 59 High Street. In a noble gesture, he refused to patent his idea in the hope that it could be used by all.

And what better tribute to Walker’s vital contribution to mankind than the piece above? Not even a flame. Must do better.

But surprisingly that bodge job was the least of the public art indignities that Walker suffered at the hands of his hometown.

Mayor Laurie Wild unwittingly unveils the wrong John Walker. Photo from Stockton Library Service.

In 1977, Stockton mayor Laurie Wild unveiled a bust of Walker on the High Street at the cost of £1400, which, according to local newspaper The Northern Echo, was largely met by match companies.

Another image falsely claimed to be of John Walker. Possibly the actor of the same name.

The problem was, the bust didn’t depict the right John Walker: instead of the Stockton match-maker, it portrayed an 18th Century actor with the same name but no connection to the town. The mistake was noted in a council meeting by Reuben Kench – the local authority’s Head of Culture, Leisure and Adult Learning.

The bust was last seen at the Castlegate Centre, but with its impending demolition in May I’m not sure where it’ll end up. Perhaps it’ll make its way to London, where the actor plied his trade.

It remains to be seen if it’ll be third time’s a charm for the luckless matchmaker. We wait with baited breath.

The Matchstick “Sculpture”

The Current Site of the Bust

4 thoughts on “The Many Indignities of John Walker: Inventor of the Friction Match (Stockton-on-Tees)

  1. Alan April 2, 2022 / 9:25 am

    Hello, I am the Editor of the “Match Label News” and am very interested in your post about John Walker, the inventor of the friction match. I should like to know more about the “new” photo of what I assume you have posted as John Walker of friction match fame. Is this the correct person? I already knew that the statue was said not be be the correct image of him.


  2. Alan April 4, 2022 / 10:43 am

    Hello Daniel, thank you for your reply. I conclude that Gettyimages are promoting the picture of James Walker (Civil Engineer) and not as their caption states John Walker (of friction match fame). I would rather trust that The National Portrait Gallery picture correctly shows it as James Walker. So, we are no further in establishing a photograph of John Walker. I imagine that may never be possible, after such a long time. Our Society (BML&BS) is currently considering how we should best celebrate John Walker’s invention of the friction match on its 200th anniversary in 2026.


    • Daniel Cochran April 4, 2022 / 11:37 am

      Indeed Alan, I’d tend to agree and will update the captions on both images. I think as long as you don’t mess it up as much as the old Stockton council did you’ll be fine!


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