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Clive Murphy’s Matchbox Labels

October 11, 2016
by the gentle author

Clive Murphy, Phillumenist

Nothing about this youthful photo of the novelist, oral historian and writer of ribald rhymes, Clive Murphy – resplendent here in a well-pressed tweed suit and with his hair neatly brushed – would suggest that he was a Phillumenist. Even people who have known him since he came to live in Spitalfields in 1973 never had an inkling. In fact, evidence of his Phillumeny only came to light when Clive donated his literary archive to the Bishopsgate Institute and a non-descript blue album was uncovered among his papers, dating from the era of this picture and with the price ten shillings and sixpence still written in pencil in the front.

I was astonished when I saw the beautiful album and so I asked Clive to tell me the story behind it. “I was a Phillumenist,” he admitted to me in a whisper, “But I broke all the rules in taking the labels off the matchboxes and cutting the backs off matchbooks. A true Phillumenist would have a thousand fits to see my collection.” It was the first time Clive had examined his album of matchbox labels and matchbook covers since 1951 when, at the age of thirteen, he forsook Phillumeny – a diversion that had occupied him through boarding school in Dublin from 1944 onwards.

“A memory is coming back to me of a wooden box that I made in carpentry class which I used to keep them in, until I put them in this album,” said Clive, getting lost in thought, “I wonder where it is?” We surveyed page after page of brightly-coloured labels from all over the world pasted in neat rows and organised by their country of origin, inscribed by Clive with blue ink in a careful italic hand at the top of each leaf. “I have no memory of doing this.” he confided to me as he scanned his handiwork in wonder,“Why is the memory so selective?”

“I was ill-advised and I do feel sorry in retrospect that they are not as a professional collector would wish,” he concluded with a sigh, “But I do like them for all kinds of other reasons, I admire my method and my eye for a pattern, and I like the fact that I occupied myself – I’m glad I had a hobby.”

We enjoyed a quiet half hour, turning the pages and admiring the designs, chuckling over anachronisms and reflecting on how national identities have changed since these labels were produced. Mostly, we delighted at the intricacy of thought and ingenuity of the decoration once applied to something as inconsequential as matches.

“There was this boy called Spring-Rice whose mother lived in New York and every week she sent him a letter with a matchbox label in the envelope for me.” Clive recalled with pleasure, “We had breaks twice each morning at school, when the letters were given out, and how I used to long for him to get a letter, to see if there was another label for my collection.” The extraordinary global range of the labels in Clive’s album reflects the widely scattered locations of the parents of the pupils at his boarding school in Dublin, and the collection was a cunning ploy that permitted the schoolboy Clive to feel at the centre of the world.

“You don’t realise you’re doing something interesting, you’re just doing it because you like pasting labels in an album and having them sent to you from all over the world.” said Clive with characteristic self-deprecation, yet it was apparent to me that Phillumeny prefigured his wider appreciation of what is otherwise ill-considered in existence. It is a sensibility that found full expression in Clive’s exemplary work as an oral historian, recording the lives of ordinary people with scrupulous attention to detail, and editing and publishing them with such panache.

Clive Murphy, Phillumenist

Images courtesy of the Clive Murphy Archive at the Bishopsgate Institute

You may like to read my other stories about Clive Murphy

Clive Murphy, Writer

A Walk With Clive Murphy

At Clive Murphy’s Flat

Clive Murphy’s oral histories are available from Labour and Wait

11 Responses leave one →
  1. October 11, 2016

    What a great pleasure it has been to look at these wonderful cards shown so well by my iPad. Clive must be thrilled to see them displayed in this way too. To think he cut up the books and pasted the interesting bit into a scrapbook and that this might be considered sacrilegious to the true collector seems slightly nonsensical when they now live on in this dazzling digital fashion to be enjoyed by many. Who would have thought it?

  2. October 11, 2016

    What a fantastic collection. Clive may not have used the ‘correct’ method, but his collection is just beautiful as it is. Valerie

  3. October 11, 2016

    Yes really fascinating stuff and these quite rare images display so well online.

  4. Helen Breen permalink
    October 11, 2016

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, thanks for sharing yet another fascinating collection. Remember when match books were popular favors at weddings and for other special occasions? Today we are hard pressed to find a match to light candles on a birthday cake, eh?

    That was so kind of Clive’s friend’s mother to send those treasures in her weekly letters. The name “Spring-Rice” keeps appearing in American and British diplomatic history in the early 20th century. Sir Cecil Arthur Spring Rice (1859-1918) served as the British Ambassador to the US just before his death. He had children who lived in New York. The family had strong ties in Ireland, particularly in Limerick.

  5. Ros permalink
    October 11, 2016

    Cecil Spring-Rice wrote the words to ‘I vow to thee my country’, later set to music by Holst. Just saying… Marvellously vibrant collection!

  6. Chris F permalink
    October 11, 2016

    I love these tiny artworks… I have approximately 20,000 of these from all over the world. My favourites are from India (Pre-Independence) and also Eastern Europe circa 50s & 60s. There are some great collections on the Internet on sites such as Pinterest and for anyone wanting to start a collection, then eBay is a good hunting ground.

  7. October 12, 2016

    Bryant & May Redhead matches are still being produced and sold here in Australia. The Redhead is celebrating her 60th anniversary this year.

  8. October 12, 2016

    Wonderful Graphic Design from ancient Times!

    Love & Peace

  9. Sue permalink
    October 13, 2016

    What a wonderful collection. As a child in the Fifties I collected cigarette packs and my brother collected matchbox covers. Sadly all long gone now.

  10. October 16, 2016

    I have fallen completely in love with the little Punch figure on one of the matchbooks.
    Thanks for a wonderful tour of these special (saved) glories. The true sign of a collector –
    the knack of seeing value in overlooked things. Excellent!

  11. Chris permalink
    November 21, 2019

    My grandfather was a collector of matchbook labels, when he passed away he left them all to me, I dont have a clue what to do with them I have about 20 a4 folders full of them, I love looking through them but really they are just sat there doing nothing, anybody have any ideas what I should do with them

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