Last week’s Object of the Week was the largest we have featured so far – this week’s, on display at Preston Park Museum in Stockton, is the smallest.

JOHN Walker was born on May, 29, 1781 in Stockton.

He was a chemist at the time of industrial revolution and history suggests it was due to a “fortuitous accident” that he helped light the world by developing the household matches that we know today.

At about the age of 15, John was apprenticed to a Mr Watson Alcock, principle surgeon of the town. However, after engaging in his studies he promptly quit the profession – not being able to stomach the then very brutal practice of surgery.

He eventually moved on to set up a chemists and druggist at No 59 High Street in the then very busy developing town of Stockton.

Walker’s great niece, Annie Maria Wilson, said: “My great uncle was a very learned man – in fact, he was affectionately known all over as the ‘Stockton Encyclopaedia’.

“He was strict that when we visited him at his little shop we must not address him as anything but ‘Mr Walker’.”

This etiquette may have been due to his prestigious clientele including the likes of Marshall Fowler the owner of Preston Hall, the game keeper of the Pennyman’s, from Ormesby Hall in Middlesbrough and members of the industrial elite working on the brand new Stockton and Darlington Railway in 1825.

A chemist at that time of industrial revolution with his scientific background would be prone to experimentation, especially in finding new solutions and remedies.

Thus it is from one of his experiments he developed the friction match. We know from John Walker’s diary that in 1825 he was experimenting with explosive mixtures, mainly for weapons used by country families in hunting and shooting.

But the exact way the match was discovered is a mystery. In a newspaper article of 1852, a “fortuitous accident” is suggested. Walker was preparing some lighting mixture for his own use, when a match, after being dipped in the preparation, took fire by accidental friction on the hearth.

In 1829 notice of the friction match appeared in the Quarterly Journal of Science, Literature and Art, under the title of ‘Instantaneous Light Apparatus’ and renown was further spread when Professor Michael Faraday – the ‘Father of Electricity’ himself – exhibited some of the matches at a lecture at the Royal Institute in London.

It is thought that Faraday had visited Walker and encouraged him to patent the match. Walker didn’t take his advice and never made any attempt to make a monopoly out of the general sale of friction matches, wanting them to be for the benefit of whoever may need them.

However, this story was almost nearly forgotten, with the world coming to believe the discovery was made by a Scottish inventor, Mr Isaac Holden. This would have remained the case, if it had not been for a local called Joseph Parrott (1841-1911). He became the man who fully reinstated John Walker as the inventor of the friction match.

Mr Parrott was friends with the Hardcastle family who had taken over John Walker’s Chemists. He was allowed to go through John Walker’s things and noticed the sale of the first friction match as 1827. This was about three years before Holden claimed to invent it.

After Mr Parrot wrote in the Leeds Mercury of his discovery, Holden conceded John Walker must have been the man who invented the matchstick first and that is how we know of his fame today.

* John Walker’s friction match can be found on display at Preston Park Museum in Stockton, along with his replica chemist on the Victorian Street.