Brian Moseley, Plymouth
Webpage created: September 12, 2019
Webpage updated: September 12, 2019




The Plymouth business house of Messrs Bryant and James was a short-lived venture in the 19th century but which developed into the more renowned firm of Messrs Bryant and May Limited.

This first partnership comprised Mr William Bryant, a tallow and lubricating oil manufacturer and sugar refiner, and Mr Edward James, a merchant.

Mr William Bryant came from Tiverton, Devon, where he was born on December 24th 1802.  Mr Edward James was born around the start of the 19th century in or near Redruth in Cornwall.

How they met is not known but sometime around 1833 they set up a lucifer match manufacturing business in Woolster Street, Plymouth, close to The Exchange and immediately across the back from the Custom House on the Barbican.  Unfortunately their partnership was brought to an abrupt end around 6pm on the evening of Thursday August 23rd 1839, when the premises burst into flames.  First on the scene was the fire engine from the Custom House, which was, of course, purely there to try to prevent the fire from spreading to the Custom House.  The engine from the Gin Distillery was next nearest, followed by those from the West of England Assurance Office, the Garrison in the Royal Citadel, the Royal Marines at East Stonehouse, Messrs Hearle and Mare, and even the one from the Royal Dockyard.  The men from the 85th Regiment assisted the Police in controlling the crowd that quickly gathered.

At around 7.40pm the roof fell in and the front of the building fell out and there was great fear that the fire was about to gain control of the Custom's warehouses of bonded spirits, which would have exploded.  The building also housed gunpowder used in the manufacturing process.  However, the great exertions of the various fire engines prevented that from happening and by 9pm the fire was largely extinguished.  The building had been reduced to a heap of ashes.

Two theories were put forward at the time as to the cause: "The Plymouth, Devonport and Stonehouse Herald" said that some of the matches had ignited by being trodden on, while "The Devonport Independent" stated that some matches had been ignited by the high temperature in the room they were being stored in.

But Mr Edward James was involved in several partnerships.  Messrs Bryant and James was a partnership of Mr William Bryant, Mr Francis May and Mr James and in London, at number 15 Philpot Lane, the business was known as Messrs Bryant, James and May.  They traded as merchants and blacking manufacturers.  Mr Edward James left both these partnerships on April 30th 1843.  Mr William Bryant and Mr Francis May continued the business.  At the end of May 1843 Mr James left another partnership involving Bryant and May, this time trading as Messrs Thomas Luscombe and Company, coal merchants.

Mr James then started Messrs Edward James and Sons.