In nineteenth-century London, labour was cheap and expendable. The Industrial Revolution brought millions of people from the country to the cities as agricultural mechanisation took away their jobs. With so many wanting (and needing) a job, there was little incentive for industrialists to treat their workforce well.
At this time, London’s East End was notorious as a place of extreme deprivation. Living in poverty with squalid overcrowded conditions, was the norm. But the political actions of a group of young female unskilled factory workers led to radical improvements in working conditions throughout the UK. This first-ever women’s strike forced one of the most powerful employers in east London to concede to their demands.
Bryant & May
The match-making company Bryant & May was formed in 1843 by two Quakers, William Bryant and Francis May. In 1861 the company moved to a three-acre site, on Fairfield Road, Bow, East London.
The building, an old candle factory, was demolished and a model factory was built in the mock-Venetian style popular at the time. The factory was heavily mechanised and included twenty-five steam engines to power the machinery. On nearby Bow Common, the company built a lumber mill to make splints from imported Canadian pine.
The Importance of Matches
We should remember, this was a time before electric lighting and central heating so both rich and poor depended on matches. Matches lit gas lamps and candles, were needed for cooking and for fires to keep warm. Put simply, the humble match was a basic necessity for all.
Thousands of poor families relied on the match-making industry yet they worked in hazardous conditions. The women worked up to fourteen hours a day for a wage that was already low before the unfair fines were deducted. Offences included talking, having an untidy workbench, dropping matches, going to the toilet without permission or having dirty feet (many of the workers were bare-footed as shoes were too expensive). This meant the workers rarely received their full wage.
The inequality was highlighted further as the company shareholders received a dividend of over 20%.
Before we reach the 1888 strike, we can see that the East End factory workers were starting to grow in confidence in ways to improve their working lives.
William Ewart Gladstone (1809–1898) was a British statesman with a career lasting over six decades. He had four separate terms as Prime Minister. In spring 1871, as part of his misery distributing agenda, he tried to introduce a tax on matches. There was universal condemnation of the idea as it would affect everyone.
Bryant & May feared a loss of sales and the workers feared a loss of jobs as well as having to pay a higher rate for the matches they used at home. On a Sunday in April 1871, there was a mass demonstration in Victoria Park attended by up to 10,000 match-makers. The next day, the company organised a protest march to the Houses of Parliament for the female workers to hand in a petition. They were harassed by police on their journey, who unsuccessfully tried to block their way.
Queen Victoria wrote to Gladstone to protest about the tax and on Tuesday 25 April 1871, the day following the march, the proposed tax was withdrawn.
Bryant & May were so thrilled about this change of plan they organised a public subscription in order to erect a memorial fountain in their honour outside Bow station. (It was demolished in 1952 for a road widening scheme.)
It is also reported that in 1882, Theodore Bryant, deducted a shilling from each worker’s pay to erect a statue of, his hero, William Gladstone. It stands outside Bow church and is depicted as if he is addressing an audience. His upturned right hand is extended and, the reason I’m mentioning it here is that the hand is regularly painted red by locals. The idea being that it was “paid for by blood” from the match girls. The urban myth also extends to reporting that the woman tried to damage the statue when it was unveiled.
But, at the time of writing, the statue was still standing with its red hands. As the Black Lives Matter movement continues to grow, its days may be numbered as Gladstone’s family had slaves on plantations in the Caribbean and he profited from the government compensation scheme after slavery was abolished.
Annie Besant (1847–1933) had heard about the plight of the Bryant & May factory workers at a talk held by the Fabian Society on 15 June 1888. She had married Frank Besant at 19 years old but they had separated for religious differences. She had a close relationship with George Bernard Shaw, then a struggling young Irish author. He was a leading member of the Fabian Society and encouraged her towards socialist views.
A halfpenny weekly newspaper called ‘The Link’ campaigned against “sweated labour, extortionate landlords, unhealthy workshops, child labour and prostitution”. Annie Besant questioned several factory girls and then published a damning expose in ‘The Link’ on 23 June 1888 under the title ‘White Slavery in London’. She likening the inhumane working conditions at the Bow factory to a “prison-house” and described the match girls as “white wage slaves” – “undersized”, “helpless” and “oppressed”.
Hazardous Working Conditions
One match girl was fined a shilling for letting the web twist round a machine in the endeavour to save her fingers from being cut, and was sharply told to take care of the machine, “never mind your fingers”. Another, who carried out the instructions and then lost a finger was left unsupported.
But as well as machinery injuries, and the “occasional blows’ from the foreman, “phossy jaw” was even more concerning. The white phosphorus vapour caused yellowing of the skin and hair loss. Yet it also entered the jawbone via tooth cavities and destroyed the bones of the jaw. As the bones decomposed it gave off a green glow. Here’s a newspaper report of a phossy jaw death from 1898.
With no separate facilities provided, workers would eat at their benches, with “disease as the seasoning to their bread”. Bryant & May were aware of phossy jaw. If a worker complained of having toothache, they were told to have the teeth removed immediately or be sacked.
Besant called for a boycott of Bryant & May’s matches.
Unsurprisingly, Bryant & May were furious about the ‘White Slavery’ article. The tyrannical factory management attempted to force their workers to sign a pre-prepared statement discrediting Besant’s claims and declaring they were happy with their working conditions.
By 5 July 1888, when the women refused to sign, at least one of them was sacked. This prompted around 1,400 match girls to stop work and walk out of the factory. Just a few days after the publication of the condemnatory newspaper article, this unofficial strike began without the backing of a trade union or financial assistance. Action like this was unprecedented and it caught the public imagination.
A large group of match girls went to see Annie Besant at The Link’s offices in Fleet Street. She invited three women inside who confirmed they had refused to sign the company statement. “You had spoke up for us,” explained one, “and we weren’t going back on you.”
Besant set up a committee electing six women to put their demands forward to the company directors. These included reinstating all workers, ending all fines and providing a separate dining room away from the toxic white phosphorus fumes.
Previous protests against the proposed match tax in 1871, and the lowering of wages in 1885, had hinted at the solidarity of match-workers and their potential for resistance. However, the action in 1888 was more lasting, as Annie Besant’s bold leadership helped to give the girls organisation and direction.
Besant led demonstrations and the match girls were cheered in the streets. She took a deputation of workers to Parliament where the women were cross-questioned by a group of MPs and were able to catalogue their grievances. Afterwards, “outside the House, they linked arms and marched three abreast along the Embankment…” The socialist paper ‘Justice’ reported that, “A very imposing sight it was too, to see the contrast between these poor ‘white slaves’ and their opulent sisters”.
Bryant & May Response
Frederick Bryant, the Managing Director tried to use his influence on the Press. He proclaimed that he paid better wages than his competitors and that the working conditions were excellent. He said his workers had been duped by socialist outsiders.
He threatened to sue Annie Besant for libel. In the next issue of The Link, the newspaper invited him to sue. Much better, Besant asserted, to sue her than to sack defenceless poor women.
With no union to fund the strike, the workers would have soon been destitute. Besant put out an appeal for donations to support the women launched in ‘The Link’ and other sympathetic newspapers. A successful strike fund was organised and distributed at Mile End Waste. It was noted at the time, “few people could fail to be touched by the way in which the girls were determined to stand together at all costs…in every direction girls might be seen plotting how they could help one another on until Bryant & May gave them back their pennies”.
The strike gained the support of many well-respected and influential middle-class reformists. Emmeline Pankhurst was one of those who became involved in the strike. She later recalled in her autobiography, “I threw myself into this strike with enthusiasm, working with the girls and with some women of prominence, amongst these the celebrated Mrs Annie Besant… It was a time of tremendous unrest, of labour agitations, of strikes and lockouts. It was a time also when a most stupid reactionary spirit seemed to take possession of the Government and the authorities.”
By 7 July 1888, the Factory Inspector had visited the Bryant & May site and the system of fines was halted.
London Trades Council Support
The London Trades Council was formed in 1860 to represent the skilled tradesmen of the capital. It had traditionally rejected associations with the unskilled but it decided to pledge support for the match girls’ strike. The LTC donated £20 to the strike fund and offered to act as mediators between the strikers and the employer.
This discovery of workers’ rights for the unskilled led to the formation of the Union of Women Match Workers (see below).
End of the Strike
With the mounting bad publicity, the Bryant & May company directors eventually agreed to a meeting with the Match Girls Strike Committee plus the London Trades Council acting as arbitrator.
The first meeting was on Monday 16 July 1888 and by the next day, an agreement had been reached. It included the abolition of all deductions and fines and the provision of a breakfast room to eat away from the white phosphorous fumes. There were to be better wages for all workers, the sacked workers would be reinstated and the company would recognise a union formed by the women.
After three weeks on strike, the victorious match girls returned to work the next day. The Star newspaper described the Match girls’ victory as “a turning point in the history of our industrial development”.
A New Union
On 27 July 1888, the inaugural meeting of the Union of Women Match Makers was held – the first women’s trade union in Britain.
By the end of the year, the union changed its rules and name. It became the Matchmakers Union, open to men and women, and the following year sent its first delegate to the Trade Union Congress. Although the Matchmakers’ Union continued to exist only until 1903, the action taken in 1888 had both immediate and long-term reverberations in the trade union movement.
The union was extremely significant considering that even as late as 1914, less than 10% of female workers were unionised. It also meant that the organisation of the workers did not just disappear after the strike, as it had done previously.
The principled bravery and solidarity of the match girls who discovered the dignity to complain about their situation changed the workplace for unskilled workers in all industries. Together they faced down one of the country’s most powerful employers. Their unexpected victory began a social change from which the new union movement sprang, eventually leading to the founding of the Labour Party.
Next came the Gas Workers Petition that led to the implementation of an eight-hour day. And The Great London Dock Strike of 1889 – many dock workers were friends or family of the match girls – established the idea of general worker’ unions for all classes of workers.
www.matchgirls1888.org is a charity dedicated to promoting the 1888 victory of the match girls strike and is raising funds for a statue to honour them.
Ban on White Phosphorus
Annie Besant, William Stead, Catharine Booth, William Booth and Henry Hyde Champion continued to campaign against the use of phosphorus.
In 1891 the Salvation Army opened its own match-factory in Old Ford, East London. Only using the much safer red phosphorus, the workers were soon producing six million boxes a year. Whereas Bryant & May paid their workers just over twopence a gross, the Salvation Army paid their employees twice this amount.
In 1901, Gilbert Bartholomew, managing director of Bryant & May, announced it had stopped using yellow phosphorus.
On 1 January 1910, white phosphorus would be banned from the industry altogether in Britain.
The old Grade II listed Bryant & May factory on Fairfield Road is now a luxury residential gated apartment complex known as Bow Quarter. The factory closed in 1979 when the business transferred to Liverpool. The brick entrance includes a depiction of Noah’s Ark and the word ‘Security’ used as a trademark on the matchboxes.
You can see an impressive model of the Bryant & May match factory at the Ragged School Museum.
Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park
Do notice the tall factory ‘water tower’ in the photo above. It was used by the Ministry of Defence as the location of the surface-to-air missile defence, throughout the 2012 London Olympics.
When the Olympic Park opened in 2012, as well as the impressive stadium and sports buildings, a lot of Art in the Park was incorporated into the design including references to the local industrial past.
Local poet Lemn Sissay MBE was the official poet of the London 2012 Olympics. He wrote ‘The Spark Catchers’ inspired by the Bryant and May match girls strike of 1888. The poem presents the factory women as ‘spark catchers’ – people affected by a momentary ‘spark’ who allow it to grow into something larger. The poem plays with the word ‘strike’, to mean both igniting a match and going on strike from work. Sissay also calls attention to the nature of fire, which, like the factory workers, can be unpredictable. ‘The Spark Catchers’ is itself an explosive poem and the fact that it clads one of the electricity transformers on the Park is particularly appropriate.
The Spark Catchers by Lemn Sissay
Tide twists on the Thames and lifts the Lea to the brim of Bow
Where shoals of sirens work by way of the waves.
At the fire factory the fortress of flames
In tidal shifts East London Lampades made
Millions of matches that lit candles for the well-to-do
And the ne’er-do-well to do alike. Strike.
The greatest threat to their lives was
The sulferuous spite filled spit of diablo
The molten madness of a spark
They became spark catchers and on the word “strike”
a parched arched woman would dive
With hand outstretched to catch the light.
And Land like a crouching tiger with fist high
Holding the malevolent flare tight
’til it became an ash dot in the palm. Strike.
The women applauded the magnificent grace
The skill it took, the pirouette in mid air
The precision, perfection and the peace.
Beneath stars by the bending bridge of Bow
In the silver sheen of a phosphorous moon
They practised Spark Catching.
“The fist the earth the spark its core
The fist the body the spark its heart”
The Matchmakers march. Strike.
Lampades The Torch bearers
The Catchers of light.
Sparks fly Matchmakers strike.