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Annie Besant

by her Great Great Granddaughter, Fiona Castle

At around 14 I read the family archive provided for my mother from her birth mother, Annie Besant's granddaughter, Sylvia Lewes, from whom my mother had been adopted at 3 weeks old. We don't know why...... 

I was already fairly militant about injustice and was amazed and proud to read about my great-great grandmother's life and achievements. At a time when it wasn't easy for women to lead independent lives she did just that, campaigning and supporting many causes and injustices.


In 1888 as part of that life, she and her fellow Fabians discussed the difficult conditions for the 'Matchgirls' at the Bryant and May factory in Bow - mainly young women, they were poorly paid, with harsh working conditions and prey to industrial illnesses, including the bone-rotting phossy jaw caused by the chemicals used in match manufacture. 

She followed up that discussion by publishing an article entitled 'White Slavery in London' calling for a boycott of Bryant & May matches..... this led to the 'leaders' of the 'Matchgirls' approaching Annie in her offices in Bouverie Street for support with the strike action they were taking.

Annie met and agreed to support the young women with their strike action for better pay and conditions, setting up the committee and gathering public support and finance through her connections. She supported demonstrations by the 'Matchgirls', who were cheered in the streets and in a short time the firm was forced to back down and agree to improve pay and conditions. Annie continued to support them in setting up a proper union and a social centre for the Bryant & May workforce.

At the time, the matchstick industry was a very powerful, electric light was not yet widely available and matches were an essential commodity. The campaign was the first time anyone had successfully challenged the match manufacturers on a major issue, and this was seen as a landmark victory of the early years of British socialism.

I find Annie’s work in this arena and the many others she supported very inspiring.  Being particularly struck by the coming together of the passion and skills of the young ‘Matchgirls’ workforce with the wisdom and connections that Annie and her colleagues had.  Together this moved a situation of great injustice to a better place, offering lessons that sadly remain increasingly significant in these times of economic inequality and struggle.

Further references through Annie Besant's Wikipedia Page.

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