The Bow Quarter Plaque . . . . Or is it Not the Plaque, That is the Question!
Updated: Nov 10
Thanks to Alan Cock’s daughter, Sybil, who we, The Matchgirls Memorial, met while exhibiting at the TUC Women’s Conference in March 2020. She kindly shared her archives with us and gave permission to use them. Thanks also to all those who have cast their minds back and shared their memories with me. It is a privilege to have been able to make this story public.
The Blue Plaque on the wall at Bow Quarter, the old Bryant and May factory, is well known locally but, how did it get there? The plaque is clearly dedicated to Annie Besant and states that she ‘led’ the Strike. While it is undoubtedly the case that Annie was a positive force in the successful outcome of the Strike, she was not an advocate of strike action and preferred to implement change with social reform.
Today, the Bow Quarter residents have applied for an English Heritage Blue Plaque to commemorate the Matchgirls and the 1888 Strike.
It’s likely that many people, seeing that the present plaque is blue, assume it was given by English Heritage. But it wasn’t. There is another plausible story - that it was put up by the company that developed the old factory into flats in 1988, perhaps to mark the 100th anniversary of the Strike and to give their Bow Quarter historical gravitas. This would have fitted their philosophy. As Patrick Wright says, “the sales line of the developers went: 'Parisians have the Latin Quarter, New Yorkers have Greenwich Village, now in East London, a stone's throw from the City, there's a new Quarter… “ . However, neither of these are true.
So, how did it really get there?
It’s all down to Bow Quarter resident and retired academic, Alan Cock, then living at 2d Moreland Cottages, located near the main entrance. In January 1997, with the support of “several local residents”, he started a campaign for a “fitting memorial to the Match Girl’s Strike”, and he adds “Annie’s crucial role in it”. No doubt he had the forthcoming 110th anniversary in mind.
The East London Advertiser carried an article on 2nd January.
By August, the Tower Hamlets Council Education and Community Services were involved – Kelly Pike and Councillor Denise Jones – outlining some technicalities and costing. The next month Ms Pike confirmed that the Arts and Events Department would support the project.
In October, Alan Cock was confident enough of success to announce a date for the unveiling, in Spring 1998. A provisional musical entertainment announcement included his daughter, Hannah, on the flute. His notice contained a few lines on the background of on each of, ‘The Strike’, ‘the Matchgirls’, ‘Annie’ and ‘The Employers’.
In November 1997, he put out an appeal for donations – no minimum, maximum £50. It was administered by Toynbee Hall. The appeal enlarged on the causes of the Strike, its supporters and Annie Besant’s life and role. Apart from a memorial plaque, Alan aspired to the “compilation of an illustrated source-book, to be kept within Bow Quarter but open to public inspection”.
In recognition of the Irish background of some of the Matchgirls, and of Annie Besant’s work in India, his November also announced the unveiling would be “done by two women, one Irish, one Indian”. It was to be done at 4pm on Sunday March 8th, International Women’s Day. However, for unknown reasons, the event did not to happen on that date, nor did Irish and Indian women unveil the plaque.
In a renewed appeal in January 1998, Alan Cock drew attention to Annie Besant by quoting George Bernard Shaw who described her as, “The greatest orator in England”.
Alan demonstrated his intention to be true to his political leanings by seeking information on original words, author and date of ‘The Red Flag’. He planned to have it sung first, to ‘The White Cockade’, then to the “usual” tune. He wrote to Nick Mansfield, Director of the National Museum of Labour History in Manchester. Alan probably knew of the Manchester museum because it had started life in Limehouse. It is now the People's History Museum in Manchester.
The same month, a letter Alan wrote to John Monks TUC General Secretary, demonstrated his wish to document the Matchgirls history. He asked about the fate of the Matchmakers Union. In the following weeks, MPs Brian Sedgemore, George Galloway, and prospective Council candidate, Alex Heslop, donated and expressed interest in attending the unveiling. The then GMB Secretary, John Edmonds couldn’t attend but delegated to London Regional Secretary, Paul Kenny. However, in the end, the GMB was represented by Committee Member, John Onslow.
On 11th May, Alan Cock, and Hashida Dave (who was Chair of the Fund), were finally able to announce, with Tower Hamlets Council support, the unveiling date – Sunday 26th July 1998. The announcement was entitled ‘Annie Besant and the Match Girl’s Strike 1888’.
This day, of course was almost the 110th anniversary of the inaugural meeting of the Union of Women Matchmakers, held on Friday evening, 27th July 1888 at Stepney Meeting Hall.
Alan also announced that the Tower Hamlets Council were designing the template for the plaque, and he made proposals for any excess funds.
So, the unveiling took place on 26th July, with some forty people in attendance. Alan Cock and Anne Taylor, Annie Besant’s biographer, both made speeches.
The opera singer Susan Cullen and Anne Taylor then unveiled the plaque.
This was followed by a rendition of Jim Connell’s ‘The Red Flag’ – as Alan had wished, to the Air – ‘White Cockade’ (old version), all led by Hannah Cock on the flute, and singer Susan Cullen.
Councillor Denise Jones is on the left foreground, with husband Dan further back.
So, a great occasion, a commemoration of an historic event - Annie Besant was recognised as a ‘brilliant organiser’; the Matchgirls’ and Annie’s Irish connections were reflected in Anne Taylor’s and Susan Cullen’s Irish links; charities here and in India benefited; and there were hopes for an illustrated source-book.
The East London Advertiser, 13th August, carried a report on the unveiling.
The reporter clearly had a sense of humour, using phrases – ‘Match winner’, ‘sparked something off’, plus describing Alan as a “history buff”, and as a ’perky pensioner’. Alan, a respected academic, enjoyed the joke with the repost:
However, Alan was not happy with the new plaque. Here is the text on the plaque:
The wording contained a serious error in stating that Annie Besant founded the Theosophical Society. The Society was actually founded in 1875 in America. Annie became President in 1907.
How this came about is a mystery, but Alan said:
You will note that the text on the blue plaque you see today on Bow Quarter wall corrects this error, and so the plaque is not the original. How the mistake happened, when the original was replaced, by whom, at what cost, and what happened to it, is not yet in the public domain. Please get in touch if you can throw any light on this.
That’s the story of the plaque – so far! It is clear that Alan Cock wanted Annie Besant’s name to be prominent, and Tower Hamlets Council agreed. At that time, it was common for Annie Besant to be seen as ‘The Leader’ of the Strike, and there is a nearby Close named after her. As for the Matchgirls names – Alan might have known them as, apart from the TUC Strike Register, Tom Ridge had published Union Committee members’ names some years earlier . But how would he have selected them? Did the cost/space limit the possibilities? Sadly the illustrated source-book never appeared, however, what is important is Alan wanted to, and succeeded in, commemorating the Strike and Annie Besant's involvement.
The Matchgirls Memorial charity is fully supportive of the Bow Quarter application to English Heritage for a Blue Plaque to honour the Matchgirls and their efforts, which led to victory. We wait to see what can be achieved.
If and when an English Heritage plaque is unveiled, perhaps consideration could also be made to remember Alan Cock and his efforts.
Wright, Patrick., A Journey Through Ruins: The Last Days of London, Chapter 16, "The Bow Quarter: Six Hundred and Seventy Luxury Flats in an Old Victorian Hell-House", pp. 234-264, 2009
Ridge, Tom., East London Advertiser 15th December, p18, “Make a Match”, 1989
A Final Note
The 13th August, East London Advertiser article also noted that one donor was Bill Owen. It mentioned that Bill played the TV character Compo but didn’t say that in the ‘50’s he had written a musical, ‘The Match Girls’. It reached the West End in 1966 and is still performed in local theatres today.
This was one of several plays/musicals inspired by the 1888 Strike. More to come in another Blog.