by her Great Granddaughter, Sam Johnson
In September 2016, while doing some family history research, I found a post on a family history forum dated 2003. I was flabbergasted to see that all of the information exactly matched my own family tree. My Great Grandmother, Sarah Chapman, was a Matchgirl in the famous 1888 Strike! How has this not been passed down through the family?
I managed to trace Anna Robinson and find that her MA dissertation was entitled, 'Neither Hidden Nor Condescended To: Overlooking Sarah Chapman‘. Dr Anna Robinson is now a friend and fellow Trustee of The Matchgirls Memorial.
Sarah Chapman was born on 31 October in 1862 to Samuel Chapman and Sarah Ann Mackenzie; Samuel was a Brewer’s Servant at the time of her birth but was also known to have worked at the docks in his time. The fifth of seven children, Sarah’s early life was spent at number 26 Alfred Terrace in Mile End but by the time she was 9, the family had moved to 2 Swan Court (now the back of the American Snooker Hall on Mile End Road), where they would stay for at least 17 years. For a working-class family to stay in one place for such a long time was uncommon. Other evidence of the seemingly unusual stability of the Chapman family is that Sarah and her siblings received some form of education as they were listed as Scholars in census returns and could all read and write.
By the time she was 19, Sarah was working, alongside her mother and her older sister, Mary, as a Matchmaking Machinist, so by 1888 she was an established member of the workforce at the Bryant and May factory. At the time of the Strike, Sarah is listed as working in the Patent area of the business, as a Booker, and was on relatively good wages, which perhaps placed her in a position of esteem with the other workers. Her wages just before the Strike certainly suggest she was paid more than most. This may have been because of her position as a Booker, or because she just managed to avoid the liberal fines.
The day after the Strike began, she was one of the delegation of three who met with Annie Besant after the Matchgirls marched to Bouverie Street
She is a contender for who wrote the ‘Dear Lady’ letter to Annie Besant
She was on the Strike Committee
As a member of the Strike Committee, she was highly likely to have been in the delegation of 12 who went in with Annie Besant to the House of Commons to meet Robert Cunninghame Graham MP and Charles Conybeare MP
As a member of the Strike Committee, she was highly likely to have met with the London Trades Council and the Bryant and May Directors in the Board Room of the factory to discuss terms
She was elected to the new Union Committee
As one of only 77 delegates, Sarah was the first to represent her new Union at the International TUC in London when she attended with Annie Besant in November 1888
As only 1 of 10 women in an almost 500 strong attendance, Sarah attended the TUC in Liverpool in 1890. She seconded a motion related to the Truck Act and rubbed shoulders with the likes of Keir Hardie and Ben Tillett
So what happened to Sarah after the Strike? On the night of the 1891 census, Sarah was still a Booker at the match factory and living with only her Mum in Blackthorn Street in Bromley by Bow. By the end of that same year, in December, Sarah had married Charles Henry Dearman, a Cabinet Maker and she had ceased working at Bryant and May.
Sarah and Charles had their first child, Sarah Elsie in 1892. They had five more children, and one was my Grandad, William Frederick, born in 1898. By this time they had moved to Bethnal Green.
Sarah’s husband, Charles who died aged 55, their first son, Charles who died at only 10 days old, and their daughter, Elizabeth Rose who died aged 21, were buried at Manor Park Cemetery in Forest Gate. All three graves have since been mounded over and the land reclaimed for reuse so it is not possible to visit them apart from knowing the general area where they were buried.
A widow from 1922 onwards, Sarah’s two youngest sons, William and Frederick lived with her, on and off, into the 1930s. Sarah’s eldest son, Charles served in both World Wars and succumbed to illness as a result of his injuries in early 1945. Sarah continued to live in the Bethnal Green area until her death, of lung cancer, in Bethnal Green hospital on 27th November 1945 aged 83.
It was also thanks to Anna Robinson that I found Sarah’s grave, a pauper's plot at Manor Park Cemetery, along with 5 other elderly people, perhaps due to lack of money following WWII and trying to make ends meet in a bomb blasted area of London. She was survived by three of her six children, Sarah, William and Fred. A sad end to a life filled with challenges, not least a leading role in a Strike that was the vanguard of the New Labour Movement and helped establish Trade Unionism.
Sarah is buried in plot 147/D/114 in Manor Park Cemetery. Regrettably, due to lack of burial spaces in London, there are plans to mound over her grave. Please sign our petition to help preserve the memory of this courageous woman.