The Story of the Strike
“The beginning of the social convulsion which produced the New Unionism”
Ben Tillett, 1931
“The Matchgirls Strike had an influence … which entitles it to be regarded as one of the most important events in the history of labour organisation in any country”
Henry Snell, 1936
Long before the Bryant and May Factory was opened in Fairfield Road, Bow in East London, Charles Dickens wrote, in 1852, about the risks of phossy jaw in matchmaking factories. Yet, when the factory was opened in 1861, they proceeded to use the dangerous white phosphorus that caused the disease.
By the time of the Strike in 1888, conditions at the factory were not good. There were workers as young as six years old and a large percentage of the workforce were young teenage girls. They worked gruelling 6 day weeks, up to 12 or 14 hour days, for very little pay. To make matters worse, their meagre wage was reduced by fines, that were imposed for petty offences such as talking, having an untidy workbench and lateness. On top of all that, the Foreman were physically abusive and prevented any complaints reaching the management. Homeworkers were employed to make the matchboxes and they were paid even less, plus had to buy their own glue and string.
Those in the factory were exposed to the dangers of white phosphorus, not only while they worked but had to eat meals in the same room, which could cause osteonecrosis or ‘phossy jaw’, which was a form of bone cancer. First teeth would fall out and then the bone would be eaten away, eventually leading to death in some cases.
Of course, it wasn’t all doom and gloom. The Matchgirls knew how to have a good time too. See how they had fun, dressed up with feathers and knew how to settle their differences with the odd fight too!
It was timely then, that on 15th June 1888, the Fabian Society held a fateful meeting. Social Reformer, Clementina Black, spoke about the state of female labour at the time and Henry Hyde Champion made the point that Bryant and May were taking over 20% dividends for their shareholders and yet paying their workers ‘starvation wages’. He proposed a motion to boycott the purchase of Bryant and May matches, which Herbert Burrows seconded and it was passed unanimously.
The very next day, Annie Besant (also a Fabian) and Herbert Burrows approached the Bryant and May workers outside the factory gates, where they asked the Matchgirls about their experiences at work. The girls reported poor working conditions, such as long hours, fines, low pay and the risk of phossy jaw.
Annie Besant ran a weekly magazine called ‘The Link’, which she printed in Bouverie Street, just off Fleet Street and, following the meeting with the Matchgirls, published he damning article on 23rd June, ‘White Slavery in London’.
“Failing a poet to hold up their conduct to the execration of posterity, enshrined in deathless verse, let us strive to touch their consciences, i.e. their pockets, and let us at least avoid being "partakers of their sins", by abstaining from using their commodities”
Bryant and May threatened to sue Annie Besant for libel and demanded that their employees sign to say the article was untrue .They refused. The resulting furore led to a sacking, which was the final straw for the Matchgirls. And so it was that on 5th July 1888, 1400 girls and women walked out on strike. The girls wrote a letter to Annie Besant, which was published in The Link on 14th July:
“My Dear Lady, - we thank you very much for the kind interest you have taken in us poor girls, and hope that you will succeed in your undertakings. Dear lady, you need not trouble yourself about the letter I read in the Link that Mr. Bryant sent you, because you have spoken the truth, and we are very pleased to read
it. Dear lady, they are trying to get the poor girls to say that it is all lies that has been printed, and trying to make them sign papers to say it is lies; dear lady, no one knows what we have to put up with, and we will not sign them. We all thank you very much for the kindness you have shown to us. My dear lady, we hope you will not get into any trouble in our behalf, as what you have spoken is quite true; dear lady, we hope that if there will be any meeting we hope you will let us know it in the book. I have no more to say at present, from yours truly, with kind friends wishes for you, dear lady, for the kind love you have shown us poor girls. Dear lady do not mention the date this letter was written or I might have put my or our names, but we are frightened, do keep that as a secret, we know you will do that dear lady”
The day after the walk out, some 200 girls and women marched to Bouverie Street to speak to Annie Besant. A deputation of three (Mrs Mary Naulls, Mrs Mary Cummings and Sarah Chapman) were invited up to see her and, despite her not agreeing with strike action in principle, Annie agreed to help them and plans were initiated to form a Strike Committee. At around this time Charles Bradlaugh MP raised questions about working conditions at the factory in the House of Commons.
“ You had spoke up for us and we weren’t going back on you”
On 8 July 1888, the first meeting of the Strikers was held on Mile End Waste and, Harry Hobart, a Social Democrat Federation activist, suggested they start a Strike Register. At about the same time, the Strike Committee was formed and the Press started to get more interested - both the Pall Mall Gazette and The Star newspapers provided positive publicity. Only two days later, Annie Besant took 56 girls and women to the House of Commons, where a deputation of 12 went in to meet with MPs, Robert Cunninghame Graham and Charles Conybeare. The London Trades Council also got involved. By 11 July, the Strike Register was opened and over 700 girls, boys, men and women signed up.
Things really started to gain momentum when the MPs, Robert Cunninghame Graham and Charles Bradlaugh, again raised matters related to the Strike in Parliament, and Toynbee Hall also added their support to the Strike. Three letters were published in The Times, who had come around to supporting rather than opposing them. Some of the Matchgirls Committee took supper with Annie Besant and the London Trades Council.
On 15 July, following distribution of strike funds the day before, at Charrington’s Hall, a jubilant crowd met on Mile End Waste as the excitement gathered. The next day, the London Trades Council met with the Bryant & May Directors to discuss the Matchgirls Strike demands and it was agreed that a deputation of the Strike Committee could meet the Directors and put their case.
And so it was on 17 July, the London Trades Council and the Strike Committee met with the Bryant & May Directors. Unbelievably, ALL the demands were met and terms agreed in principle:
1. all fines should be abolished;
2. all deductions for paint, brushes, stamps, etc., should be put an end to;
3. the 3d. should be restored to the packers;
4. the “pennies” should be restored, or an equivalent advantage given in the system of
payment of the boys who do the racking;
5. all grievances should be laid directly before the firm, ere any hostile action was taken;
6. all the girls to be taken back.
It was also agreed that a Union should be formed, that Bryant and May would provide a room for meals away from the room the work was done and that barrows would be provided to carry boxes, rather than the previous practice of young girls having to carry them on their heads.
The Strike Committee put the proposals to the rest of the girls and they enthusiastically approved, with “warm applause” and “wild cheering”. The next day it was in all the papers.
The Strike Committee: Mrs Mary Naulls, Mrs Mary Cummings, Sarah Chapman, Alice Francis, Kate Sclater, Mary Driscoll, Jane Wakeling, Eliza Martin
The inaugural meeting of The Union of Women Match Makers took place at Stepney Meeting Hall. Twelve women were elected. Soon after, on 4 August, the first enrolment of Union members took place, which resulted in 468 new Unionists . On the 4 August, The Link reported the following from the enrolment meeting:
“A break in the proceedings was caused by a very kind and pretty act of the girls, the presentation of a little gold brooch to Annie Besant, and of a scarf-pin each to Herbert Burrows and H. W. Hobart (unfortunately absent), as memorials of the victory-crowned struggle”
The Union Committee: Eliza Martin, Louisa Beck, Julia Gambleton, Jane Wakeling, Jane Staines, Eliza Price, Mrs Mary Naulls, Kate Sclater, Ellen Johnson, Sarah Chapman, Polly (Mary) Driscoll, Alice Francis
Soon after, the Union changed its name to The Matchmaker’s Union and welcomed both male and female members. Sarah Chapman was the first elected TUC representative from the newly formed Matchmakers’ Union. The International TUC was held in London at St Andrew’s Hall in Newman Street, and Sarah went with Annie Besant, where she was one of only 77 delegates. What an experience that must have been for her. Nobody attended the TUC in 1889 but in 1890, again, Sarah went, this time to Liverpool, where, among almost 500 delegates, she was one of only 10 women. As an indication of how confident she must have felt at this time, she is recorded as having seconded a motion in relation to The Truck Act.
It is no surprise that the Great Dock Strike took place only a year later. Many of the Matchgirls had family members that were Dockers and it doesn't need too much imagination to see how their victory inspired their fathers, brothers and husbands to follow suit. Ultimately, these two strikes led to the formation and growth of the labour movement and Labour Party itself.