Matchgirls, memorials and Manor Park

Friday 14 June 2024

The Bow Matchgirls strike of 1888 is one of the iconic events in British working class history, but attempts to get formal public recognition for it, and its significance, via memorials, present a continuing challenge.

Famous "Matchgirls" photograph, forever associated with the strike

This is the first of a two-part series that examines the issues. In this we briefly recap the story of the strike and how the event has been acknowledged via statuary and plaques in East London. The second article (to follow) looks specifically at the story of one of the strike’s leaders, Sarah Chapman: her life and the campaign to get formal recognition for her, via a permanent headstone, in her burial ground, Manor Park cemetery.

We are grateful for assistance from The Matchgirls Memorial – a charitable organisation that was established in March 2019 that campaigns for better recognition of the women and girls who went on strike – for help in preparing these articles and for permission to use the images we are reproducing. Full details of the charitable organisation – and how you can assist – will appear at the end of the second article.

Matchmaking was an important industry in east London in the second half of the nineenth century: its products were needed to ignite almost all forms of commercial and domestic heating and lighting. The trade was largely unmechanised, meaning that considerable numbers of lowly paid – usually women – workers were employed in the production. 

The Bryant and May factory opened in Fairfield Road, Bow, in 1861, joining an already established larger firm, Bells, in the area. It was a dangerous trade – one of the key ingredients of the match head was white phosphorus, which casued a disfiguring and occasionally deathly condition known as “phossy jaw”. Charles Dickens had drawn attention to its danger and consequences almost a decade before the Bryant and May factory opened, but almost no heed was paid to the safety or welfare of those employed there when it opened.

A victim of "phossy jaw"

Conditions at the factory were not good by the year of the strike. Children as young as six worked there, for as many as six days per week on shifts lasting up to 12 hours. Pay was low and fines for minor transgressions were common. Foremen were often bullies and management later claimed they were unaware of the extent of the terrible conditions the mainly girls and women had to endure.

Much of the work – particularly around box-making – was outsourced to home working, where piece rates were paid, with the workers often having to pay for some of the materials they used out of their meagre incomes. Those working in the factory were exposed to white phosphorus, which was carcinogenic, and had to eat their meals in the work rooms, surrounded by the substance. “Phossy Jaw”, where teeth fell out and jaws became brittle and decayed, was a consequence.

Meetings and publications by Fabians in central London, in June 1888, drew attention to the working conditions at the Bryant and May factory and the fact that the company was distributing 20% dividends, while paying “starvation wages”. Annie Besant, a prominent Fabian, and colleague Herbert Burrows approached some of the matchworkers at the factory gates to enquire further about conditions inside and published an article in The Link, entitled “White Slavery in London” on 23 June.

The Link - Annie Besant's publication that drew attention to Bryant and May conditions

The match company threatened to sue Besant for libel and demanded their employees denounce the article. The women refused and wrote to Besant to that effect. The resultant furore led to a sacking and on 5 July 1,400 women and girls went on strike. The day after about 200 of them marched to see Annie Besant in her offices, just off Fleet Street. A deputation, including Sarah Chapman, visited her. Besant disagreed with their strike action, but offered organisational assistance, including with the establishment of a strike committee.

Frantic activity followed: a meeting of the strikers was held on Mile End Waste, a strike committee and a strike fund register were established, publicity was gained through the national press, a parliamentary delegation was organised, and the London Trades Council became involved. There were soon 700 names on the strike fund register.

The Strike was raised in parliament – at a time before there were labour MPs. Letters supporting the women were published in The Times, which itself came to support the strike. A delegation from the London Trades Council met with Bryant and May’s directors, who agreed to meet with some of the Strike Committee. On 17 July the firm agreed, in principle, to all the strikers’ demands, less than two weeks from the start of the strike.

Matchgirls' union committee - Sarah Chapman, second left, top row (circled)

These were mainly: an agreement to the abolition of fines and financial penalties imposed on workers, all strikers to be taken back and a grievance procedure to be established. A room for the workers to have their meals in, away from the phosphorus, to be provided and a union, which the company recognised, to be formed. The women and girls’ victory received national press attention.

The inaugural meeting of the union took place in Stepney on 4 August, and 428 “New Unionists”, as they were called – because it was one of the first union of largely unskilled workers – signed up. The union changed its name to the Matchworkers Union, welcoming both female and male workers, and it became affilated to the Trades Union Congress, with Sarah Chapman, voted in as President, as its first delegate. Sarah returned as its delegate to the 1890 TUC, being one of only ten women out of almost 500 delegates, when she seconded a motion related to the Truck Act, which advocated against workers having to buy their own materials.

A year after the successful strike, the famous, and again, ultimately victorious, London Dockers’ Strike of 1889 took place, where many of the men would have been related to – and doubtless inspired by – the 1,400 Bryant and May matchworkers. That strike – wrongly – has often been heralded as the start of “New Unionism” – the mass mobilisation of unskilled workers. In fact, the Dock Strike Leader, Ben Tillett, later described the Matchgirls Strike as, “The beginning of the social convulsion, which produced the new unionism”. The 1888 Strike inspiration – the women and girls of Fairfield Road - has struggled ever since to gain true recognition for their pioneering role in its establishment. Hence – the demands for public memorials.

The memorials

2018 research by the Public Monuments and Sculptors Association indicated that there were a total of 828 statues in the UK, of which only 65 were of non-fictional named women, and only 27 of those were of ordinary non-royals. It is with this background that The Matchgirls Memorial was established, the following year, to seek public recognition for the 1888 strikers.

Bryant and May, the company, chose to publicly fund two monuments in the second half of the nineteenth century – neither to their workforce. One, to Gladstone, remains. The other, a water fountain by Bow Road station, to celebrate the abolition of the Match Tax, was demolished in 1953.


Ironically, currently the most prominent public symbol of the matchworkers’ struggles and fate rests on the hands of a man less than 200 metres from the site of the former factory.

The statue of former Liberal Prime Minister, William Gladstone, stands outside Bow Church (see photograph). His extended right hand has for many years been daubed with red paint – to symbolise the workers at the Bryant and May factory – by unknown activists. The red paint has become such a feature that people have given up trying to remove it.

Red hand on Gladstone statue, Bow

The statue was erected six years before the 1888 strike by Theodore Bryant, one of the match company’s owners. It is alleged that the money to pay for it had been taken from matchworkers’ wages. In her initial article on White Slavery, Annie Besant said that many of the match women and girls attending the statue’s unveiling:

… surrounded the statue – ‘we paid for it’ they cried savagely – shouting and yelling, and a gruesome story is told that some cut their arms and let their blood trickle on to the marble they paid for, in the very truth, by their blood.

In the absence of a formal statue to the 1888 strikers, the matchworkers’ sympathetic followers keep the memories of their struggles alive on the hand of Gladstone’s statue.

In the wake of the furore surrounding the removal and destruction of statues, as part of the Black Lives Matters protest, the long term guerilla activity around Gladstone’s hand, provides another example of how protest at the actions of long-gone historial figures with dubious track records can be mobilised to make a dramatic point.

Blue plaque

On the 136th anniversary of the start of the Matchgirls strike – 5 July 2022 -  Sam and Graham Johnson, after some years of campaigning, supported a memorable victory, when they were present at the unveiling of an official English Heritage Blue Plaque on the external wall of the former Bryant and May factory (now a gated housing complex development) in Fairfield Road.

Blue plaque outside former Bryant and May's building, Fairfield Road

Blue plaque, in situ, on the exterior wall of the complex

The following year, The Matchgirls Memorial partnered with Tower Hamlets Council in installing an information panel about the strikers and their conditions, in Grove Hall Park in Bow.

Matchgirls information panel, Grove Hall Park

A head of steam is clearly building in gaining proper recognition for the 1888 strikers, so long after the event!

The second episode in this series focuses on Sam Johnson’s great grandmother, Sarah Chapman, and the work the charitable organisation is undertaking to preserve the memory of this strike leader’s achievements, in Manor Park.

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