Sarah Chapman, and the search for recognition in Manor Park

Friday 21 June 2024

This is the second and concluding of two articles on Matchgirls, Memorials and Manor Park, and should be read in conjunction with the previous post.

A commemorative plate, marking the centenary of the Matchgirls Strike.
One of the Matchgirls strike leaders, Sarah Chapman, was born on 31 October 1862 in Mile End, the fifth of seven children of Samuel Chapman, a brewery worker and docker, and Sarah Ann Mackenzie, a matchworker. The family remained in Mile End, where Sarah received an education and was literate, by no means a formality for working class children at the time.

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

By the time Sarah was 19 (1881) she worked alongside her mother and older sister, Mary, as a matchmaking machinist and, by the time of the strike, seven years later, she was an established member of Bryant and May’s workforce, working as a “Booker”, and was on relatively good wages.

Some of the details of her life in and around the strike are clear, others more speculative, but based on good circumstantial evidence. So:

·         The day after the strike began, Sarah was one of three in the delegation that met with Annie Besant in her newspaper office, to plan a way forward for the matchmakers.

·         She was a member of the strike committee.

·         As such, she was highly likely to have been on the delegation to parliament, that went to argue the strikers’ case.

·         Because of this prominence, she was also highly likely to have been party to the discussions the London Trades Council held with strikers and the directors of Bryant and May, that resulted in a victorious conclusion to the strike for the women workers.

·         She was elected to the newly established Union Committee and became its President.

·         She was the first matchworker to attend the International Trades Union Congress meeting in November 1888.

·         She was one of only ten women delegates to the 1890 TUC in Liverpool, attended by over 500, and seconded a motion calling for the abolition of the Truck Acts (which gave employers the right to deduct payments from workers’ wages).

After the Strike Sarah continued to work at the Bryant and May factory and was still living with her mother in Bromley-by Bow on the night of the 1891 census. Later that year she married Charles Henry Dearman, a cabinet maker from Bethnal Green and ceased working for the match company.

Sarah and Charles had six children and soon moved to Bethnal Green. Charles died aged only 55. Along with the couple’s first son – also Charles, who died at only 10 days old – and daughter Elizabeth Rose, who died aged 21, Charles senior was buried in Manor Park Cemetery.

Sarah Dearman (nee Chapman) in later life

All three graves have since been mounded over and the land reused for other burials. So, it is not possible to visit them, but their general location has been identified.

A widow from 1922, Sarah lived, on and off, with her two youngest sons, William and Frederick, into the 1930s. Her eldest surviving son, another Charles, served in both world wars and died as a result of injuries sustained in the second, in 1945. Sarah continued to live in the Bethnal Green area, until her death of lung cancer, in Bethnal Green hospital later that year – aged 83.

Sarah Dearman (nee Chapman) towards the end of her life

With the help of historian Anna Robinson, Sam Johnson (nee Dearman), Sarah’s great granddaughter, was able to discover Sarah’s grave, in a pauper’s burial plot (plot 147/D/114) in Manor Park Cemetery in early 2017. The grave was then nothing more than a a grassy patch used as a footpath, with no markings, let alone a headstone.

The unmarked plot that Anna Robinson and Sam Johnson discovered in Manor Park cemetery

Sam has spent the last seven years campaigning to gain appropriate recognition for her great-grandmother by trying to get a proper memorial erected to her on that plot.

This has proved very difficult, as the private company which owns the cemetery revealed  plans to mound over her grave – as it did with Sarah’s husband’s and two children’s - and make it inaccessible, because – in common with other cemteries in London - it is running out of space for fresh burials.

The area adjacent to Sarah’s plot was mounded over in 2019. The cemetery company were told of the location of Sarah’s plot and said they wouldn’t mound the area over for five – ten years. They have subsequently rescinded on that commitment and, had it not been for the pandemic would have mounded it over in 2020/21. The plot and surrounding area was eventually mounded over in 2022.

Great grand-daughter, Sam Johnson marks out a temporary grave site for Sarah

Meanwhile, Sam and the other trustees of the Matchgirls Memorial have sought public support and funding for their campaign to get proper recognition for Sarah in Manor Park Cemetery – her last resting place.

In June 2020, local residents, held a ‘Celebration of Sarah Chapman’s Life’ at a socially distanced event during the pandemic in the cemetery and invited The Matchgirls Memorial. Around 50 local people attended, each bringing a single flower to lay on Sarah’s grave. Newham’s Mayor, Rokhsana Fiaz, and local Councillor, John Gray, both participated in the commemoration, although – because of pandemic restrictions – laid flowers the previous day.

Above and below, some familiar local faces at the community event in June 2020

For those unable to attend the event during the difficult COVID times, a concurrent, on-line, campaign invited people to share #aflowerforSarah. Photographs of the celebration and events surrounding it can be found on the the charitable organisation’s website (see below).

Subsequently, funding has been forthcoming to pay for a headstone for Sarah, from the London and Eastern region of Unite The Union, and from the GMB, which in an earlier iteration was the union that is believed to have eventually absorbed the Matchworkers Union.

The headstone (see photo) was commissioned and designed by John das Gupta, local stone mason, and rests in the basement of the TUC’s Congress House, awaiting erection in the cemetery, if its owners concede to its permanent installation.

The Sarah Dearman (nee Chapman) headstone, ready and waiting for erection in Manor Park cemetery

Once the mounded soil has settled sufficiently,  The Matchgirls Memorial intend to erect Sarah’s headstone. The current position is that the cemetery’s owners will make a charge for the plot and only guarantee a 50 year lease for the headstone but Sam would like this to be extended in perpetuity in recognition of the significance of Sarah’s role in the 1888 Matchgirls Strike.

This is not a plea for “cemetery tourism” locally – although it exists in other cemeteries in London and Paris. However, Manor Park cemetery already hosts a prominent headstone to WW1 boy hero and VC holder Jack Cornwell. Is it not reasonable that the grave of another figure who played such a prominent role in a key event in the nation’s history at a relatively young age should gain some parity of recognition? That is what The Matchgirls Memorial is seeking, and if you would like to aid them in their objective, find details of how you can help at the end of this article.

Meanwhile, the active and persistent Trustees have managed to gain some form of permanent recognition for Sarah, nearer her home patch in Mile End. On  26 February this year, Sarah Chapman House – a block of nine council homes – was officially opened, in a ceremony attended by the Mayor of Tower Hamlets and descendants of Sarah Chapman.


The opening of Sarah Chapman House in February 2024, with two of her decsendants: left, Carol Watts (great grand-daughter) and right, Laura Watts (great-great grand-daughter)

You can find out much more about The Matchgirls Memorial, and how you can assist their campaign for further public recognition, through their very informative website: We are grateful to the trustees for permission to use the images in the articles on the strike in the two articles we have produced on it.

Footnote. For further reading on the "Matchgirls" and their impact, see the following books. List courtesy of the Matchgirls Memorial campaign:

  1. Beaver, Patrick., Match Makers: The Story of Bryant and May, Henry Melland (1985)
  2. Beer, Reg., The Match Girls Strike, 1888 The Struggle Against Sweated Labour in London's East End, The Labour Museum (1983)
  3. Carroll, Emma., The Little Match Girl Strikes Back, Simon & Schuster (2022)
  4. Charlton, John., It Just Went Like Tinder, Redwords Original (1999)
  5. Emsley, John., The Shocking History of Phosphorus: A Biography of the Devil's Element, Macmillan (2000)
  6. Fishman, William J., East End 1888, Gerald Duckworth & Co (1988)
  7. Haston, Paul., Billy and the Match Girl, Magic Ink Press (2020)
  8. Inwood, Stephen., City of Cities: The Birth of Modern London, Pan Macmillan (2011)
  9. Landman, Tanya., Lightning Strike, Oxford University Press (2021)
  10. P√©castaing-Boissi√®re, Muriel., Annie Besant (1847-1933): Struggles and Quest, Theosophical Publishing House (2017)
  11. Raw, Louise., Striking a Light, Continuum International (2011)
  12. Rees, Lynette., The Matchgirl, Quercus Editions (2019)
  13. Ridge, Tom., Central Stepney History Walk, Central Stepney Regeneration Board (1998)
  14. Robinson, Anna., Neither Hidden nor Condescended To: Overlooking Sarah Chapman, Unpublished, Bishopsgate Institute (2004)
  15. Stafford, Ann., A Match to Fire the Thames, Hodder & Stoughton (1961)
  16. The Matchgirls Memorial., Feathers and Pennies: Poems and Stories for the Matchgirls, Thamesis Publications (2021)
  17. Thomas, Doreen., Strike a Light: John Walker 1781-1859, Teesside County Borough Council Museums Service (1971)
  18. TUC History Online:

  19. TUC History Online:

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.

Wanstead Flats and D Day – 80th anniversary

Thursday 6 June 2024

80 years ago, allied troops staged the biggest seaborne invasion in military history, landing thousands of soldiers on the beaches of Normandy. The liberation of Europe had begun.

Our part of east London played a role in the D Day operations. Throughout the war, Wanstead Flats was the scene of military activity, with anti-aircraft guns, barrage balloons, and a radar array part of London’s defences against the Luftwaffe. 

Anti-aircraft battery on Wanstead Flats

The anti-aircraft defences meant that the Flats and the surrounding area were frequent targets of German bombing, and some houses in the area still bear the scars of war.

Wanstead Park Avenue after an air raid

In the summer of 1944, the Flats became a muster point for troops joining the invasion force. On the 50th anniversary of D Day in 1994, one veteran remembered how they found out they were on their way to France. On 28th May, he received his pay packet in French francs. “That told us where we were going” he recalled, but from then on everyone was confined to barracks. An elaborate operation was underway to persuade the Germans that the invasion would be much further east than Normandy in the Pas de Calais. Secrecy was vital to maintain the deception.

From early June troops moved from Wanstead Flats to the Royal Docks to board ships joining the invasion fleet.  A huge convoy of army vehicles was also assembled, and a resident of Latimer Road just south of Wanstead Flats remembers seeing the streets filled with army vehicles as a little girl. Another local resident recalled that after the Americans arrived, their heavy artillery was to be seen along Capel Road. Then overnight, they were gone, on their way to France.

Field guns and ammunition in East Ham High Street North, heading from Wanstead Flats to the Royal Docks

Throughout the summer, troops passed through the area to join the invasion force. Then, later in 1944, German troops began to arrive on Wanstead Flats – as prisoners of war. A small camp opened just south of Lake House Road, which housed some of the hundreds of thousands of troops captured in the months after D-Day.

Little remains of the wartime installations on the Flats, but it is possible to see one of the mess huts used by the crews of the anti-aircraft batteries. It is next to the changing rooms on Aldersbrook Road, now used as a store by the City of London ground staff. A peacetime use for a wartime installation. 

The hut used by anti-aircraft crews in World War II is now a store used by the City of London. It is on Aldersbrook Road between the changing rooms & the Esso filling station