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: www.matchgirls1888.org. 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: http://www.unionhistory.info/

  19. TUC History Online: http://www.unionhistory.info/

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