Labelled as ‘Troublemakers’
Less than four miles from where I was born just over 50 years later, in the East End of London, something remarkable happened at a place called Bow. Some of the most poverty-stricken in society lived and worked in that area. The Match Girls’ Strike was the industrial action taken by the women and teenage girls working at the Bryant & May factory to protest against the dangerous and unrelenting demands that endangered their health with barely a pittance of reward as compensation.
Picture Credit: Public Domain – [Cropped] Photo of matchgirls participating in a strike against Bryant & May, London 1888. FILE: File: Matchgirl strikers.PNG
Bryant & May compiled a list of five women and labelled them as ‘trouble-makers’: they were Kate Slater, Alice France, Jane Wakeley, Eliza Martin and Mary Driscoll. Until that time, unskilled factory workers in London’s East End were viewed as worthless or tragic or both. So, when the match women came out fighting – loud and proud and showing remarkable solidarity – the middle classes realised they had wildly underestimated them. And so had their employers.
Bryant & May was formed in 1843 by two Quakers – William Bryant and Francis May. They worked variously as soap and tea makers and grocers before eventually becoming the largest British match manufacturer and an important player in both home and export markets, trading in many countries. In 1850, they contracted with the Swedish matchmaker Johan Edvard Lundström to capture part of the market of the 250 million matches used in Britain each day. The company sold 231,000 boxes of matches, rising to 10.8 million boxes in 1855 and 27.9 million boxes in 1860. In 1880, the company began exporting their goods. In 1884 they became a publicly listed company. Dividends of 22.5% in 1885 and 20% in 1886 and 1887 were paid. In 1861, the company relocated to a three-acre site – on Fairfield Road, Bow, East London.
In the 1880s, Bryant & May employed nearly 5,000 people, most of them female and Irish, or of Irish descent, although the numbers varied with the seasonal fluctuations of the market.
In the late 19th century, matches were made using sticks of poplar wood or from Canadian pine. Both ends of the sticks were dipped into sulphur and then into a mixture of white phosphorus, potassium chlorate, antimony sulphide, powdered glass and colouring – a dangerously unhealthy mix. Lucifer matches, as they were called, could be ignited on any surface where friction could be created with the strike. In the 1840s, when red phosphorus was discovered, matches were made without any phosphorus, but the striking surface on the box contained red phosphorus for ignition.
An occupational disease that affected those who worked with white phosphorus was something called phosphorus necrosis of the jaw, also known as phossy jaw.
Picture Credit: “File: Bryant & May ‘Pearl’ safety matches, London, England, 1890-1 Wellcome L0058858.jpg” is licensed under CC BY 4.0
It developed by inhalation of phosphorus vapour—particularly when the ingredient was heated—which caused osteonecrosis of the jaw-bone. At first, there were toothaches and flu-like symptoms, then tooth loss, abscesses, swelling of the gums, tissue failure and gangrene – essentially, the bone would start to die. Exposure was dangerous, and mortality was reported in around 20% of cases.
The Sweating System
The matches were made through domestic outwork under a sweating system, in what today would be called sweatshops. Employers preferred the system because workers were not covered under the Factory Acts. The workers were paid a pittance and provided glue and string from their own funds. However, the foremen levied a series of fines for minor offences, with the money deducted directly from wages. Bryant & May were aware of the phossy jaw problem – if a worker complained of having toothache, they were told to have the teeth removed immediately or they would be sacked.
Long before the Bryant & May factory was opened in Fairfield Road, Bow, 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.
The Spark that Ignited the Flame
The matchmakers, seemingly more concerned about low pay, 14-hour shifts and punitive fines than they were about safety, went on strike in 1881, 1885, and 1886. All these actions failed.
The dismissal of one of the workers on or about 2nd July 1888, set off the strike, with about 1,400 women and girls refusing to work by the end of the first day. The management quickly offered to reinstate the sacked employee, but the women then demanded other concessions, particularly in relation to the unfair fines that were being deducted from their wages. A delegation of women went to management but was dissatisfied by their response. By 6th July 1888, the whole factory had stopped work. That same day about 100 of the women went to see Annie Besant for her assistance. Bessant was a middle-class political activist, writer, and journalist based in the East End and a member of the Fabian Society. A Fabian meeting in June 1888 drew Besant’s attention to the low wages and contrastingly high dividends paid to Bryant & May’s shareholders.
On 23rd June 1888, Besant had written an article in her newspaper, The Link. The damning article on 23rd June 1888, entitled White Slavery in London, complained about how the women at Bryant & May were being treated. The company reacted by trying to force their workers to sign a statement that they were happy with their working conditions. When a group of women refused to sign, the group’s organisers were sacked. The response was immediate; 1400 women at Bryant & May went on strike.
Besant, some newspapers and other social activists such as George Bernard Shaw, started a strike fund to distribute emergency money to the striking workforce to keep them going.
An unexpected effect of the strike was that a new match factory in the Bow area was set up in 1891 by the Salvation Army, offering better wages and conditions and no more white phosphorus in production. Sadly, the extra costs incurred by changing many of the processes and the abolition of child labour resulted in the failure of the business.
Annie Besant and the Ending of the Strike
Meetings were held by the strikers, and Annie Besant spoke at some of them. Charles Bradlaugh MP spoke in parliament and a deputation of match women went there to meet three MPs on 11th July 1888. The strike created considerable publicity and widespread sympathy. The London Trades Council became involved. At first, the management was firm and dismissive, but the factory owner, Bryant, was a leading Liberal and nervous of the publicity.
Annie Besant helped at meetings with the management, and terms were formulated at a meeting on 16th July 1888, in accordance with which it was stated that fines, deductions for the cost of materials and other unfair deductions should be abolished and that in the future, grievances could be taken straight to the management bypassing the foremen, who had prevented management from knowing of previous complaints. Also, very importantly, meals were to be taken in a separate room, where the food would not be contaminated with phosphorus. These terms were accepted by the company, and the strike ended. A notable effect of the strike was the creation of a union for the women to join, which was extremely rare as female workers did not tend to be unionised even into the next century.
In 1908, the House of Commons passed an Act banning the use of white phosphorus in matches after 31st December 1910 – it was the UK’s implementation of the 1906 Berne Convention on the prohibition of white phosphorus in matches.
Annie Besant, half-length portrait, seated, facing slightly right, clad in the style of the Aesthetic Dress movement.
Source: https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/91786293/ Author: Unkown. Public Domain.
File URL: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a8/Annie_Besant%2C_LoC.jpg
Sourced or Excerpted from and Further Reading
- Video: Match Girls’ Strike and The Salvation Army at: https://youtu.be/TGmv9q6j2tg
The factory opened in 1860 and was extended for warehousing and offices in 1872. In 1888 it was the famous Match Girls strike scene led by Annie Besant. The factory closed in 1979 and from 1987 was converted to flats as the “Bow Quarter” development.
- Citation: Source – Louise Raw (2014) Bryant & May Matchwomen’s Strike, 1888: an introduction to the British Online Archives edition, Last updated: 10th September 2014. ↑
- Source: https://www.matchgirls1888.org/the-story-of-the-strike ↑
- Annie Besant was a British socialist, theosophist, women’s rights activist, writer, orator, educationist, and philanthropist. ↑
- Source: https://microform.digital/boa/collections/53/british-women-trade-unionists-on-strike-at-bryant-may-1888/detailed-description#5 ↑
- The Link was founded and co-edited by Annie Besant and W. T. Stead. Published weekly from London, February-December 1888. ↑
- Source: https://spartacus-educational.com/TUmatchgirls.htm ↑
- Source: https://www.eastlondonhistory.co.uk/bryant-may-strike-bow-east-london/ ↑
- Source: https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofBritain/Match-Girls-Strike/ ↑
- The White Phosphorous Matches Prohibition Bill, see: Hansard at: https://hansard.parliament.uk/lords/1908-12-08/debates/244eb7a6-4d05-4afa-9ca0-3cf43e8c1e18/WhitePhosphorousMatchesProhibitionBill and https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1908/dec/03/white-phosphorus-matches-prohibition-bill↑