In the summer of 1888, fourteen hundred workers, mostly young women and girls, walked out of Bryant & May’s match factory in Bow, East London.
Before the strike the matchwomen were regarded as the ‘lowest strata of society’. The ideal 19th century woman was the ‘Angel in the House,’ a deeply respectable wife and mother – she did not work in factories, and was not to be found in pubs and music halls nor enlivening East End nights with enthusiastic renditions of ‘Ta-ra-ra-Boom-de-ay’(as the matchwomen frequently did).
However, their strike changed everything: during it they were the subject of thundering editorials in the Times, and impressed MPs with their intelligence. After it, they formed the largest union of women workers in the country. They received death threats from someone claiming to be ‘Jack the Ripper’ (the first of the notorious murders occurring just after their victorious return to work) but also attracted the more wholesome attentions of ‘celebrity socialists’ like George Bernard Shaw and, most significantly, Annie Besant, Fabian journalist and, according to all previous sources, the leader of the strike.
The matchwomen’s temerity in taking on Bryant & May, one of the Empire’s most powerful and successful companies, was breathtaking. As working-class female ‘casuals’ they were paid a pittance, could be hired and fired at management’s will and were supposed to know their place – which was firmly at the bottom of the labour hierarchy. That they returned to work two weeks later with their demands for better pay and conditions met, was completely unexpected and not lost on other exploited workers in the East End and beyond.
However, because of Besant’s supposed role, history has frequently treated the matchwomen with condescension
to match that of any Victorian grandee. Certainly Besant published a blistering exposé of Bryant & May under the
resounding title ‘White Slavery in London’ after interviewing a handful of matchwomen outside the factory.
Besant wrote that Bryant & May’s enormous profits- shareholders were receiving dividends of 20%- had been achieved by slashing wage-rates so dramatically that they were lower in 1888 than 15 years previously. Accordingly the youngest women were obviously malnourished and small for their ages. Factory foreman beat the women and the machinery cut their hands- even severing the fingers of one, who was then unable to work and left penniless.
However their biggest fear was ‘phossy jaw’, the dreadful industrial disease of matchmaking. Toxic particles from white phosphorus, used to dip the match heads, entered the workers’ jawbones through holes in the teeth, causing pain and facial swelling. Eventually the jaw would start to decay, and pieces of bone the size of peas would work their way out through suppurating abscesses. The resulting odour was so appalling that even sufferers’ loved ones could not stand to be in the same room. Factory inspectors would report cases of phosphorus victims living on the outskirts of towns like outcasts. The disease could end in disfigurement and agonising death.
Besant’s article shocked the nation, and several days later the matchwomen walked out. Accordingly historians
have concluded that they were little more than political puppets.
After ten years research I have been able to prove that Besant was in fact nowhere near the match factory when the strike began, and completely unaware of it until a deputation of strikers came to her offices days later. Besant was a remarkable woman whose life, traced in the book, was an extraordinary fin de siecle search for meaning, ending in India where she had become the effective leader of a new age religion and where her body was burned on a funeral pyre. In 1888 she unquestionably produced valuable publicity for the matchwomen, but by no stretch of the imagination led them.
Just a year after the matchwomen’s victory, a wave of strikes resulted in the unionisation of tens of thousands of the most exploited workers, and sowed the seeds of the independent Labour Party. The most famous was the Great Dock Strike, which began within walking distance of Bryant & May’s: but historians would have us believe that this was purely co-incidental. However, I’ve found considerable evidence that the matchwomen were a clear and admitted influenced on the Dock Strikers, who sought their advice, and hailed their example at strike meetings throughout 1889.
I believe that an important factor in the strike was their Irish heritage. As their employer said, most ‘hailed from the Emerald Isle’, as did many dockers. The Irish community in London at the time was famously close-knit and political, united against prejudice in England, which combined with oppression at home, heightened class as well as national identity.
After several years’ research I was finally able to identify the women who really began the strike and show that they had strong ties to Dock and Irish communities, living in streets variously described, with the casual xenophobia of the time, as ‘Fenian Barracks’, ‘a regular Irish den…all the vices of the Irish rampant’, and ‘inhabited by many Irish…a rough lot, given to drinking, racing and betting’.
The most exciting and moving part of my work was tracing and meeting grandchildren of the Bryant & May strikers. In my book I introduce key figures like Mary Driscoll and Eliza Martin for the first time, and follow their remarkable lives beyond the strike, into marriage and motherhood.
After writing articles for Irish papers I was sent these words, received by a dock striker in a letter from Ernest
‘Fifty years ago…you were among those who were involved in a great industrial upheaval- virtually a revolution against poverty, tyranny and intolerable conditions.
You little thought during those weeks…that you were laying the foundation of a great Industrial Movement.’
I believe that this is an equally fitting tribute to the remarkable matchwomen, who were nothing less than the mothers of the modern labour movement, and to whom we owe a tremendous debt of gratitude.