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Heritage walk marks 130 years on from matchgirls’ historic strike at Bryant & May’s Bow factory

PUBLISHED: 11:00 19 June 2018 | UPDATED: 13:00 19 June 2018

Teenage girl workers who led strike at Bryant and May in Bow, July 1888. Picture source: Bishopsgate Institute

Teenage girl workers who led strike at Bryant and May in Bow, July 1888. Picture source: Bishopsgate Institute

Bishopsgate Inst

A heritage walk to commemorate 130 years since the famous east London matchgirls strike at Bow is planned next month by historians and a descendant of one of the women.

Working conditions at the Bow factory where dangerous white phosphorous was used in the manufacturing process led to legislation to imnprove industrial conditions in Britain. Picture source: Bishopsgate InstituteWorking conditions at the Bow factory where dangerous white phosphorous was used in the manufacturing process led to legislation to imnprove industrial conditions in Britain. Picture source: Bishopsgate Institute

Social enthusiasts and students of history are meeting at Trinity Green in the Mile End Road on July 7 to retread the route that the strikers marched along in 1888.

They also visit the site of the Bryant and May factory in Fairfield Road, now the Bow Quarter housing complex, where 1,500 women downed tools over the sacking of a girl who refused to fill the matchboxes way the the overseer had instructed.

The walk-out was literally the spark that set the modern trade union movement in motion.

The strikers had grievances over working conditions and factory safety. They suffered what was known as “fossy jaw”, a bone degeneration in the jaw caused by working with dangerous white phosphorous—a practice later outlawed by Parliament.

The women rallied at Bow Common and organised a march to Westminster, spurred on by socialist reformer Annie Besant. The strike was commemorated in March this year with the centenary of votes for women.

The strike, reported in the East London Advertiser of the day, eventually forced Bryant and May to improve pay and working conditions and inspired the Great Dockers’ Strike a year later which sparked the modern trade union movement.

Speakers lined up at Bridwewell Hall following the walk include Matchgirls descendant Robin Head, University of East London’s Dr Anna Robinson, broadcaster Lemn Sissay, historian and lecturer Dr Melanie Reynolds, Citizens UK civic network’s founder Neil Jameson, Salvation Army’s Ian Watkins and activist and writer Anne Cooper. Organisers also have a recording from the great, great grandson of Annie Besant, broadcaster Andrew Castle.

The July 7 gathering at Trinity Green, next to Tower Hamlets Mission, starts 12 noon, with the tour ending at 6pm at Bridwewell Hall.

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