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Plight of matchgirls lit the fuse of trade union power

PUBLISHED: 17:55 23 July 2008 | UPDATED: 13:28 05 October 2010

Matchgirtls on strike in the East End of 1888

Matchgirtls on strike in the East End of 1888

AS PART of his Making of Modern London history course at Birkbeck College, Advertiser deputy editor Ted Jeory has been examining this newspaper s attitudes to some of the great events in the East End since 1866. Much of his research has been carried

AS PART of his 'Making of Modern London' history course at Birkbeck College, Advertiser deputy editor Ted Jeory has been examining this newspaper's attitudes to some of the great events in the East End since 1866. Much of his research has been carried out at Bancroft history library with the help of the two archivists, Malcolm Barr-Hamilton and Chris Lloyd. Here a sample of Ted's work: a look back at our reporting of the 1888 Matchgirls' Strike at the Bryant & May factory in Fairfield Road, Bow, involving 1,500 women and girls over pay and conditions which took place over a fortnight 120 years ago this month.

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THE East London Advertiser established in 1866 has been at the heart of some of the most tumultuous events in the capital's industrial and socially deprived East End for the last 140 years.

Originally named the Tower Hamlets Independent and East End Local Advertiser, the then four-page broadsheet newspaper was set up by a group of businessman and their first edition was published on November 17.

In 1885, the newspaper changed its name to the East London Advertiser in an attempt to broaden its appeal beyond 'the Tower Hamlets'.

Five years later in 1890, GH Booth, the Parliamentary agent for Spencer Charrington, Mile End's Conservative MP from 1885 to 1904 and a local brewing tycoon, sold the publication to Walter Alexander Locks.

Locks made himself editor and his family maintained control of the paper for the next century.

But how, in those early days, did the Advertiser report on working class upheavals among its readers? In particular, how did the first Conservative-oriented proprietors view two specific events which history has since shown to be hugely significant in terms of social change, trade union development and working conditions? This piece examines the paper's attitudes to the Matchgirls Strike of 1888 and to the Great Dock Strike, which followed a year later.

GIVEN the scale of the dispute, many East Enders would already have been aware of the walkout on July 5, 1888, by some 1,500 women and girls from the Bryant & May matchstick making factory in Fairfield Road, Bow.

But a wider audience was made aware come the Advertiser's next weekly edition on July 7.

The newspaper had less than two days to gather facts and judge its "angle".

And its initial call was not only hostile to the workers' cause, but also cynical, slightly patronising and paternalistic.

However, less than two weeks later, at the end of the dispute, the paper had changed its tune.

The walkout was reported on July 7 under a headline "Bryant and May's Match Girls on Strike", with a conspiratorial sub-header of "Who fans the flames?"

"On Thursday, considerable commotion was created in the neighbourhood," the report began before stating that "1,500 females" had "marched out of the factory in two batches".

The paper reported that the next day, "when outside, they made a noisy display for a little while and then repaired to Bow Common, where they ultimately separated."

"A variety of reasons has been given for the strike. One version is that it is the climax to a sensational report which alleged that the girls were arbitrarily fined for trivial offences.

"Another is that the strike was a protest against the alleged dismissal of two girls who had refused to sign a form traversing the allegations in the report alluded to. "According to an inquiry made on the spot, it seems that there is little foundation for either of these explanations.

"Mr Rix, the manager of the works, states that the strike was really brought about by the summary dismissal of one girl yesterday morning.

"She had been instructed by an overseer to fill boxes of matches in a particular way, according as the machine cut them.

"The reason assigned for this order is that the condition of the atmosphere at the time and its effect upon the chemicals used in match-making rendered this direction a mutual advantage to the firm and to the girls, in as much as it prevented what is technically known as "firing" and therefore stopped undue waste.

"....This particular girl refused to obey and she was dismissed."

Some 1,500 "comrades" then joined her in a walkout.

And while just one sentence was devoted to the workers' accusations of exploitation, the factory bosses were given much more space.

We wrote: "The manager believes that some outside influence has been brought to bear on the girls.

"A few days ago sensational bills were posted near the factory. Most of the females are of Irish extraction, their ages varying from 15 to 20. Nearly all are paid by the piece....An impression prevails in the neighbourhood that the girls have acted unwisely, and that, if left to themselves, they will resume their work."

No mention of the dispute was made in our editorial column.

But by the following week's issue, the Advertiser seemed to have grasped the scale and significance of the strike.

We devoted three entire columns to it-a blockbuster by the standards of the day-but it was again more sympathetic to the bosses.

"There is some considerable difficulty in getting at what is the real grievance of the girls is," our reporter, "except that they regard their wages as too low.

"...From inquiries made from the girls, it was found that the accounts given by one were not always confirmed by a sister worker, an inclination to exaggeration being manifest."

Half a column was then devoted to the "Work of the Socialists". We described this as "one of the most unpleasant features of the whole affair".

And although we claimed the girls had been cajoled into striking by the Socialists and Democrats, we also predicted it would soon collapse because the workers needed money for food.

In its editorial for that week, the Advertiser, then also called the "Conservative Journal for the East of London", left readers in no doubt where its anger lay.

It said: "The Socialist leaders who succeeded only too well in getting Messrs Bryant and May's work girls to turn out on strike have got from their victims during the week curses both loud and deep as a return for the bad advice given them.

"The work girls get a fair market price for their labour, which is not laborious and their hours are regulated by the Factory Act.

"The supply of hands is always in excess of the demand and no difficulty will be experienced in filling up the places of those who, in an evil moment, listened to the insane advice of Mrs [Annie] Besant and her friends."

But by the following Wednesday, Bryant & May had caved in to the strikers' demands for better pay and conditions-an outcome suddenly welcomed by the Advertiser.

Perhaps reflecting a sense of disillusion with fellow industrialists, the Advertiser shifted the blame onto the Bryant & May, but more onto its middle managers rather than the "gentlemen" directors.

Its editorial leader of Saturday, July 21, paper wrote: "Messrs Bryant and May have done the proper thing in making the concessions they have; but why were they not made before? We assume they have now granted them because they are but just and reasonable.

"The inference that most people will draw is that a rich and powerful trading company have been declaring large dividends whilst the people, who had so much to do with making them, have been certainly not well paid and subjected to restrictions and penalties of a most harassing kind.

"We can quite believe that the directors have been imposed upon as to the true state of affairs by the foremen and forewoman. But that does not relieve them of their responsibility. It is the plain duty of gentlemen in their position to make themselves acquainted with the labour side of a concern in which so many hundreds of hands are engaged."

And with foreboding, as well as with an indication of how it would assess the Great Dock Strike a year later, the Advertiser concluded: "The unpleasant impression remains that justice has been done only by reason of outside agitation. This is by no means a pleasant reflection. Certainly the lesson should not be thrown away upon other large employers of labour. Capital has its responsibilities, which cannot be shirked even when transformed into "Limited Liability.

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