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Suffragettes 100: Women’s struggle begins at Bryant & May match factory in Bow 30 years before suffragettes arrive

PUBLISHED: 15:00 06 February 2018 | UPDATED: 11:07 07 February 2018

The struggle for women’s equality began in the East End almost three decades before the suffragettes set up their HQ in the area.

Workers at the huge Bryant & May’s match factory in Bow walked out in the summer of 1888 — and changed the trade union movement for ever.

The 1,500 women brought the factory in Fairfield Road to a standstill on July 7 and “marched out into the streets to make a noisy display before scattering”, the East London Advertiser reported at the time.

Reasons for the strike followed a sensational report by socialist activist Annie Besant and the sacking of one of the girl workers.

Mr Rix, manager of the works, told the paper: “A girl refused to fill the boxes in the way the overseer had instructed her to, so she was dismissed.

“The reason is the condition of the atmosphere and its effect upon the chemicals used in match-making rendering this direction a mutual advantage, preventing what is known as ‘firing’ and therefore stopping undue waste.”

But the woman claimed the order to put the matches into boxes in a certain way was to “extract more work” by filling two matchboxes in one cutting instead of one.

Besant had interviewed the women factory workers and posted flyers about their working conditions in the days leading up to the strike. The Democratic Federal Association trade-union held a demo outside the factory gates to encourage the strikers.

The Advertiser was initially hostile and cynical to the women’s cause, with the walkout reported under a headline ‘Bryant and May’s Match Girls on Strike’ and asking ‘Who fans the flames?’

We reported: “Considerable commotion was created in the neighbourhood when 1,500 females marched out of the factory and made a noisy display for a little while and then repaired to Bow Common.”

The Advertiser by the following week’s issue seemed to have grasped the scale and significance of the walk-out.

But our editorial insisted: “The 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 Besant and her friends.”

Bryant & May, in the event, caved in the next week to the women’s demands for better pay and conditions—an outcome suddenly welcomed by the Advertiser. The paper shifts the blame onto Bryant & May’s middle managers rather than the ‘gentlemen’ directors.

Our editorial the following Saturday, July 21, 1888, commented: “The demands are just and reasonable. It is the plain duty of gentlemen to make themselves acquainted with the labour side of a concern in which so many hundreds of hands are engaged.”

The following month, August 1888, there were more serious issues to report in Whitechapel, with Jack the Ripper at large.

Newspapers the following year, however, reported on the Great Docks Strike in east Lonndon revealing how the dockers had taken their inspiration from the women matchworkers of Bow who were in their family.

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