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

1888... Women match workers on strike at Bryant & May factory in Fairfield Road, Bow. Picture source: Bishopsgate Inst

1888... Women match workers on strike at Bryant & May factory in Fairfield Road, Bow. Picture source: Bishopsgate Inst

Bishopsgate Inst

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

1888... Women walk out at Bryant & May factory in Fairfield Road, Bow. Picture source: Bishopsgate Inst 1888... Women walk out at Bryant & May factory in Fairfield Road, Bow. Picture source: Bishopsgate Inst

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.

Latest East London News Stories


Meet two sisters passionate about olive oil who don’t let you leave their family-run restaurant feeling hungry—then you must be in Wapping.


Shoppers paying for carrier bags at the supermarket have spent enough to donate £3,800 to help homeless patients at the Royal London Hospital get through winter.

A man sustained a serious head injury after being punched on board a Central line train.


Daniel Morgorosi celebrated his 100th birthday with a touch of luck, a letter from the Queen and a new widescreen to watch his favourite football.


Flames which damaged part of a church in Bethnal Green were caused by a carelessly discarded cigarette, London Fire Brigade (LFB) believe.


An infant was rushed to hospital after an unattended chip pan led to a blaze in a block of flats.


A Bethnal Green care home has installed a ‘magic table’ to stimulate the senses of later stage dementia sufferers.

Anti-social behaviour is a major concern in many communities across London. I have heard from residents about the impact that noise, drug use, and other disruptive activities have on their quality of life.

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter

Most read news

Show Job Lists


Having a brand new kitchen is something that lots of people want but can only dream of. Sadly keeping up to date and making our living spaces as nice as they can be is a costly and incredibly stressful business. Even a fresh coat of paint makes all the difference but isn’t easy or quick.

Who wouldn’t love the chance to go on a shopping spree. Imagine being able to walk into a shop and choose whatever your heart desires without having to worry about how much it costs.

Digital Edition


Enjoy the
Docklands and East London Advertiser
e-edition today


Education and Training


Read the
Education and Training
e-edition today

Read Now