Festival shines light on 1888 Bryant & May strike that sparked social change
- Credit: Bishopsgate Institute
What started as an obscure walk-out by a group of factory women in London’s East End led to the start of the mass trade-union movement and the employment rights people enjoy today, 125 years later.
The strike by the girls at Bryant & May’s match factory in Bow that ironically sparked the Labour movement has just been celebrated by the Matchwomen Festival at the Bishopsgate Institute, celebrating the 125th anniversary of that pivotal moment in east London’s social history.
The festival included family events and talks by Ted Lewis, grandson of one of the 1888 strikers, Labour veteran Tony Benn, TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady and TV’s John Bird.
“It was the kind of ‘knees-up the matchgirls would have enjoyed,” said organiser Louise Raw. “We had bands, comedians, actors, stalls and a great deal of food and drink.”
Dr Raw, 46, is author of ‘Striking a Light—the Real Story of the Match Women’ which aims to correct misconception about the women’s role in London’s social history.
“Historians assumed the Great Docks Strike of 1889 started the modern Labour movement,” Louise explains.
“But it was the women in the match factory that really set the Labour movement alight a year before.
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“Historians wrongly assumed the women’s strike was a coincidence—but my research looking through documents and newspapers of the time, such as the East London Advertiser, showed the dockworkers had taken their inspiration from the women in their family.”
Dr Raw also gave a talk on the matchgirls inside the gates of the very place the women went on strike.
The old red-brick factory in Fairfield Road has had a total makeover and morphed into a modern luxury apartment complex by the River Lea.
Louise was invited to the Bow Quarter development with a distinguished audience which included TUC president Lesley Mercer, actress and film-maker Kate Hardie and actress-singer-artist Jean Hart.
The match girls loved a drink and a good time and would have been amused to find their old factory was now a gated luxury development complete with a bar, Dr Raw explained.
But their working lives were far from fun. Their poverty wages and dangerous working conditions were exposed by Fabian Society journalist Annie Besant after speaking to the girls at the factory gate coming off shift. She had noticed how small and frail they were for their age—mostly teenagers still physically growing, but not being able to feed themselves properly due to malnourishment.
If wages weren’t low enough, the company further cut them by imposing arbitrary and illegal fines, Besant Found.
One girl was said to have been fined for making a machine safer because it had been cutting the women’s hands. A workmate’s finger was severed by the machine and she was left penniless, unable to work again.
Worst of all was the white phosphorus used in the production process, so toxic that just briefly inhaling its fumes led to nausea and vomiting. The women called the poisoning it caused ‘phossy jaw’ because of the face swelling, jaw spreading and putrid abscesses.
There was no separate dining area. The girls brought bread from home and had to leave it on their workbenches where it become contaminated by deadly phosphorus particles.
The public in Victorian London had little sympathy before the strike—the women were lowly ‘factory girls’ who had polite society reaching for the smelling salts.
The strike began to change all that. The girls marched to Parliament and put their case to MPs. Political pressure grew on Bryant & May which was forced to accept the strikers’ demands to end company fines, improve pay and conditions, separate dining room so they could eat away from the phosphorus fumes and the right to form a trade union.
Their victory at the match factory ignited a fire in the Working Class and inspired the Great Dock Strike a year later.
The match girls of Bow were the mothers of the modern trade-union movement and the Labour Party that grew from it.