ADVERTISER 150: Reporting on how match girls’ strike of 1888 changes attitudes
PUBLISHED: 19:00 22 November 2016 | UPDATED: 19:33 23 November 2016
The Advertiser celebrating its 150th anniversary looks back in our nightly review on the landmark stories of London’s East End. Tonight, how the strike of women at Bryant & May’s factory in Bow changes Victorian attitudes to exploitation and working conditions—even how the press of the day reports industrial unrest and how we shift our editorial view...
1888: Women match workers walk out, bringing their factory in Bow to a total standstill, the Advertiser reports.
The 1,500 women at the Bryant & May factory in Fairfield Road stop work on July 7 and march out into the streets to make a noisy display before scattering.
Reasons for the strike were the sensational report by socialist activist Annie Besant and dismissal of one of the girls.
Mr Rix, manager of the works, says: “A girl refused to fill the boxes in the way the overseer had instructed her to, so she was dismissed.”
That leads to 1,200 girls marching out of the wood matchmaking department who are soon joined by 300 comrades from the wax match factory.
The order to put the matches into boxes in a certain way is to “extract more work” out of them, requiring to fill two boxes in one cutting instead of one, the women claim.
The strikers congregate at Bow Common, but do not turn up for work again that afternoon.
Besant had interviewed the factory workers and posted notes around the area about their working conditions in the days leading up to the strike.
An impression prevails in the press that the girls have “acted unwisely”.
But their trade-union, the Democratic Federal Association, holds a demonstration outside the factory to encourage the strikers.
The Advertiser is initially hostile and cynical to the women’s cause. The walkout is reported under a headline “Bryant and May’s Match Girls on Strike”, with a sub-headline “Who fans the flames?”
It notes: “On Thursday, considerable commotion was created in the neighbourhood when 1,500 females marched out of the factory in two batches. They made a noisy display for a little while and then repaired to Bow Common, where they ultimately separated.”
The paper appears to back the factory owners, reporting: “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 join her in a walkout. Just one sentence is devoted to the workers’ accusations of exploitation, while the factory bosses are given more space.
But by the following week’s issue, the Advertiser seems to have grasped the scale and significance of the strike. We devote three entire columns to it—a ‘blockbuster’ by the standards of the day—but is again more sympathetic to the bosses.
Readers are told: “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 is then devoted to the “Work of the Socialists—one of the most unpleasant features of the whole affair”.
Our editorial insists: “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 Besant and her friends.”
But by the following Wednesday, Bryant & May caves in to the strikers’ 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 week, Saturday, July 21, comments: “Messrs Bryant and May have done the proper thing in making the concessions they have; but why were they not made before? The demands are just and reasonable.
“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.”
1889: Newspapers a year later reporting on The Great Docks Strike reveal how the dockers had taken their inspiration from the women match workers who were in their family.
The Advertiser in a profound editorial reflects the change in Victorian social attitudes and urges that the lesson “should not be thrown away upon other large employers of labour”. Capital has its responsibilities, we point out, which cannot be shirked “even when transformed into Limited Liability”.