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Descendants lead heritage walk in footsteps of 1888 Bryant & May’s matchgirl strike march through Whitechapel

PUBLISHED: 07:00 08 July 2018 | UPDATED: 23:04 08 July 2018

Commorative march 130 years after Bryant & May matchgirls' protest through Whitechapel to the City. Picture: Mike Brooke

Commorative march 130 years after Bryant & May matchgirls' protest through Whitechapel to the City. Picture: Mike Brooke

Mike Brooke

Descendants of the historic 1888 matchgirls’ strike at Bryant & May’s factory in Bow have led a heritage march from the East End to the City on the 130th anniversary of the dispute that changed industrial working conditions for ever.

Teenage girl workers who led strike at Bryant and May in Bow, July 1888. Picture source: Bishopsgate InstituteTeenage girl workers who led strike at Bryant and May in Bow, July 1888. Picture source: Bishopsgate Institute

They met at Trinity Green in Mile End to follow the route the strikers took on their protest march to where social reformer and writer Annie Besant worked in Fleet Street who galvanised the women into action.

Samantha Johnson literally followed the footsteps of her great-grandmother Sarah Chapman in yesterday’s anniversary march along the Whitechapel Road. Sarah was one of the strike organisers who eventually took the dispute to Parliament.

“She was one of the deputation of three who went into Besant’s office to ask for support,” Samantha told the East London Advertiser. “The first strike meeting was on Mile End Waste on July 8.

Following in footsteps of Matchgirls' leader Sarah Chapman (inset) in anniversary march along Whitechapel Road. Picture: Mike BrookeFollowing in footsteps of Matchgirls' leader Sarah Chapman (inset) in anniversary march along Whitechapel Road. Picture: Mike Brooke

“People look back on the 1889 dockers’ strike as a marker that led to the trade union movement—but those dockers acted because they were the husbands and brothers and sons of the matchworkers in Bow who won this amazing dispute.”

The strikers at the Fairfield Road factory had grievances over working conditions and safety. Some suffered ‘fossy jaw’, a bone degenerative disease caused by working with dangerous white phosphorous—a practice later outlawed by Parliament.

They also had grievances about low pay for long hours and the fines docked from their wages for “offences” in the workplace which was also made illegal.

Annie Besant's descendant Elizabeth Harding joins 130th anniversary of matchgirls' strike march. Picture: Mike BrookeAnnie Besant's descendant Elizabeth Harding joins 130th anniversary of matchgirls' strike march. Picture: Mike Brooke

The strike eventually forced Bryant and May to improve pay and conditions which inspired their menfolk in the docks to take similar action.

Robin Head, 56, the great-grandson of striker Mary Atkins, said: “That strike acted as a light to the dockers. Mary’s dad George Atkins was a stevedore in the Millwall Docks where there was a general feeling that if the women could win a dispute for better conditions and pay, so could the men.”

Helen Pankhurst, 54, descended from Suffragette leader Sylvia Pankhurst, arrived to join the Matchgirls’ march because of the historic link with her famous ancestor who in 1912 moved to the same East End district as the Bryant and May strikers 24 years earlier.

Robin Head, great-grandson of striker Mary Atkins on matchgirls' commemorative march. Picture: Mike BrookeRobin Head, great-grandson of striker Mary Atkins on matchgirls' commemorative march. Picture: Mike Brooke

She said: “We are connected as descendants of those people who wanted to increase our chances for social justice. Those women lit a flame that continues today.”

The old match factory in Fairfield Road has long since been turned into Bow Quarter housing complex. One of its renters, commercial ‘bid’ writer Katharine Papworth-Smith, 31, was delighted to learn its history when she moved in.

She revealed: “Every now-and-then somebody chalks the names of the matchgirls on the walls—it looks like graffiti but it ensures the names live on.”

The commemorative march followed the 1888 route along Whitechapel Road through the City to Fleet Street, where the strikers sought help from Annie Besant and her socialist newspaper.

Besant had written about their working conditions and handed out leaflets at the factory gates urging the women to fight for their rights, which led to the strike. She also organised them into a trade union which lobbied Parliament that started the process of reforming Britain’s Victorian working conditions.

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