‘Matchgirl’ descendants call to justice secretary to save Sarah Chapman’s grave 132 years after Bryant & May strike
- Credit: Mike Brooke
Sarah Chapman’s fight for better working conditions at the infamous Bryant & May match factory in Bow in 1888 changed British working conditions for ever.
But now another battle about her last resting place looms from beyond the grave, 75 years after her paupers’ burial at Forest Gate.
Turn back the clock 132 years and Sarah is one of the leaders of the matchgirls’ strike, initially over the sacking of a girl worker for “packing the matches the wrong way”.
But real issues emerge, such as having no place to eat during their lunch break away from their workbenches with deadly white phosphorous lying around which is used in making matches. Many catch the dreaded “phossy jaw” from contaminated food which affects their jawbones.
Other grievances surface, like being fined from their poverty wages for “offences” on the factory floor or having to pay for the raw materials themselves that they worked with.
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Sarah helps organise the women into a trade union and leads them out onto the Mile End Road and a protest march through Whitechapel and the City.
But her great-granddaughter Sam Johnson was told in October that the grave at the Manor Park cemetery in Forest Gate is going to be “mounded” with fresh earth to make way for new burial plots.
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“My father remembers when he was seven going to see his grandma Sarah in Bethnal Green,” Sam recalls. “There was an aspidistra in the corner and she gave him a red train engine. That was in 1945, the year she died.”
Sam has started a petition with 7,000 names to the Ministry of Justice and has written to Justice Secretary Robert Buckland pleading for Sarah Chapman’s common grave to be protected, supported by the MPs for East Ham and West Ham and others.
“This is critical,” Sam urged. “I have marked Sarah’s grave with a wooden cross and chainlink which hadn’t been done before.”
Even so, Manor Park can reclaim public grave areas in accordance with burial law “once the appropriate time lapse since the last burial”, the cemetery owners points out. Additional soil is added to create new space, known as “mounding”, so that no human remains are disturbed.
The cemetery says: “The company has already offered Mrs Johnson an assurance that, on reclamation, she would be offered first refusal to purchase a lease of the new grave space above Sarah Dearman’s existing grave. To date, Mrs Johnson has not confirmed she wishes to do this.
“The company is currently maintaining the grave until the area is reclaimed. Other offers to Mrs Johnson include the siting of a memorial to Sarah Dearman close to the Civilian War Memorial, a memorial plaque or a nearby bench.”
The company added: “The exact location of the grave will be carefully marked.”
It was only four years ago that Sarah Chapman’s great-granddaughter learned of her role in the 1888 matchgirls’ strike.
“I happened to stumble on a researcher’s appeal for anyone who knew anything about Sarah Chapman,” Sam recalls. “I didn’t read it until several years later and realised that was my great-grandmum!”
There had also been an appeal from Stepney’s Ragged Museum 13 years earlier to trace descendants of the matchgirls.
The story of the matchgirls has attracted historians, women’s groups, trade unions, MPs and showbiz stars to join the campaign for a memorial at Sarah Chapman’s final resting place.
Ex-EastEnders TV actress and singer Anita Dobson, an East End girl from Stepney, said: “These women fought for our rights. People want to come to pay their respects at Sarah’s graveside and remember what she and the matchgirls achieved.”
The strike eventually forced Bryant & May to improve pay and conditions and paved the way for industrial reform across Britain.
The old match factory in Fairfield Road has long since been turned into the Bow Quarter housing complex. But it still echoes the events of 1888 with Sarah Chapman leading the 1,500 factory girls out onto the streets on a hot July day and marching through the City. The march was re-enacted by the matchgirls’ descendants in 2018 along the same route on the 130th anniversary.
The reasons for the strike are “the sensational report by socialist activist Annie Besant” and the dismissal of one of the girls, the East London Advertiser reports at the time with its headline, “Bryant and May’s Match Girls on Strike — who fans the flames?”
The works manager tells the paper that a girl refused to fill the boxes in the way the overseer had instructed.
But that is just the tip of the iceberg at Fairfield Road. The scale and significance is grasped and we devote three entire columns to the dispute the following week — a “blockbuster” by the press standards of the day.
The paper shifts the blame onto middle managers rather than the “gentlemen directors” when Bryant & May caves in. Yet we urge the gentlemen in the boardroom to “make themselves acquainted with the labour side”.
Now the matchgirl descendants 132 years on say Sarah Chapman’s grave comes with a responsibility to protect the heritage of the East End and Britain’s trade union movement.
* Manor Park Cemetery Company Ltd would like to issue a correction to the statement it issued in an earlier version of the story in which it said it had paid for an entry in The Book of Remembrance. Its statement should have read “The entry was paid for privately”.