Match girls of Bow strike a light to 130th anniversary of Bryant & May’s industrial walk-out of 1888
- Credit: Peoples History Museum
A strike by women in a backwater factory in Bow that eventually changed the British workplace for ever still holds memories of defiance and working class struggles handed down through generations as the 130th anniversary of the Bryant & May match factory dispute approaches.
The 1,400 female workers became part of East End social history in 1888 when their unprecedented action was literally the match that lit the fires of the whole trade union movement.
The memories have come down through their descendants, revealed in research by journalist and author Kate Thompson who interviewed grandchildren of the women who walked out over pay and more importantly their safety at work.
They earned a pittance and fell prey to the infamous ‘phossy jaw’ disease caused by working with white phosphorus, according to East End heritage expert Louise Raw.
“Exposure to white phosphorus contaminated their food and caused jaws and teeth to crumble and putrefy,” Louise explains.
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“The women in 1888 wanted meal breaks in a separate room where their food would not be contaminated, a practice eventually abolished by Act of Parliament in 1910.
“They also demanded an end to fines, deductions for materials and other unfair penalties.”
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Their stand inspired the Great Docks Strike a year later which began in the Millwall Docks and spread across the country, leading to radical reforms and safety in the workplace now taken for granted.
The improvements turned a full circle, with the Bryant & May factory in Fairfield Road later becoming one of the best places to work by the Second World War, Kate found in her research for her book The Allotment Girls out this month.
Retired Billingsgate porter Ted Lewis, whose grandmother Martha worked at the factory in 1888, recalled a tough woman whose life was a continual fight against poverty.
He told Kate Thompson shortly before he died aged 87 last August: “Martha’s day as a child worker would begin at 5am before walking to the factory to join the queue with other children waiting for work.
“But she grew into a woman of standing in the community by the time the First World War broke out, entrusted to deliver babies and lay out the dead.”
Martha’s husband Jimmy served on the Western Front as a rifleman.
In later life she walked with a stick. Ted remembers taking her to the pub, but when things got rowdy she would tell him: “Prop me in the corner and I’ll take ’em on with my stick!”
This “take ’em on” feisty attitude is what forced Bryant & May to think about the welfare of their workforce in 1888, which led to workplace safety a century before it became common practice in industry.
The women’s victory brought about improvements for future generations of match factory workers with bosses setting up a welfare scheme.
The improvements by the Second World War included onsite medical care, a dentist, library, pension fund, savings and hospital fund and social clubs which organised pottery, needlecraft, keep-fit, dressmaking, debating and singing lessons. There was an annual beano works outing and a dance.
Ann Simmons, an 82-year-old pensioner from Bow, started work there at 15 in the post-war years of the 1950s.
“It was a plum job,” she recalls. “But my gran hated me working there, saying I’ll get ‘phossy jaw’, she used to say.
“A lot of the old East End women could never forget, or forgive. But by the time I arrived, everyone wanted to work there.”
Less than a decade earlier, the factory got as direct hit by one of Hitler’s V1 doodlebug flying bombs at 5.32pm on July 15, 1944. The workforce had a very narrow escape—their annual holiday had started the day before and the factory was empty. The doodlebug landed in the yard, totally destroying a two-storey building and smashing houses 100 yards away.
Bryant & May’s role in the social history of London’s East End is the catalyst for improvements in British industrial working conditions over the next 130 years.
It was all thanks to the feisty women standing for their rights, with key figures in the 1888 strike like Mary Driscoll telling her workmates at Fairfield Road to “hold your head up and remember you’re as good as anyone”.
Their unprecedented walk-out inspired the Great Dockers’ Strike a year later which began in the Millwall Docks and spread across the country, eventually leading to improved working conditions in industry.
All that organisation is placed upon so slight a thing as a match, Kate Thompson reflects, but history shows it to be explosive if workers are exploited.
The Allotment Girls, by Kate Thompson, set in Bryant & May match factory in the Second World War, published by Pan Macmillan in paperback at £6.99 and on Amazon.