Matchwomen Festival homage to 1888 Bryant & May strikers who set trade union movement alight

Matchgirls on strike at Bryant & May's in Bow, July 1888

Matchgirls on strike at Bryant & May's in Bow, July 1888 - Credit: Bishopsgate Institute

A festival that strikes a light for east London’s historic Labour movement this coming Saturday marks the 125th anniversary of one of a pivotal moment in social history.

June 6 festival at Bishopsgate Institute

June 6 festival at Bishopsgate Institute - Credit: Matchgirls Festival

The women workers at Bryant & May’s match factory in Bow went on strike for better working conditions, decent pay and union recognition when they downed tools in July, 1888.

Saturday’s festival at the Bishopsgate Institute highlights the events of the summer of 1888 when 1,400 women walk out in a grievance over bullying on the production floor and hazardous working conditions at the massive factory along Fairfield Road.

Working-class women at this time were supposed to be seen and not heard, especially if, like many matchwomen, they were Irish.

Instead, the matchwomen paraded through the East End, singing and telling about their starvation wages and mistreatment to anyone who would listen.

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They marched to Parliament and their solidarity won them better pay, safer working conditions and the right to form a trade union—shaking the foundations of industrial Britain to its core.

“The festival will be the kind of ‘knees-up the matchwomen would have enjoyed themselves,” says Festival director Louise Raw. “We’ve got bands laid on, comedians, actors, stalls and a great deal of food and drink.”

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Louise, 46, is author of ‘Striking a Light—the Real Story of the Match Women’ which aimed at correcting a misconception about the women’s role in the east London’s social history.

“Historians assumed the London 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.

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 matchwomen who were in their family—that’s how the modern trade union movement got going.”

Events take place all day including family workshops to make a Matchwomen’s hat and make matchboxes against the Clock, a Unison workshop on how to design a protest placard and children’s activities.

Talks are being given by Ted Lewis, the grandson of one of the 1888 Matchwoman, Labour veteran politician Tony Benn, TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady and TV’s John Bird. Live music is laid on from 7pm.

The free 12-hour Matchwomen Festival is at the Bishopsgate Institute at 230 Bishopsgate, between Old Spitalfields Market and Liverpool Street station, free on Saturday, 11am to 11pm.

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