diamond geezer

 Friday, July 05, 2013

The Bow Matchgirls strike Thursday 5th July 1888

125 years ago today, some girls in East London walked out on strike. That might not sound too special, but unskilled workers didn't tend to go out on strike in those days, let alone girls. Even more unusual, the campaign against their bosses ended successfully. So successful, eventually, that their actions helped to kickstart a new more modern trade union movement. And it all started [points] just over there, in Bow.

Working conditions in the Bryant & May match factory in Fairfield Road were tough. Most of the thousand or so workers were in their teens, and spent the entire day on their feet. That day started at 6.30am and continued until 8pm, with a slightly later start in winter. The manufacturing process used white phosphorus, a none-too-healthy chemical. Continued exposure could cause a fatal disease called phossy jaw, which was not helped by the girls having to eat all their meals on the factory floor. A typical worker earned only 4 shillings a week, a sum often reduced by fines for lateness, leaving matches on the bench, "dirty feet" or even talking.
One girl was fined 1s. for letting the web twist round a machine in the endeavor to save her fingers from being cut, and was sharply told to take care of the machine, "never mind your fingers". Another, who carried out the instructions and lost a finger thereby, was left unsupported while she was helpless. The wage covers the duty of submitting to an occasional blow from a foreman; one, who appears to be a gentleman of variable temper, "clouts" them "when he is mad".
And yet the bosses at Bryant and May paid themselves a handsome salary. Company shareholders received a dividend of 23%, while workers were paid only 2¼d. per gross for making matchboxes. A Fleet Street journalist called Annie Besant was appalled by this inequality and visited the area to dig deeper. She named her expose "White Slavery In East London" and it was published in The Link on 23rd June 1888.
A very bitter memory survives in the factory. Mr. Theodore Bryant, to show his admiration of Mr. Gladstone and the greatness of his own public spirit, bethought him to erect a statue to that eminent statesman. In order that his workgirls might have the privilege of contributing, he stopped 1s. each out of their wages, and further deprived them of half-a-day's work by closing the factory, "giving them a holiday". ("We don't want no holidays", said one of the girls pathetically, for - needless to say - the poorer employees of such a firm lose their wages when a holiday is "given".) So furious were the girls at this cruel plundering, that many went to the unveiling of the statue with stones and bricks in their pockets, and I was conscious of a wish that some of those bricks had made an impression on Mr. Bryant's - conscience. Later they surrounded the statue - "we paid for it" they cried savagely - shouting and yelling, and a gruesome story is told that some cut their arms and let their blood trickle on the marble paid for, in very truth, by their blood. There seems to be a curious feeling that the nominal wages are 1s. higher than the money paid, but that 1s. a week is still kept back to pay for the statue and for a fountain erected by the same Mr. Bryant. This, however, appears to me to be only of the nature of a pious opinion.
Theodore Bryant threatened to sue, more for Annie's attack on his working practices than for long-standing rumours about a red-painted statue. But Annie held firm, backed up by what she believed were facts, and continued her campaign on the letters pages of the local press.
"SIR, - In the Link of June 23rd there was an article by Annie Besant entitled 'White Slavery in London', containing statements as to the amount of wages which Messrs. Bryant and May, the matchmakers, pay to their work girls. The statements were given by some of the girls, and three on whom suspicion has fallen have been discharged. We pledged our word to the girls that if any of them were discharged in consequence of the statements made by them their wages should be paid till they could find other work. The amount required is about 18s. per week for the three, and we appeal to those of your readers who can afford to help to pay this sum to send any subscriptions, however small... Faithfully yours ANNIE BESANT" (East London Observer, 3rd July 1888)

"Sir, - A letter appears in your issue of the 3rd inst. in which the writers ask for contributions from the public for the maintenance of three girls stated to have been discharged from our factories in consequence of their having given some information which formed the basis of a letter published in a weekly paper on the 23rd ult. We desire to state that since that date only one girl has been dismissed from the company's service, and in that case the dismissal had no connexion whatever with the cause your correspondents suggest. - Yours, etc. WM. CARKEET, Secretary for Bryant and May Limited (East London Observer, 4th July 1888)
On Thursday 5th July 1888 - that's 125 years ago today - Annie's campaign bore fruit. Managers fired a disrespectful worker, and a bubble of support from her colleagues started a domino effect that brought the entire matchmaking operation to a standstill.
On Thursday... a girl employed in the Victoria factory - in the box-filling department - wilfully disregarded the orders of her foreman, and was dismissed. That seemed to form the signal for the other girls, who, on the pretence of wanting more wages, marched out after sending in a deputation to the manager Mr. Dixon. The other departments followed suit, and even the wax hands were compelled to join in the strike. The eleven hundred employés paraded the streets in the neighbourhood of Bow on Thursday and Friday. A large number of police are stationed in the neighbourhood. Messrs. Bryant and May are firm in their intention to resent dictation as to the treatment of their employés.
Events moved quickly. On Monday a deputation came to speak to Annie in her Fleet Street office, winning the journalist's support, and in turn she helped to mobilise the strikers into organised protest. On Wednesday 50 girls marched on the Houses of Parliament where they shared their grievances before a group of MPs, their pallor and poverty here self-evident. A strike fund was set up, with its HQ on Bow Road, with contributions taken from MPs, local businessmen and the general public.
And a pretty hubbub we created; we asked for money, and it came pouring in; we registered the girls to receive strike pay, wrote articles, roused the clubs, held public meetings, got Mr. Bradlaugh to ask questions in Parliament, stirred up constituencies in which shareholders were members, till the whole country rang with the struggle... The girls behaved splendidly, stuck together, kept brave and bright all through.
Factory bosses threatened to move production elsewhere, even abroad to Sweden, but on Monday agreed to a meeting in the face of bad publicity. The newly-formed Match Girls Strike Committee attended under Annie's leadership, and the London Trades Council acted as arbitrators. A deal was struck on Tuesday 17th July which "far exceeded the expectations" of the protesters, and all the girls went back to work.
After a prolonged discussion, the following terms were agreed upon by the firm, the Trades' Unionists, and the girls for submission to a meeting of the strikers, who were awaiting the result in Mr. Charrington's Hall:—(1) Abolition of all fines; (2) abolition of all deductions for paint, brushes, stamps, &c.; (3) restitution of 'pennies' if the girls do their own racking, or payments by piecework of boys employed to do it; (4) the packers to have their threepence; (5) all grievances to be taken straight to the managing directors without the intervention of the foremen. The firm further said that they would, as soon as possible, provide a breakfast-room for the girls so that the latter will not be obliged to get their meals in the room where they work, and they also expressed a strong wish that the girls would organize themselves into an union so that future disputes, if any, may be officially laid before the firm.
Before the end of the month, the inaugural meeting of the Union of Women Match Makers was held. Annie Besant was its first secretary, with her organisational skills helping to maintain the momentum. The Matchmakers' Union would become one of the most important in the country, and inspired other poor workers to band together and fight for their rights. The following year the Gas Workers’ and General Labourers’ Union was formed, and won an 8-hour day. And then the East End's dockers went out on strike, closing down business on the Thames for a month, and Britain's trade unions became ever more important.

Bryant and May finally switched to using safer red phosphorus in 1901. Their premises in Bow grew to become the largest factory in London, then shrank back, eventually ceasing operations in 1979. The buildings were transformed into Bow Quarter, one of the UK's first gated residential communities. Today's residents earn considerably more than their matchgirl forebears, and I doubt that a high proportion of them are trade union members.

But the legacy of Bow's protesters remains strong. An unlikely group of East End girls discovered the dignity to complain about their situation and improved their lot in life. The nudge they gave inspired others to campaign for better conditions, enshrining basic rights and preventing employers from riding roughshod for profit. If you want to celebrate, a Matchwomens Festival is being held at the Bishopsgate Institute tomorrow, with free tickets available for a 12-hour communal knees-up. It's hoped that the festival will become an annual event, a celebration which the matchgirls themselves would have enjoyed. We owe them, and their principled bravery, a deep debt.


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