125yearsagotoday, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. Theirpremises 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.