All children should learn about the hidden story of the Matchgirls’ strike, argues Lyn Brown MP
The received wisdom is that the heroic London dockers of 1889 led the way towards social justice, greater equality and spurred the foundation of the Labour movement.
In fact it was London’s working class women, a year earlier, who were the vital spark that lit the blaze that showed the way to trade unionism. The men learned how it was done from their mothers, wives, sisters, daughters and neighbours. It is a story, 125 years on, that needs to be told.
The Matchgirls’ strike of 1888, at the Bryant and May factory in Bow, is one I heard at my Mum’s knee and never forgot. It is a story of tenacious bravery and of leadership that came from women within the impoverished, uneducated working-class, mainly Irish-immigrant communities of London’s East End.
The story of the Matchgirls’ strike was a favourite of Mum’s because it talked about women like her, her mum, her grandmother and great grandmother, who lived in those very same streets and who had the courage to fight and win against enormous odds.
Bryant and May was a well-regarded and politically connected company: a household name with powerful shareholders. It cultivated an ill-deserved reputation as a caring employer and established a powerful monopoly.
By 1888 it could pay its workers less than it had 12 years earlier, becoming the chief British employer of match workers and the largest employer for female casual labour in the East End of London.
Managers were brutal and the work hazardous. Matches were made using white phosphorus, the fumes from which inflicted terrible maladies including abscesses and disfigurement. Alongside low wages, exceptionally long hours and physical abuse came harsh fines for small infringements of rules or ‘shoddy work.’
Hearing of the grim conditions, Annie Besant investigated and published an article in her weekly newspaper, The Link, headlined: ‘White Slavery in London,’ prompting Bryant and May to threaten libel action. The company put pressure on the women to discover who had spoken to Besant.
Bryant and May identified and dismissed ‘ringleaders,’ provoking around 1,400 women to walk out on strike. The workers put a picket line in place. The factory was at a standstill.
The striking women marched daily through the streets, collecting money to sustain their families. They marched on parliament where they lobbied and impressed MPs. Bryant and May was forced, through public, social and political pressure, to accede to the women’s demands for safer working conditions and the cessation of arbitrary fines.
Crucially, the company allowed them to form a trades union, so that ‘future disputes, if any, may be laid officially in front of the firm.’ The Union of Women Matchworkers, the greatest union of women and girls in the country, was formed.
The Star newspaper congratulated the workers on their ‘magnificent victory, a turning point in the history of our industrial development.’ Truly, it was.
Given Bryant and May’s political and economic power, the strike by these impoverished women was particularly audacious and by no means predestined to succeed. The struggle of these women, played out in the glare of publicity, had repercussions far beyond the betterment of their own conditions.
The Matchgirls’ Strike was a vital catalyst for ‘new unionism’. It was openly acknowledged by the dock strike leaders a year later in 1889 when the call went out from John Burns to a meeting of tens of thousands of strikers to: ‘Stand shoulder-to-shoulder. Remember the match women, who won their fight and formed a union.’
The Matchgirls demonstrated to working people that it is possible for marginalised, unskilled workers to bind together in solidarity in trade unions and succeed in their demands for reasonable pay and conditions.
After the strike it became when rather than if the dockers would strike and ignite the modern Labour movement, forming the roots of the Labour party.
What an empowering story this is. Why has it been hidden for so long? We should teach it in schools. We should talk about it, celebrate it. We should be making a film about it and inspiring the next generation of politicians and trade unionists, particularly women. What a movie it would make.
Lyn Brown is the Labour MP for West Ham. She tweets at @lynbrownmp
She credits Louise Raw and her 2011 book: ‘Striking a light: The Bryant and May Matchwomen and their place in history’, for the details in this story.
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