This beautiful article was written by Victoria.
After hearing about the Matchstick Girls, the first word that came to my mind was “brave”. They were so very brave. Girls, some as young as 12, who risked everything and ended up changing the way labour works in Britain forever.
It all began in June 1988, at the Bryant & May matchmaking factory in Bow, East London. They were the biggest employer of casual female labour in East London, and conditions for the workers were terrible.
The phosphorus fumes created in the factory directly caused a cancer called “phossy jaw”, a type of bone cancer which severely disfigured the faces of the girls and led to death. Because the women didn’t have a separate place to eat, they also directly ingested many toxic products. Phosphorous use was actually banned in Sweden and the USA at the time, but Britain allowed it because they didn’t want to “restrain” trade.
The girls worked 10-12 hour days, and earned only 5 shillings a week. This can be roughly equated to £25 ($31) a week in today’s money. However, they often didn’t even get their full pay because at the discretion of the cruel management they could be fined for anything from talking to going to the toilet. In fact, at one point, the pay of all the workers was docked by 1 shilling in order to build a statue.
After Annie Besant wrote an article in her newspaper “The Link” about the girls’ plight, the management of Bryant & May retaliated by firing three workers they thought were the informants.
In a staggering response, the nearly 1400 girls from the factory walked out in solidarity on the June 2nd 1888, despite no union support.
Alice Francis, Kate Slater, Mary Driscoll, Jane Wakeling and Elisa Martin were thought to be the ringleaders of the movement.
What started small, suddenly erupted.
Years of bad treatment and previous smaller strike efforts led to the perfect conditions for what would be the perfect strike. Bryant & May, panicked by their suddenly empty factories, tried at first to pacify the strikers by offering to reinstate the sacked workers. However, “The Matchstick Girls”, as they came to be known, had much bigger demands. By 8 am on the second day of the strike, they had already formed a “lively” picket line of “girls that one reads about in a story of outcast London, clad in old, worn out, faded jackets, or in ragged shawls and bedraggled skirts, with their heads covered with old brown or black straw, or felt hats battered into every conceivable shape, they made indeed a strange gathering.”
By the end of the week the police had turned up in force to the area. They even arrested Lewis Lyons, a known activist for the tailoring trade, who had heard about the strike and come to support the girls. As he was escorted to the police station, the girls marched around him singing in solidarity.
As part of the strike, the girls went door to door for donations, thereby creating their own strike fund. They held impromptu meetings, and even marched to Parliament to talk to MP’s. They also created their own trade union, called the Union of Women Match Makers. This was important because it meant that the strike had created something lasting–an organisation that would protect their rights going forward. Even 30 years later, less than 10% of working women were part of a union, thereby showing how radical and amazing it was at the time.
Worried about all the bad press, the Bryant & May management agreed to meet with a delegation from the newly created union on July 16th 1888. The girls showed courage and confidence in the meeting, as they brokered a deal which got rid of the punitive fines and provided a separate ‘breakfast room’ where they could eat their food. This was a massive success for the girls, and they all went back to work the next day.
The Star newspaper reported the “magnificent victory, a turning point in the history of our industrial development.”
It is commonly believed that a strike by the men of the London Docks in 1889 was the beginning of the labour movement in Britain. However, this isn’t true! Almost every member of this strike was somehow connected to a Matchgirl. Furthermore, John Burns, one of the main Trade Unionists of the time, even talked about the girls in a speech at the strike saying:
“Stand shoulder-to-shoulder. Remember the match girls who won their strike and formed a union.”
It was women who inspired the labour movement. It was young, poor, mostly Irish, working class women who ignored the concerns of even Annie Besant (the middle-class writer of the initial article, who said the strike would be pointless) and worked together to fight for their rights.
They went on strike, knowing they would be left penniless and jobless, yet also knowing that this was worth it. They went on strike against a giant company, led by rich men with good connections… and they won. They won!
Today I am inspired by Alice Francis, Kate Slater, Mary Driscoll, Jane Wakeling, Elisa Martin, and the nearly 1400 other girls who stood together and made a difference. I hope you are too.