In 1888, an event took place in East London which changed the face of British trade unionism. It was the strike of the Matchgirls at the Bryant and May factory in Bow.
The conditions of the poor in this period were appalling. Very few of the unskilled labourers were unionised. Consequently they had no protection and were forced to work excessively long hours for a few shillings in unsafe and unhealthy conditions. Then when they were broken in body and spirit they lost their jobs to children ‘ripe’ for labour.
The Matchgirls, some of them little more than children, were subject to bullying by their charge-hands, with illegal fines and stoppages taken from their meagre wages of as little as four shillings (20 pence) a week.
They even had a day’s pay stopped so Theodore Bryant could boast that his workforce had donated towards a statue of Gladstone, which he had erected in Bow Road. (*)
They worked with yellow phosphorus, used for the match ends. Phosphorus covered the benches they worked at - the same benches from which they ate their lunches.
It burned the skin on impact and covered their clothes so that they were luminous in the dark. A number of girls had yellow, jaundiced skin, caused through inhaling the phosphorus, which killed off the live bone of the jaw and caused terrible disfigurement. ‘Phossy Jaw’ was intensely painful. How many died as a result will never be known.
In the dark winter evenings, piles of luminous vomit in the gutters around Bow evidenced that the Matchgirls had finished work for the day.
An article appeared in the Socialist weekly paper of that time known as the Link, entitled ‘White Slavery of London.’ It was written by Annie Besant and in it she exposed the conditions at Bryant and May. She had met and talked with the girls before composing her piece.
Rather than tackle the problems faced by the workers the company commenced a search for their leaders. The girls were told to sign a paper stating that what Besant had wrote was all lies. Bravely, no one signed.
The girls’ leader was dismissed. The girls demanded that management meet a deputation from them. Bryant was left amazed by their self-organisation and he reluctantly agreed - although at the short meeting he then refused to reinstate the sacked girl, who without any work now faced the prospect of starving to death.
1,400 girls, with just a few pence in their purses and unemployment at high levels, walked out. They had defied their employers by going on strike.
Public opinion swiftly swung behind the strikers and Annie Besant, a tireless fighter for them, led a deputation of Matchgirls to the House of Commons.
The London Trades (Union) Council that until then had largely represented skilled labour took up their case and offered to arbitrate.
Strike pay was distributed. It had been raised from the donations of thousands of sympathisers and well-wishers from all walks of life.
The girls formed the Matchgirls’ Union and when Besant held meetings with management on 16 July 1888 it was agreed that fines, deductions for cost of materials and other unfair deductions should be abolished. From then on all future grievances could be taken straight to the management without having to involve the foremen who had prevented the management from knowing of previous complaints. Very importantly, meals were to be taken in a separate room, where the food would not be contaminated with phosphorus.
The girls’ union was recognised and its general secretary was Annie Besant.
* The statue still stands today. Many of the Matchgirls went to the unveiling with stones and bricks concealed in their pockets and supposedly some cut their arms and let their blood trickle on the marble plinth. The outstretched hand of the statue has been daubed with red paint on several occasions as a tribute to the women. Gladstone
now stands guard over some closed public lavatories.