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On an early July afternoon in 1888 a crowd of 200, mainly teenaged girls, arrived outside a newspaper office in Bouverie Street, off Fleet Street in the City of London. They had left their work at the Bryant and May match factory at Bow in the East End in protest when three of their colleagues had been fired. Management had accused them of telling lies about their working conditions to a radical journalist, Annie Besant. They had come to her for help. In June Besant had heard at a meeting of socialists in Hampstead that Bryant and May, had announced monster profits with dividends of 22 per cent contrasted with paying wages of between 4 and 8 Shillings [20 - 40p] a week (see How Much is That Worth Today?)

Annie Besant went down to the factory to investigate. She stood by the gate till the women came out, persuading a small group to talk to her. Besant returned from the East End with a terrible story of cynical exploitation and disregard for the health and welfare of children and young adults. She had recently founded a weekly agitational paper, The Link, in which she wrote up her story of life in the match factory. It was entitled "White Slavery in London".

From the crowd of 200 women at the door, Besant brought a small group into her office where they set up an organising committee. Besant had been pessimistic about the organisation of unskilled women factory workers and shortly before the strike had criticised the Women's Trade Union League in The Link for espousing unworkable ideas.

Bryant and May tried to break the strike by threatening to move the factory to Norway or to import blacklegs from Glasgow. The managing director, Frederick Bryant, was already using his influence on the press. His first statement was widely carried. 'His (sic) employees were liars. Relations with them were very friendly until they had been duped by socialist outsiders. He paid wages above the level of his competitors. He did not use fines. Working conditions were excellent...He would sue Mrs Besant for libel'.

'Mrs Besant' would not be intimidated. The next issue of The Link invited Bryant to sue. Much better, she asserted, to sue her than to sack defenceless poor women.

She took a group of 50 workers to Parliament. The women catalogued their grievances before a group of MPs, and, afterwards, 'outside the House they linked arms and marched three abreast along the Embankment...' The socialist paper Justice reported that, 'A very imposing sight it was too, to see the contrast between these poor 'white slaves' and their opulent sisters'.

The Campaign

Besant's propagandist style was bold and effective and she had a fine eye for the importance of organisation. She addressed the problem of finance. An appeal was launched in The Link. Every contribution was listed from the pounds of middle class sympathisers to the pennies of the workers. Large marches and rallies were organised in Regents Park in the West End as well as Victoria Park and Mile End Waste in the east. The strike committee called for support from the London Trades Council. This body, formed in 1860, represented the skilled tradesmen of the capital. It had always behaved exclusively, rejecting contact with the poor and unskilled and cultivating respectability. But they responded positively, donating 20 to the strike fund and offering to act as mediators between the strikers and the employer. A strike HQ was set up in Bow Road. The strikers were asked to report and sign a register for the allocation of strike pay according to need.

Yet the element the middle class and especially the employers could not comprehend, was the degree to which these workers could help themselves. They were usually depicted as feckless or tragic victims of their own inadequacies tossed around by market forces. There is no doubt that extreme poverty, often reaching starvation for some was debilitating, nor that the vagaries of the market could wreak havoc upon individuals and families, but there was also resistance and mutuality. Match workers' open struggles went back at least to 1871, when the government had imposed a match tax which threatened jobs. Match workers, and the communities from which they came, surged out of the East End in a vast march on Parliament which ended with a brutal battle with the police in Trafalgar Square and the Embankment.

Then there was the story of the Gladstone Statue. Annie Besant said the girls had told her that the Director, Theodore Bryant, a prominent liberal, had deducted a shilling from their wages as a contribution to the erection of a statue to the Liberal Prime Minister on Bow Road, near the factory, by the ancient church. Some of the workers had revolted:

...many went to the unveiling with stones and bricks in their pockets...later on 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 truth, by their blood.

The story was told in June 1888 as if it had happened 'the week before'. The statue was actually raised in August of 1882. Given the age, and the turnover of the employees, the 1882 participants were probably the mothers and sisters of many of the 1888 workers. But the story of resistance was alive in their collective memory. Short lived strikes had taken place in 1881 and 1886 over wages and conditions but they had been unsuccessful.

'The Fenian Barracks'

The Strike Register shows many workers had Irish names and lived in close proximity to each other. The Irish had built a network of cultural, religious and political organisations keeping identity and contact alive. This may have added an important ingredient to their mutuality and maybe even to their readiness to fight at that time. It was well known and recorded that communities of Irish immigrants shared a strong identity and were ready to defend it fiercely. Charles Booth, in his monumental survey of East London, pointed to a particular area as being noted for sending more police to hospital than any other block in London. Known as the Fenian Barracks, its men would not allow one of their number to be taken and would keep out 'invaders' with barricades. At least 23 match workers lived in the 'Fenian Barracks', five in Fern Street and Rook Street, Poplar - all predominantly 'Irish' Streets according to the 1891 Census.

Formation of the Union of Women Match Workers

The Match Workers stayed out for three weeks. The London Trades Council, at the Strike Committee's invitation, arranged a meeting with the employers. At that meeting, Bryant and May conceded almost all the women's demands. It was agreed that all fines and most deductions would be abolished, that the 'pennies' [a deduction made for the employment of girls to carry out material for the box-filling women which had continued long after the practice had died out] were to be restored, that 3d was to be restored to the packers and that there would be no victimisation and the firm would recognise a union formed by the women.

On 27 July 1888, the inaugural meeting of the Union of Women Match Makers was held. Clementina Black from the Women's Trade Union League gave advice on rules, subscriptions and elections. Annie Besant was elected the first secretary. With money left over from the strike fund, plus some money raised from a benefit at the Princess Theatre, enough money was raised to enable the union to acquire permanent premises. By October, 666 members had been enrolled [their numbers having swelled by the return of women from hop picking]. By the end of the year, the union changed its rules and name. It became the Matchmakers Union, open to men and women, and the following year sent its first delegate to the Trade Union Congress. Although the Matchmakers' Union continued to exist only until 1903, the action taken in 1888 had both immediate and long-term reverberations in the trade union movement.

It is easy to see how those women provided the inspiration. They were young. They were loud. They were confident. They charged about the area holding meetings and parades. They forced the Bryant and May bosses to climb down. And they won! The "Match Girls" have had an astonishing power to speak to us over the last century. The meeting at the factory gate that June, of the socialist activist and the group of angry young working class women, was a key moment in the birth of a vast social movement which would be celebrated in labour and socialist history as the New Unionism. Ben Tillett paid tribute to the Match Workers whose strike he called 'the beginning of the social convulsion which produced the New Unionism'.

But the strike is not just of historic interest. It is an absolutely critical example of how after decades of low struggle and disappointment a militant movement can revive. Its genesis could come from the most unpredictable and apparently unpromising source. Call centre personnel? Supermarket till staff? Well, not in 1888! It was 12 to 15 year old kids in the match industry!

This text has been extracted from It just went like tinder; the mass movement and New Unionism in Britain 1889: a socialist history, John Charlton, Redwords, 1999. ISBN 1 872208 118 6.99

Other useful reading for this package:

A match to fire the Thames by Ann Stafford. Hodder and Stoughton, 1961.

Matchgirls strike 1888: the struggle against sweated labour in London's East End by Reg Beer. National Museum of Labour History, 1979.

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