August 2014

Louise Raw: STRIKING A LIGHT - The Bryant and May Matchwomen and their place in History
Published by Bloomsbury

Striking a Light - Matchwomen book coverThis book demonstrates that the 1888 strike by 1,400 matchwomen and girls at Bryant and May should rank with the similarly successful strikes by Gasworkers’ and Dockers’ the following year in changing forever the face of British trade unionism, which until then had tended to be craft unions only. Now, unskilled and poorly paid workers had the confidence to organise themselves and engage in collective action. Trade union membership doubled to over 1.5 million by 1892 and rose to over two million in 1899.

The women, who were  employed at a factory on Fairfield Road in East London, were poorly paid. Average pay was around 8 shillings (40p) a week with some earning less than 5 shillings. This was for a seven-day working week that started at 6.30am in the summer and 8am in the winter and which ran till 6pm with half an hour off for breakfast and an hour for lunch. Half a day’s pay was lost if they were late for work and there were also a series of illegal fines and deductions for materials such as glue and brushes. Many workers were confused about how their wages were calculated. They were also badly bullied by domineering foremen some of whom were not averse to handing out physical punishment.

Matches were essential in Victorian homes for lighting candles or gaslights and where coal fires provided heat and hot water. Although portable devices to produce a flame had existed for centuries it was the discovery of phosphorus in 1669 that paved the way for mass production of matches. In 1831, the introduction of white phosphorus by French chemist Charles Sauria made matches much easier to strike by increasing their toxicity. Within a few short years it was well known that phosphorus poisoning affected workers in match manufacturing.

Safer alternatives were to be ignored for decades with Bryant and May, the largest match manufacturer in the UK, who persuaded the government to veto the proposed banning of white phosphorus internationally. Workers at Bryant and May were forced to take their meal breaks at their workstations, thus increasing the risk of contracting ‘phossy jaw’ in which the jawbone rotted producing evil-smelling pus that made it almost impossible for anyone to remain in the sufferer’s presence. Death, often very painful, was not uncommon. Bryant and May failed to report illnesses and fatalities and sacked any worker exhibiting any symptoms.

Bryant and May became a limited company in 1884 and they expanded overseas and bought out the smaller matchmaking companies in Britain, with their dominant position allowing the company to force down wages in the industry. Workers at the factory took strike action to try and raise wages and improve factory safety with walkouts in 1881, 1885 and 1886. With no union organisation or funds these failed but demonstrated workers were aware of the need to collectively fight for their rights. This was also demonstrated by matchwomen throwing red paint over a statue of Liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone that had been erected by Theodore Bryant who illegally deducted a shilling from their wage packets to help pay for it.

Bryant and May’s shares had more than tripled in value since they were issued in 1884, leaping from £5 to over £18. Twenty per cent dividends were standard and amongst those to benefit were a number of prominent clergymen and Liberal politicians. On 15 June 1888, after Henry Champion had drawn attention to low wages at the company, members of the Fabian Society resolved not to use any matches made by Bryant and May and called on others to also boycott the firm. Annie Besant was keen to investigate further and swiftly visited Fairfield Road where she – and possibly other Fabians who accompanied her - approached a small number of women as they left work to get accounts of their working conditions. They confirmed what Champion had said and she wrote an article for The Link that was published on 23 June.

By heading her work ‘White Slavery in London’ Besant made the point that it would cost Bryant and May much more to look after a slave than it paid in wages to its workers. The article did not however call for strike action, which, in general, Besant disapproved of during her life.

For well over a hundred years it has been assumed that Besant was the leader of the strike - with few historians questioning whether well over one thousand very poorly paid workers really would go without pay under the leadership of a middle class women they hardly knew – Louise Raw very capably demonstrates this was not the case. The key to this was a re-examination of Besant’s own writings and the newspapers of the day along with Raw’s finding and interviewing grandchildren of some of the strike leaders. Besant’s role in the strike was important but she was not its leader and to suggest so has meant the inspiring story of the matchwomen’s courage has remain hidden whilst the ability of working class people to successfully organise collectively in defence of their needs has been underplayed.

Besant’s article did though push the company on to the defensive and after denying all the charges Bryant and May sought to discover who had spoken with Besant. To ensure there were no such further attempts to exercise free speech workers were asked to sign forms stating they would remain silent about their working conditions. Exactly how many refused to sign is not known but on 2 or 3 July at least one woman and possibly two more were dismissed. The company denied this had anything to do with any failure by a worker to sign the distributed forms and they cited a lack of trade and some disciplinary problems for the sackings. None of the remaining female workers believed this and suspecting foul play they downed tools and marched out of the factory.  The small number of male workers who mostly worked as dippers joined them.

Ignoring company reinstatement offers the women widened their demands to include other conditions, including the ending of illegal deductions. The women immediately organised an effective, noisy picket line and felt confident enough to send a deputation of six matchwomen to meet company directors. When the discussions were not to their satisfaction they resumed their strike.

On 6 July around one hundred strikers marched to the offices of Besant near Fleet Street and where three of them informed her of developments and asked for her assistance. The following day, Besant wrote a further article for the Link in which she expressed her dismay at the action the women had taken but continued to call for a boycott of Bryant and May’s products.

On 11 July, a friend of Besant’s, Charles Bradlaugh MP raised questions in Parliament and a deputation of 56 women who marched there to meet him brought parts of central London to a standstill as onlookers starred at the appearance of so many poor people. Newspaper coverage of the strike was intensified and for the first time it was reported that embarrassed shareholders were pressuring management at Bryant and May to come to a compromise with those refusing to work. The Star and Pall Mall Gazette began collecting donations from its readers and on 14 July the first strike pay was distributed. It was also reported that the women themselves had been collecting funds across East London.

On 16 July 1888 the company’s directors met with a deputation of matchwomen and two days later the company ceded to all the strikers’ demands. These included abolition of all fines, ending deductions for paints and brushes, all grievances to be taken straight to the managing director without the intervention of the foremen, the provision of a breakfast room to allow for meals to be eaten away from work stations and the formation of a union so that any future disputes could be officially laid before the company. The Union of Women Matchworkers, which was then the largest union of women and girls in the country, was formed, with Besant taking the role of secretary for the next few years. One of her first engagements was to speak to 5,000 Tilbury Dockers who in October 1888 unsuccessfully took strike action over a pay increase.

The Star newspaper had no doubt about the importance of the outcome:
The victory of the girls……is complete. It was won without preparation – without organization – without funds……a turning point in the history of our industrial development……

Even in 1923 every person at the Fairfield Works was believed to be a trade unionist. The victory by the matchwomen would undoubtedly have raised morale amongst working people in East London. The factory on Fairfield Road was less than two miles from where the 1889 Dock Strike began. Strikers and dockworkers lived cheek by jowl; many were related to each other, including plenty with Irish backgrounds, whilst there are also strong indications that amongst both sets of workers there were some with a strong interest in radical politics.

During the 1889 Great Dock Strike its leaders such as Tom Mann, Ben Tillett and John Burns regularly made reference to the matchwomen as they recognised that what had been achieved demonstrated that the previously unorganised could combine and win improvements in pay and working conditions. The Dockers’ were to prove this was now a fact of life with a  famous victory that further threw open trade unionism to all workers whatever their skills.

Louise Raw must be congratulated for her persistence over many years to try and discover what really happened at Bryant and May in 1888 as she has produced a book of vital importance.

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