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Monday, 4 October 2010

Matchgirls Strike

With London travellers today being dogged by the 24hr tube strike, I thought we would look at a strike that occurred 122 years ago in London, namely, the matchgirls strike of 1888.
Mention the year 1888 to most people and the Whitechapel murders of “Jack the Ripper” will probably be the only key event that comes to mind, but the matchgirls strike was an important event in the working lives of Semi and non-skilled workers – women in particular – as it laid the foundations for our current unions and workers’ rights.

As their name suggests matchgirls were the girls who worked in the factories where matches were produced. They worked in atrocious conditions, working sixteen hour days, essentially dipping little wooden sticks into white phosphorous, a highly toxic chemical that, when dried on the stick, provided the flammable part of the match. They received a pittance in wages and the hazards of their job were infamous.

The condition most people will know of is necrosis of the jaw, known as “Phossy Jaw” (Phosphorous jaw) which was caused by inhaling the fumes of the phosphorous. The girl would first suffer toothache, then the jaw would swell and turn green, before breaking out in abscesses, “discharging a foul smelling infection” and turning black. The jaw bone would then rot away. The only medical treatment was amputation of the jaw bone, which, of course, left the patient disfigured for life.

A Matchgirl

The matchgirls were treated more or less as slaves by the firms they worked for, and received harsh fines for actions that todays workers would take for granted, such as talking, dropping matches or taking toilet breaks without first getting permission. Being late would cost the girls half a day’s pay.

At the Bryant and May factory in Bow, East London, some matchgirls walked out of work in protest at the dismissal of three colleagues. The fired matchgirls had been accused by match making firm Bryant and May of telling lies about the working conditions in the factory to journalist Annie Besant.

Besant had originally visited the factory after hearing about the huge profits it was making in contrast to the somewhat miserly wages of 4 – 8 shillings a week. (maybe fifty or sixty pence in today’s money?) Upon seeing some of the girls outside the factory she asked to speak to them about this, but came away instead with the story of the awful working conditions, strict punishments and danger the girls suffered.

In her recently founded paper, “The Link”, Besant wrote a piece entitled “White Slavery in London” Which attacked the conditions in the Bryant and May factory, and garnered attention from the public. She wrote:
'Who cares if they die or go on to the streets provided only that Bryant & May shareholders get their 23 per cent.’

Bryant and May were understandably not happy with this article which shocked the public. They too went to the press, writing to The Link to defend their factory and its conditions, saying that the dismissed girls had been liars, and had been brainwashed by socialist outsiders. (This is a reference to Besant – “The Link” being a socialist journal) They also threatened to sue Besant for libel.
Annie Besant
Undeterred, Annie Besant and some of the matchgirls set up a committee to organise marches and strikes.
Bryant and May countered this by saying they would import matches from Scotland, or move the factory to Norway where the labour was cheaper, but still the girls, and Besant, remained determined.

Fifty matchgirls, lead by Besant, entered parliament and aired their grievances to MPs, telling their stories about the dreaded “Phossy Jaw”, the fines they incurred, and the long hours they worked for measly pay. When they exited the houses of parliament, they marched down the embankment for their cause.

Using The Link, Besant appealed to readers for donations so that the demonstrations could continue, using vivid descriptions of the matchgirls suffering such as this:

"Do you know that girls are used to carrying boxes on their heads until the hair is rubbed off and the young heads are bald at fifteen years of age? Country clergymen with shares in Bryant and May’s, draw down on your knee your fifteen year old daughter; pass your hand tenderly over the silky beauty of the black, shinning tresses".

She persuaded many people from a vast cross section of society to donate to the cause. The money was spent on organising marches and paying the matchgirls who were on strike, and therefore receiving no wages.

The strike lasted three weeks until a meeting was arranged between the committee and Bryant and May by the London Trades Council. At the meeting, Bryant and May gave in to virtually all of the women’s demands. All the harsh fines were abolished and the firm agreed to recognise a union set up by the matchgirls.

The first meeting of the “Union of Women Match Makers”, with Annie Besant as secretary, was held on 27th July 1888, in which the girls were advised upon the rules of the union, the election system and the subscriptions. Using money raised during the campaign the union purchased premises. By the end of the year the membership topped 600 and a change of rules allowing it to accept men brought about a change of name also. The union was now known as “The Matchmakers Union”.

The Matchmakers Union ceased to exist in 1903, but the action of the girls, and Annie Besant in 1888 laid vital foundations not only for the rights of women workers, but for modern-day trade unionism.

As today shows, we are still beset by strikes, only, one wonders if some strikes are more pertinent than others...

The correspondence between Annie Besant and Bryant and May in “The Link” can be read here


  1. Another very interesting read, thank you.

    Annie Besant certainly had the habit of getting mixed up in other people's battles. I didn't know about this one though!

  2. She certainly led a busy and eventful life, and by all accounts was a remarkable public speaker.

    I must confess, though, that outside of the matchgirl strike I don't have too much knowledge about her, but the glimpses I have had have shed light on the kind of life people rarely lead these days.

  3. Thankyou for your brilliant site! I had heard of phossy jaw but didn`t realise it ended in amputation! Awful!

  4. If the girl was lucky and could afford the bill it did, if not, the outcome was brain damage and organ failure, which lead to a slow and painful death.

    What a different country we live in now with our often maligned, but hugely important health and safety laws!