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In 1888 the Match Girls went on strike and won the day

Posted in Historical articles, History, Industry, Labour Party, London, Politics on Tuesday, 25 February 2014

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This edited article about the Match Girls’ Strike first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 568 published on 2 December 1972.

Match girls on strike,  picture, image, illustration

The Match Girls at Bryant and May went on strike, by Peter Jackson

Each evening, a few minutes after the whistle had blown, they could be seen streaming out of the Bryant and May factory off the Bow Road, a female army of pale ghosts dressed in drab and tattered clothing and wearing down at heel shoes. Stamped with the indelible mark of poverty, their eyes red-rimmed and heavy with permanent despair, they shuffled off nightly to their respective hovels in the slum wasteland of the East End. If no one gave them any more than a passing glance as they went by, it was because such sights were all too common in the streets of London.

The members of this particular pitiful army were known as the Match Girls, who were even more worse off than most. Working in the Bryant and May Match Factory, meant working long hours in primitive conditions, with no proper washrooms and toilets, More to the point it meant handling dangerous chemicals which turned many of them into physical wrecks. For this they were paid anything from 4/- (20p) to 13/- (65p) a week, from which fines were deducted for such trivial offences as answering back the bullying charge hands who had the power to fire any girl on the spot who seemed a potential trouble maker.

It was the year of 1888, and thanks mainly to the Trades Unions, recent legislation had put a stop to some of the worst abuses carried out in the factories. But the little that had been done had been confined to the skilled workers. The illiterate, unskilled workers remained as they had always been, underpaid, and exploited, and with seemingly no opportunity of having their wrongs redressed.

But for the Match Girls, at least, help was at hand in the formidable shape of one Mrs Annie Besant, a woman of forty, who had already made herself unpopular in many circles for her fight for women’s rights, which were practically non-existent at the time.

Among other things, Annie Besant was a member of the Fabian Society, a small group of people who had named their society after the Roman, Quintus Fabius Maximus, known as the Delayer, because he had harrassed Hannibal’s army for three years without once entering into a major encounter on the battlefield. The Fabians, who were all Socialists, hoped to use similar tactics to bring about a number of social and economic reforms. Using the slogan “Evolution not Revolution,” they hoped to break down the prejudices of their Establishment with reasoned argument. But reason, alas, does not always prevail, and already it was beginning to dawn on the Fabians that militancy was sometimes necessary. Mrs Annie Besant was perhaps rather different to the other members of the society inasmuch as that she had always been a militant. Aggressive, determined and totally devoted to the cause of women’s emancipation, she was the ideal person to fight for the cause of the Match Girls. Her efforts on their behalf were to have far wider ramifications than she could have ever realised.

It all began one evening when the Fabian Society was gathered to listen to the reading of a paper on the subject of “Female Labour in London.” During the course of the evening one of the members commented on the fact that the women workers of Bryant and May were paid a mere 2 ¼ d. a gross for making match boxes. Was that not an iniquitous state of affairs, he asked. A heated discussion followed which terminated in the suggestion being put forward that Annie Besant should write an article on the subject for her monthly magazine “The Link,” of which she was the editor.

The suggestion was one that appealed greatly to Mrs Besant, and the next afternoon she went down to the factory to interview some of the girls as they came out from work. Soon, she had gathered a large crowd around her. Prompted, they began listing their complaints.

A few days later Mrs Besant’s article appeared. Its opening words summed up exactly the plight of the Match Girls. “Born in the slums,” she wrote, “driven to work while still children, undersized because underfed, oppressed because helpless, flung aside as soon as worked out – who cares if the Match Girls die . . .” A copy of the article was sent to the company, together with a letter asking if the accusations she had made in her article were true. In answer, she received a telegram which read: “Nothing but a tissue of lies. Article will receive legal attention.”

The battle was on.

The management of Bryant and May fired the first salvo by dismissing a number of girls who had been seen talking to Annie Besant, When this was brought to her attention, she immediately sent a letter to every national newspaper, drawing their attention to this latest act of victimisation. Only two newspapers published this letter. The Establishment, it seemed, was already closing its ranks.

Encouraged by this initial success, the management then overreached themselves. In an attempt to manufacture evidence with which they could launch a libel action against Mrs Besant, they prepared a document which stated that her accusations were unfounded, and that the girls were happy with their working conditions. All the girls were then asked to attach their signature to the document. All of them, without exception, refused. The next day more girls were fired.

A deputation from the girls promptly went to see one of the managers and demanded that all those who had been fired should be reinstated. Their demand was refused. Within an hour of that meeting, a tatterdemalion army of some two hundred girls was marching through Bow to Fleet Street, to Annie Besant’s office, leaving behind a deserted factory. To the dumbfounded amazement of the management, the Match Girls had gone on strike.

Looking out of her window at the milling mob of girls in the street below, Annie Besant realised that a grave responsibility now lay on her shoulders. In all, 1,400 girls were employed by the factory, and now all of them were on strike. If the situation was handled badly, they would either remain out of work, or they would be forced to go back to work in conditions that inevitably would be even more repressive than before. And indeed she had good cause to worry. Before the day was out, the directors of Bryant and May were threatening to bring train loads of girls from Glasgow to fill their jobs.

Mrs Besant’s first action was to form a strike committee which drew up a list of the girls’ demands for submission to the management of Bryant and May. A mass meeting in the East End a few days later brought valuable publicity in the newspapers. But the most spectacular and effective action occurred later in the week when the Match Girls marched on the House of Commons. A deputation from them was received by a number of M.P.s, and in front of them and the assembled reporters, a girl of fifteen was pushed forward. Dramatically, she pulled her shawl from her head, to reveal that she was almost completely bald, as a result of working with chemicals in the factory.

As a result of the ever growing coverage of the strike by the newspapers, public sympathy for the Match Girls grew to such an extent that their employers were finally forced to capitulate. All their demands were met, and the girls went back to work, strengthened immeasurably by the fact that under Mrs Besant’s guidance they now had a properly constituted trade union of their own. For once the weak had succeeded.

To see the directors of Bryant and May as the villains of the piece is to misread the situation. The Match Girls had been exploited, but then so were all the others who worked in the sweat shops that existed in almost every part of Britain. They existed because Britain as a nation was guilty of upholding the idea that privilege and profits were sacrosanct. Apathy on the part of the general public, including those who were being exploited, compounded the felony.

Fortunately, times were beginning to change. Within the year there were more successful strikes for higher pay and better working conditions. For the first time the great mass of Britain’s unskilled workers was bringing home to their employers and the public that they were human beings with rights, Unity with representation through their Trades Unions, they were learning, was the key to it all. And they owed a large part of it to Mrs Besant and the Match Girls.

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