One of the most important strikes in modern British history has been commemorated by English Heritage with a blue plaque at the site of the former Bryant and May match factory in East London where in July 1888 around 1,400 of the predominantly female workforce walked out in protest at the dismissal of a number of their co-workers.
The sacked workers were suspected of talking to newspapers about the appalling conditions they worked under at the factory, not just the poor wages, but the diseases developed from working with the toxic white phosphorus used to produce the matches.
The disease was disfiguring and was often nicknamed phossy jaw as the ladies breathed in the white phosphorus used in making the matches and it caused bone tissue in the jaw to die. Around 20 per cent of affected people were expected to die of it.
The girls who worked in the factory did so in a manner, not unlike today’s gig workers — in that they worked in the factory to factory conditions but weren’t officially employees. They were paid per box made and had to provide some of the supplies themselves. That allowed the owners to evade the requirements of the Factory Acts that would have required them to offer better pay and working conditions.
The journalist Annie Besant catalogued the conditions suffered by the women at Bryant and May’s and publicised the fact that shareholders were receiving a sizeable dividend on the work of women, whose wages for dangerous labour averaged eleven shillings per week, and girls, who earned even less: “Born in slums, driven to work while still children, undersized because underfed, oppressed because helpless, flung aside as soon as worked out, who cares if they die or go on to the streets provided only that Bryant and May shareholders get their 23 per cent, and Mr. Theodore Bryant can erect statues and buy parks?”
After the whistleblowers were sacked, one of the earliest mass strikes saw the women walk out, and they stayed out until their demands were met. After three weeks, Bryant and May’s managers capitulated almost all of the women’s demands were met. Amongst the changes, punitive fines and wage deductions were abolished and there was to be no victimisation of strikers. Bryant and May would also recognise the Union of Women Match Makers, which by the end of 1888 had become the Matchmakers’ Union and admitted both men and women.
The strike of 1888 was the fourth of a series of attempts to improve conditions, but it’s the Match Girls’ Strike of 1888 that won the battle and is widely recognised as a spur to the New Unionism movement.
The use of white phosphorus in matches was finally banned at the end of 1910.
The London blue plaques scheme was established in 1866, and even today, only 14 per cent of the scheme’s 980 plus plaques commemorate women. English Heritage is working to address the historic gender imbalance in the scheme, but relies on the public to nominate more female figures or female communities from the past.
This latest plaque can be found at 60 Fairfield Road, Bow, London, E3 2QN