Seminal Match Girls’ Strike of 1888 commemorated with English Heritage Blue Plaque in East London

  • East Ender Anita Dobson and descendent of strike leader attend unveiling
  • English Heritage asks the public to nominate more working class figures and groups from the past for blue plaques

One of the most important strikes in modern British history has been commemorated by English Heritage with a blue plaque today (5 July 2022). The blue plaque was unveiled at the site of the former Bryant and May match factory in East London where in early 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 precise chain of events is now unclear, but these women were probably sacked for giving information to reporters, refusing to sign a statement refuting poor working conditions, or on trumped-up charges of trouble making.

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?"

In addition to low pay and the punitive system of fines and deductions inflicted by the company, Besant also drew attention to 'phossy jaw', or phosphorus necrosis, a deadly disease developed from working with the toxic white phosphorus used to produce the matches.

The women who walked out of the factory – one local paper stated that most were of Irish descent and aged between 15 to 20 – stayed out under considerable hardship and won a resounding victory after three weeks. Almost all of their demands were met: fines and deductions were abolished and there was 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 Match Girls’ Strike of 1888 is widely recognised as a spur to the New Unionism movement; in 1889 John Burns, later MP for Battersea and one of the key players in the gas-worker and dock strikes, urged a mass meeting of tens of thousands to "stand shoulder to shoulder. Remember the match girls, who won their fight and formed a union".

English Heritage Blue Plaques Panel Member, Alex Graham, said: "At a time when workers are once more striking in defence of pay and conditions, it feels timely to be standing today outside this iconic East London factory commemorating the Match Girls: 1,400 young, working-class women, many of them immigrants or daughters of immigrants, who refused to put up with low wages and dangerous working conditions. They won and, in doing so, they changed the course of British labour history. We are therefore glad to honour them collectively with a blue plaque on the building where they took their courageous stand. English Heritage wants to commemorate more working-class stories, so if there is a remarkable figure or group from the past – like the women who led the Match Girls’ Strike – who you think should be recognised in London, we’d like to hear from you."

Actress and patron of The Match Girls Memorial, Anita Dobson, said: "These girls and women fought hard for their rights. They worked in appalling conditions and their lives were tough and the worst imaginable. I grew up aware of the courage and bravery of these women who against all odds went on strike for better working conditions. Many of them died an early death due to the phosphorous fumes in the Factory. They deserve to be honoured and remembered, and now they will be."

Great granddaughter of strike committee leader Sarah Chapman and Trustee of The Match Girls Memorial, Sam Johnson, said: "The Match Girls were a courageous group of mainly young women and girls that refused to accept the terrible working conditions foisted upon them. We all have the Match Girls to thank for laying the foundations of the modern day labour movement and new unionism. They serve as a huge inspiration for young people in the 21st century, as many of the issues they fought against still resonate so strongly today. I am hugely proud of the role my Great Grandmother, Sarah Chapman, played in the Strike and afterwards in representing their new union at the TUC."

The London blue plaques scheme was established in 1866 and today, only 14 per cent of the scheme’s 980 plus plaques commemorate women. English Heritage doesn’t think this is good enough and is working to address the historic gender imbalance in the scheme. The London blue plaques scheme relies on public nominations and since 2016 the charity has been encouraging people to nominate more remarkable female figures or female communities from the past. English Heritage also wants the blue plaques scheme to commemorate more working class stories such as the Match Girls’. Earlier this month, the charity unveiled a blue plaque at the Hackney house which in the early 20th century, provided a sanctuary for hundreds of stranded and sometimes abandoned Asian nannies and nursemaids known as ayahs.

The English Heritage London Blue Plaques scheme is generously supported by David Pearl and members of the public.

'step into englands story