Match Girls’ Strike
Plaque erected in 2022 by English Heritage at Security Lodge, 3 Moreland Cottages, Bow Quarter, 60 Fairfield Road, Bow, London, E3 2QN, London Borough of Tower Hamlets
Philanthropy and Reform
The MATCH GIRLS’ STRIKE took place here at the Bryant and May works in 1888
In July 1888 some 1,400 of the predominantly female workforce walked out of the Bryant and May match factory in Bow. They stayed out under considerable hardship and won a resounding victory after three weeks. This strike is commemorated with a blue plaque at an entrance of the former factory at 3 Moreland Cottages, 60 Fairfield Road.
Working at the factory
In the 1860s there were several match-making companies in east London, Bryant and May being among the three largest, and its four factories at Fairfield Works became one of Bow’s best-known industries. Men and boys mostly undertook the mixing, dipping and drying processes, while women and girls – who formed the majority of the workforce – removed the matches from frames and placed them in boxes. The company also employed armies of home workers to make the matchboxes.
By 1880 Bryant and May had become one of the largest producers of matches made with toxic white phosphorous. They had also adopted new machinery and taken over rival match companies and smaller outfits, forcing down wages. Such was their monopoly by 1880 that wages were lower than they had been 12 years earlier.
Annie Besant was a socialist who ran and edited The Link, the journal of the Law and Liberty League, along with radical journalist WT Stead. On 15 June 1888, she attended a meeting with other socialists at which the feminist writer Clementine Black discussed the working conditions at Bryant and May’s. A few days later, Besant and the activist Herbert Burrows stood outside Fairfield Works distributing leaflets to the workers leaving after their long day.
In an article in The Link, 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 11 shillings per week, and girls, who earned even less. She wrote:
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 bringing to light the low pay and the punitive system of fines and deductions inflicted by the company, The Link 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 strike of 1888
Bryant and May reacted to Besant’s scathing article by trying to find the whistle-blowers. By 2 July, in Besant’s account, the company had dismissed three women they considered to be ‘trouble makers’. Within days, around 1,400 workers walked out of Fairfield Works to protest at the dismissal.
According to the East London Advertiser, most of the strikers were of Irish descent and aged between 15 and 20. Recent research suggests that others were Jewish.
While Annie Besant is often credited with having organised the strike, it was in fact these young, working-class women who initiated it. There had been at least four other strikes over working conditions and wage reductions at Fairfield Works since 1881, demonstrating that the women were willing and able to organise.
On 17 July, Bryant and May agreed that all fines and deductions would be abolished and that there would be no victimisation of strikers. The company would also recognise the Union of Women Match Makers, which formed on 27 July 1888. By the end of the year it had become the Matchmakers’ Union and admitted both men and women.
After the strike
Newspaper campaigns of the 1890s exposed Bryant and May’s cover-up of phosphorus necrosis at the factory, which led to Government prosecution in 1898. In 1900 the company began production with a benign white phosphorus and in 1901 the chairman called for an industry ban on the use and import of its toxic form.
The late 1880s were a time of high unemployment and hardship for working people in London and elsewhere, sparking demonstrations and unrest. The strike at Fairfield Works is now increasingly seen as a spur to the New Unionism movement, which organised the ‘unskilled’ and lowest-paid workers to improve their conditions. Many of the match workers lived close to the docks and were the wives, daughters and sisters of dock workers.
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 at the docks to stand shoulder to shoulder, and to remember the match girls, who had won their fight and formed a union.
Louise Raw, Striking a Light: The Bryant and May Matchwomen and their Place in Labour History (London, 2011)
Lowell J Satre, ‘After the Match Girls’ Strike: Bryant and May in the 1890s’, Victorian Studies 26:1 (1982)
Seth Coven, The Match Girl and the Heiress (Princeton, 2015)