Meet the matchwomen who paved the way for the suffragettes

Before (some) women were granted a vote a century ago, these trailblazers fought, bled and striked for workers’ rights but they have been lost to history. Louise Raw, in an article first published in The Big Issue in 2013, called for the matchwomen took a bow

One-hundred-and-thirty years ago this summer, trouble was brewing on the streets of the East End. Management bullying forced 1,400 mostly female matchworkers to walk out of Bryant & May’s factory in Bow. As they picketed the gates, battalions of police were rushed to the area.

This outrage against the status quo horrified polite society: a Victorian woman’s place was in the home, not on the picket line.

But in July 1888, the matchwomen were in no mood to know their place. Their employers had forced wages down to a 10-year low. The youngest girls, malnourished while growing physically, were frail and under-sized.

Arbitrary fines were imposed: one woman was fined for making safe a machine that had been cutting workers’ hands. Shortly afterwards a work-mate’s finger was completely severed by the same machine; she was sacked.

These were the mothers of the entire modern labour movement, and Labour Party

White phosphorus, used to make popular ‘Lucifer’ matches, was so toxic even brief exposure to fumes caused vomiting. The women called full-blown poisoning ‘phossy jaw’; it rotted the jawbone. The smell from the putrid abscesses was so unbearable, factory inspectors often found matchworkers dying alone like lepers. These horrors were exposed just before the strike in a hard-hitting article by Fabian Society campaigner Annie Besant. On the basis of this, Besant was assumed to have led the strike.

As a trade unionist myself, this puzzled me. How had she persuaded 1,400 people to risk their livelihoods? History books offered no answers. Even more puzzlingly, the firm’s own archives revealed the names of five women who foremen considered the real ringleaders, and evidence of several previous strikes.

I began to piece together what had really happened.  The firm first tried to force the women to condemn Besant. They refused, smuggling out a warning note:  ‘Dear Lady, they have been trying to get the poor girls to say it is all lies that has been printed and to sign a paper…we will not sign…’

Bryant & May then sacked one young woman as a scapegoat, and the strike began. The strikers elected six women to put their terms – reinstatement of their colleague, an end to fines and a separate dining room away from the phosphorus fumes.

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But Besant was not there. Her journal shows she was working in her offices when a deputation of matchwomen arrived to tell her about the strike – which she thought a mistake. The women went several days without money but kept up a cheerful solidarity: “I can pawn this for you”; “I’ll lend you that.”

This was typical of women known for their strong sense of identity. They were already famous in the East End for their hairstyles, high-heeled boots and huge hats trimmed with bright feathers, which they bought and shared through communal Feather Clubs.

One Poplar resident remembered the hatpins: “The matchgirls… when in any trouble, did not hesitate to use these horrible long hatpins to defend themselves.”

When the striking women marched to parliament, the sight of poor women in smart streets caused uproar: but they held their heads high and impressed MPs with their eloquence. Finally the firm was forced into ungracious defeat. The women’s demands were met and they formed the largest female union in the country.

It’s no coincidence that waves of strikes followed, including 1889’s Great Dock Strike. The matchwomen had shown other exploited workers the way. Still historians dismissed the matchwomen’s strike as minor and unimportant. Others knew differently: in the throes of the Dock Strike, I found that leader John Burns had urged a mass meeting to “…stand shoulder to shoulder. Remember the matchgirls, who won their fight and formed a union”.

Matchwomen struck again in support of the dockers, and during the victory procession “… up came the dockers… Then a large contingent of women… match-makers, among others, advanced like a moving rainbow, for they all wore… huge feathers of many colours”.

They didn’t stop there but recruited women from jam factories and confectionery works at meetings with tea and cake and Irish music. These were the mothers of the entire modern labour movement, and Labour Party.

The annual Matchwomen’s Festival will celebrates with a proper knees-up. Frances O’Grady, TUC leader and matchwoman fan, spoke at the inaugural event as did the late former Labour MP Tony Benn and left-wing commentator Owen Jones. We had music-hall songs, Irish music, a matchwoman’s hat workshop; comics, poets and bands in the evening, and children’s events including readings by Michael Rosen. You can join us to celebrate the wonderful matchwomen at the 2018 festival.

Louise Raw is author of Striking a Light: The Matchwomen and their Place in History and director of the Matchwomen’s Festival.

Pic: © Chronicle / Alamy Stock Photo