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.