British women on strike, 19th century and now

This video about nineteenth century British history is called Bryant and May’s Matchstick Girls.

By Louise Raw in Britain:

The matchwomen’s time has come

Saturday 12th October 2013

The story of the Bryant & May strikers has been belittled by historians for decades, but LOUISE RAW sees encouraging signs that they might be about to receive the recognition they deserve

The Bryant & May matchwomen had only ever made it to Parliament once before this Tuesday.

They’d tried to march there in the 1870s to hand in a petition against a proposed match tax that would have cost jobs. But the police stopped them with extreme force, seizing their banners and employing what seems to have been a 19th-century version of kettling.

The “little matchgirls” responded with equal force, breaking free for long enough to heave some well-aimed rocks at the hapless bobbies. They never made Westminster, but the tax was dropped.

It was 1888 when they did get there. The women had walked out on strike, provoked by management bullying, starvation wages and appallingly dangerous working conditions – the white phosphorus used to dip the matches caused their jawbones to rot and decay.

Management knew this, but took no precautions other than to sack anyone who looked as if they might be coming down with phosphorus poisoning, which matchworkers knew as “phossy jaw.”

The strike was seen as an outrageous failure of the women to “know their place” in the social hierarchy – at the bottom – and it rocked the Victorian Establishment. Battalions of police were rushed to the area.

Commentators railed against this “rough set of girls” who had dared to challenge the powerful “gentlemen” who employed them.

Bryant & May had friends in high places and, having achieved status and respectability, the last thing they wanted the public to know was the grubby and often illegal practices which had made their personal fortunes as surely as it ruined the health and lives of their workers.

Many thought these women should have been grateful for any job at all.

Others thought a woman’s place was in the home and castigated them for working in the first place, as if they had a choice.

Even the few who could accept that a woman’s place just might be on a picket line wouldn’t have given them a snowball’s chance in hell of succeeding, with no union or strike pay.

But although the matchwomen faced odds that would have seen David instantly throw the match with Goliath, they won, and their victory changed the world.

During the strike they marched to Parliament, and this time they made it. They impressed MPs with their eloquence and showed themselves the mistresses of the political gesture.

One 12-year-old matchworker swept off her bonnet to reveal a completely bald scalp, caused by carrying wooden pallets of matchboxes on her head almost since infancy.

The political pressure that resulted forced Bryant & May to concede.

Conditions and wages were improved and the women gained the right to form the largest union of women and girls in the country.

Almost immediately other workers followed their lead, and thousands joined and formed unions.

There would be reverses and defeats, but things would never be the same for working people again.

But history and prejudice then played a strange trick on the matchwomen.

The strike has lived on in the popular memory, but historians have denied the matchwomen three times.

Apparently Jesus had a similar thing with one of his posse – that’s your second biblical reference, and at no extra charge.

The strike has been written off as minor. Historians have played fast and loose with the facts – 1,400 strikers become “a few dozen” and so on.

The second myth is that the strike was led from the outside by middle-class outsiders, “celebrity socialists” like Fabian Annie Besant, denying the women their own agency.

Third, it’s been claimed that it influenced no-one. By these methods the matchwomen have been denied a place at the table of the New Unionism movement – the tremendous burgeoning of unionisation, including the great dock strike of 1889.

In fact, I discovered that the ’89 dock strikers constantly acknowledged the matchwomen’s influence on them. Leader John Burns gave the women several big shout-outs during mass meetings.

So what happened along the way? If East End Victorian dockers, quite a butch bunch, could acknowledge the women, why not historians?

I couldn’t possibly comment, but this week in the House of Commons West Ham MP Lyn Brown did, asking: “Is it because they were girls, women, majority Irish, ‘unskilled’?”

As I watched Brown begin a historic debate, 125 years after the fact, with me was Ted Lewis, grandson of an ’88 matchwoman.

Eight MPs and a government minister enthusiastically praised the same women who were so traduced and despised in their day.

Blue plaques were mentioned and several MPs expressed the desire to see the true story of the women’s achievements on the curriculum.

It had been a long road to Westminster. I’d begun uncovering the true story 15 years ago as trade union steward.

This year I organised a festival to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the strike, with sterling help from Terry McCarthy and Esme Bradbury of RMT.

Beforehand Diana Johnson MP had produced an early day motion about the anniversary which was signed by an astonishingly high number of MPs including – you’ll never guess – Peter Bottomley.

Johnson and Brown were among those who spoke passionately and movingly of the matchwomen’s achievements as the mothers of the labour movement.

And they brilliantly tied their struggle to the ongoing ones of today’s workers, using the occasion to skewer the government’s appalling attitude to unions and workers generally.

Washington and Sunderland MP Sharon Hodgson said: “We hear regular jokes and stories, some emanating from government, about health and safety regulations ‘gone mad’ or the need to cut ‘red tape’ … but where would we be without that much-maligned red tape, the vast majority of which has been so hard fought for over the past 100 years?

“The answer can be seen in developing countries such as Bangladesh, where earlier this year we saw thousands of women and men dragged, dead and injured, from the rubble of a collapsed factory used by well-known high street retailers … were it not for the trade union movement in this country, the health and safety of British workers would be similarly ignored.”

Johnson spoke about the inspiration of women like the matchworkers.

“Their bravery has never been properly recognised but if it had not been for them winning their strike in 1888 it is possible that many of us here today, especially the Labour women MPs, would not be members of Parliament and speaking in the House of Commons.”

Bolton MP Yasmin Qureshi summed up: “If the government really believe that they govern on behalf of the whole country, they should fight for the trade union movement.

“Instead of repeatedly condemning, ridiculing and demonising it, they should recognise the fact that the trade union movement is a force for good. It represents millions of … the people who wash our plates, clean the houses and the streets, and provide the food on our tables … they should not be portrayed – as the government do, aided by the right-wing media – as bogeymen and an evil influence in this country. They are not. They are a force for good.

“The Labour Party is proud of its historical links with the trade union movement.”

The debate had been addressed to Culture Minister Ed Vaizey, who I can exclusively reveal is shorter than he looks on the telly (and they say investigative journalism is dead).

He responded enthusiastically, speaking on the importance of the strike and causing me to nearly fall off my chair by acknowledging my book without using the traditional phrase “left-wing polemic.”

When Vaizey tried to have a bit of a pop at Labour, Brown immediately smacked him down, mentioning that his governmental buddy Michael Gove had recently referred to the strike and got the facts wrong, despite being in charge of the history curriculum.

Poor Vaizey was then backed into suggesting that Gove should perhaps read my book – it’s in the post, Mike!

He also agreed that a blue plaque should be set up properly acknowledging the match strike.

There’s still a long way to go in acknowledging the true worth of working people both past and present, but a pleasing start nonetheless.

So what on earth would the matchwomen have made of it all? I asked Ted Lewis as we strolled across College Green.

“My grandma would’ve been amazed,” he said. “Then she’d have just said: ‘Right – let’s have a drink’.”

In her memory, let’s all raise a glass to women workers everywhere.

Louise Raw is the author of Striking a Light (Bloomsbury) and organises the new annual Matchwomen’s Festival. Visit or You can also follow the festival on Twitter: @Matchwomen1888

Huge numbers of young women are being forced into low-paid, low-skilled jobs, according to research published by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) today: here.


6 thoughts on “British women on strike, 19th century and now

  1. Pingback: British suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst, new biography interview | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  2. Pingback: New book on 19th century London strike | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  3. Pingback: British women workers, from the 19th to the 21st century | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  4. Pingback: British working women’s history | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  5. Pingback: British feminist Sylvia Pankhurst’s anti-World War I Christmas party | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  6. Pingback: English painter Annie Swynnerton exhibition | Dear Kitty. Some blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.