The Matchgirls Strike – inspiring girls and women of today

Equality - 02 Mar 2021

Sam Johnson, great-granddaughter of Matchgirls organiser Sarah Chapman and Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Matchgirls Memorial, reflects on the events of the Matchgirls' Strike and the inspiration they can provide for today's women trade unionists

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Knowing I am the Great Granddaughter of Sarah Chapman, one of the leaders of the Matchgirl’s Strike of 1888, fills me with immense pride.

Although I've always been interested in history this has really moved me to engage more with these inspiring events of the past.

Unbelievably it was just four years ago, via the 2003 research of Dr Anna Robinson, that I discovered that Sarah was involved in the Strike.

For years I had looked at photographs of her not knowing they hid a secret from the past. A history that involved great acts of bravery and defiance to stand up - not only for herself, but for her fellow workers. Unbeknown to them, the Matchgirls changed the path for future generations of workers forever.

Sarah was a leading figure in the Strike, being on both the Strike Committee and then the Union Committee.

She represented her fellow workers as their first delegate to attend the 1888 International TUC with Annie Besant in London. They were among only 5 women in 124 delegates.

Then, in 1890, Sarah went to the Liverpool TUC where she was one of 10 women in almost 500 delegates. Empowered by now, when a motion was discussed about the Truck Act (workers having to buy their own materials) she seconded the motion.

To think that a young Victorian woman from the East End of London was confident enough to hold her own in a dominant patriarchal atmosphere fills me with awe.

Matchgirls Union Committee

Members of the Matchgirls Union Committee. Sarah Chapman is on the left of the image.
Photo courtesy of the TUC Library Collections

The Strike in 1888 was precipitated by terrible conditions in the Bryant and May match factory in Fairfield Road, Bow. The Matchgirls endured long hours, low pay and an unfair fines system, and grievances weren't listened to.

They lived with the constant threat of Phossy Jaw, as they had to use dangerous white phosphorus to make the matches - with no separate place to eat their food, they breathed in the dangerous chemical. Is it fair to say tensions were growing.

Then came a Fabian Society meeting on 15th June in 1888.

Clementina Black presented a paper on female labour, and then Henry Hyde Champion spoke of the low pay of the Bryant and May workers, contrasted with the high dividends that were paid to shareholders.

It was unanimously decided to boycott the purchase of their matches.

The next day, Annie Besant and Herbert Burrows, who had both been at the Fabian meeting, went to meet some of the girls outside the factory gates to hear first-hand about their experiences.

This led to Annie writing her famous article in ‘The Link’ entitled ‘White Slavery in London’. This enraged the Bryant and May directors, who tried to get the girls to sign a document to say it wasn't true.

There followed some unrest for a few days and a sacking, which was the last straw for the workforce who downed tools and all 1400 walked out on strike.

They wrote the ‘Dear Lady’ letter to Annie, thanking her for the support and, the next day, about 200 marched to Annie’s office in Bouverie Street, just off Fleet Street to ask for her help.

Annie didn't approve of strike action, preferring reform, but agreed to help them. They organised – speaking at meetings in the streets and halls and forming a Strike Committee.

A Strike Fund was set up. As word spread, the Press, the Public, London Trades Council and Toynbee Hall lent their support.

MPs Charles Bradlaugh, Charles Conybeare and Robert Cunninghame Graham listened to the girls’ grievances and spoke up for them in Parliament.

Eventually, the London Trades Council secured a meeting between the factory Directors and the Strike Committee.

Amazingly, all of their demands were met.

A sepia photo of Sarah Chapman in later life

The Matchgirls had won a momentous victory through pure grit and determination to make their lives better.

They formed a Union and working life was improved - but it was still a struggle and it was many years before Directors finally banished the use of white phosphorus.

Sadly, many of these struggles still resonate in today's society but young women and girls of today can draw strength and hope from the Matchgirls: the relatively small action of a group of workers in a factory in the East End of London who stood up for themselves and changed their world.

Every young woman should be inspired that small acts of courage can lead to great things – we should never put up with injustice.

Annie Besant’s name is synonymous with the 1888 Strike but it is important we also remember the individuals on the Strike and Union Committees: Mary Cummings, Eliza Martin, Louisa Beck, Julia Gambleton, Jane Wakeling, Jane Staines, Eliza Price, Mary Naulls, Kate Sclater, Ellen Johnson, Sarah Chapman, Mary Driscoll and Alice Francis.

Read about the campaign to memorialise the Matchgirls

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