With rapid industrialisation taking place in the 19th century, the population in cities increased massively as people moved from the countryside to find work. This was especially evident in London, where many people lived in overcrowded slums, rife with poverty and disease. Children and women were mostly employed in factories working for low pay and in horrible working conditions.
The Match Girls’ Strike took place in 1888 at the Bryant and May match factory in Bow, London. November’s Object of the Month shows some of the strikers. The young girls and women who worked at Bryant and May worked 14 hour days for very low pay which was made worse by unfair fines. If they were late for work, caught talking, caught going to the toilet without permission or accidentally dropping matches they were fined.
In June 1888 Annie Besant, a social justice campaigner and writer for The Link, went to the Bryant and May factory to interview the match workers about their working conditions. The most alarming thing Besant discovered was that white phosphorous was being used to make matches. This had a severe affect on the women workers’ health, and led to a form of bone cancer called ‘phossy jaw’.
After her investigation she wrote an article called White Slavery in London for The Link on 23 June 1888. She condemned Bryant and May for exploiting children who were driven to work because they lived in poverty… ‘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.’
In reaction to these remarks, the company threatened to sue Annie Besant and attempted to get the match girls to sign a declaration stating that their working conditions were fine. When one of the girls was fired for refusing to sign this declaration, 1,400 women went on strike.
After three weeks, and a lot of negative publicity, Bryant and May gave in. They removed the fines system and re-employed the dismissed girls. In addition to this, they agreed to build a separate room for workers to eat in, as previously they had eaten at their work benches, surrounded by white phosphorous.
The dangers of white phosphorous highlighted by Annie Besant’s article led to the Salvation Army creating their own match factory in London in 1891. They used red phosphorous which was harmless, and paid their match girls twice as much as Bryant and May. It wasn’t until 1901 that Bryant and May stopped using white phosphorous.
The Match Girls’ Strike was the first example of direct action by unorganised workers to gain publicity and be successful. On 27 July 1888, the women of the factory decided to form a match girls’ union. Annie Besant was appointed as first secretary. It can be argued that the success of the match girls influenced ‘New Unionism’, which was the spread of trade unionism amongst unskilled, unorganised workers.
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