On 19th March it will be exactly 100 years since the rather wonderful Clara Zetkin (pro-woman, anti-racist, and later anti-Nazi German politician) proposed an international day to celebrate women and their struggle for equality. Two days before it, March 17th is, of course, St Patrick’s Day. Both events would have meant something to the East London matchwomen who worked for Bryant & May, and whose strike against appalling conditions and management bullying changed history - but is still under-valued.
I’m delighted to be reading about them from my new paperback, Striking a Light, at Bookmarks bookshop on St Patrick’s night.
When 1400 matchwomen walked out of their Bow factory in the summer of 1888, in a protest about conditions and management bullying, as far as polite Victorian society was concerned they were already beyond the pale. They were ‘factory girls’, and the very idea of them both titillated and appalled their ‘betters’. All manner of ills, from child mortality to drunken husbands, were laid at the door of poor working women - a handy distraction from the poverty and appalling inequality that were the real culprits.
If that wasn’t enough the matchwomen also had the cheek to come, as their employer poetically put it, ‘from the Emerald Isle’. Anti-Irish prejudice is a generally, if recently, deceased phenomenon, but the London Irish experienced it every day. Forced abroad by oppression at home, Irish migrants had little choice but to take the worst jobs and housing. Commentator Charles Booth showed the anti-Irish feeling of the time, but also the Irish community’s solidarity, when writing about Gale Street in the East End:
This block sends more police to hospital than any other in London. ‘Men are not human’,
they are wild beasts. You take a man or a woman, a rescue is always organised. They
ﬂing bricks, iron, anything they can lay their hands on. All are Irish cockneys. Not an
Englishman or Scotchman would live among them.
The matchwomen, then, were at the bottom of the heap. The only way they could have joined the respectable poor would have been to work hard and uncomplainingly, keep quiet about their starvation wages, respect their employers and know their place. They blew it spectacularly on this front, too.
A few of the women blew the whistle on the appalling conditions and hazards of life inside the match factory to Annie Besant, a Fabian journalist. The worst of these was a disease they called ‘phossy jaw’ caused by the white phosphorus in match tips. Grandchildren of those who lived near the factory told me that after each shift, the routes home of the matchwomen were marked by piles of fluorescing vomit. Full-blown phosphorus necrosis led to suppurating abscesses, the decay of the jawbone, and sometimes agonising death.
When management threatened the women after Besant revealed these ugly truths in an article, and they downed tools, nobody expected them to win. They had no trade union backing - unions in those days were generally for the elite of male manufacturing workers - so no strike pay, and were likely to be instantly dismissed for their temerity. Instead, the strike became a cause célèbre, and their victory inspired numerous other groups of workers. It triggered a movement, New Unionism, which was the birth of the modern labour movement and independent Labour Party.
As we approach the centenary of International Women’s Day things are, of course, different for women… and yet, the matchwomen’s achievement is still dismissed by some historians, who seem unable to believe uneducated ‘factory girls’ could have acted on their own initiative, let alone influenced other workers. Because of this, there are numerous books about Annie Besant and (male) New Unionists, but - until mine - none solely devoted to the matchwomen. I’ve found a wealth of evidence showing that the matchwomen were in fact seasoned strikers, and no strangers to politics, attending the huge demonstrations on Irish affairs that were a feature of East End life in the 1880s. Their Irishness was probably an important component to their defiance of the English gentlemen who employed them.
In 1940 Ernest Bevin wrote to surviving New Unionist dock strikers:
"virtually a revolution against poverty, tyranny and intolerable conditions. You little thought during those weeks…that you were laying the foundation of a great Industrial Movement."
Join me at Bookmarks to raise a glass on St Patrick’s night to the remarkable matchwomen, who are equally deserving of this tribute, and to remember their courage.
- Louise Raw, March 2011
Thu 17 Mar - 18:30
Striking A Light
The Bryant and May Matchwomen and their Place in History
At Bookmarks, 1 Bloomsbury Street, London, WC1B 3QE
Call 020 7637 1848 or email email@example.com to reserve your place.
Louise Raw will be reading from and signing copies of her book.
OTHER AUTHOR EVENTS :
March 16th 7.30pm
Striking a Light - How the Bryant & May matchwomen changed the world
Second in a series of three talks celebrating International Women's Month
Museum of St Albans,
9A Hatfield Rd,
Cost £6.00 (£5.00 Museum Friends) – includes tea/coffee & biscuits
Book at Museum or phone 01727 819340
March 23rd: 7pm
‘The London matchwomen’s strike of 1888’
£3, redeemable against any purchase
5 Caledonian Road
King's Cross ,
London N1 9DX,
Tel 020 7837 4473
May 18th 7pm
The Women's Library
London Metropolitan University
25 Old Castle Street
London E1 7NT
Tel: (0)20 7320 2222
Thursday June 23rd 2pm
‘The First East End Girls’