In 1888, an event took place in East London which changed the face of British trade unionism. It was the strike of the Matchgirls at the Bryant & May factory in Bow.
The conditions of the poor were appalling. Very few of the unskilled labourers were unionised. They had no protection, working excessively long hours for a few shillings in unsafe & unhealthy conditions until, broken in body & spirit, they lost their jobs on the ‘free enterprise’ market to children ‘ripe’ for labour.
The Matchgirls, some of them little more than children, were subjected to bullying by their charge-hands, with illegal fines & stoppages taken from their wages. Some earned as little as 4 shillings (20 pence) a week.
They even had a day’s pay stopped so Theodore Bryant could boast that his workforce had donated towards a statue of Gladstone, which he had erected in Bow Road.
They worked with yellow phosphorous, used for the match ends. Phosphorous covered the benches they worked at-the same benches from which they ate their lunches.
It burned their skin on impact. It covered their clothes so that they were luminous in the dark. A number of girls had yellow, jaundiced skin, caused through inhaling phosphorous.
Many of the girls suffered with what they called ‘Phossy Jaw. ‘The disease’ – medically known as Necrosis, as the phosphorous killed off the live bone of the jaw, causing terrible disfigurement, pain & suffering. How many dies of the clinical results of working with this deadly chemical will never be known.
In the dark winter evenings, piles of luminous vomit in the gutters around Bow evidenced that the Matchgirls had finished work.
An article appeared in the Socialist weekly paper of that time, known as The Link, entitled ‘White Slavery of London’. It was written by Annie Besant & in it she exposed the conditions at Bryant & Mays. She had met & talked to the girls.
Bryant & Mays then commenced a witch hunt for the leaders. The girls were told to sign a paper stating that the statements made by Annie Besant were all lies. No one signed.
The girls’ leader was dismissed. The girls demanded that the management meet a deputation. Bryant was amazed. He reluctantly agreed & at the short meeting, refused to reinstate the sacked girl.
In excess of 1000 girls, with just a few pence in their purses, with unemployment the highest it had ever been, walked out. The unskilled, unorganised, poverty- stricken girls, many in fear of their jobs through declining health, walked out. They had gone on strike.
Public opinion swung solidly behind the strikers.
Annie Besant, tireless in fighting for the Matchgirls, led a deputation to the House of Commons.
The London Trades Council representing organised skilled labour, took up the case & offered to arbitrate.
Strike pay was distributed, raised from the donations of thousands of sympathisers & well-wishers.
The girls decided to form a union.
The dispute was settled.
* The abolition of all fines
Bryant & May made it clear that, in future, they wanted to deal with grievances & not have them fester into disputes. They welcomed & recognised the girls’ union.