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18 June 2014
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Matchworkers committee
© TUC Library Collections, London Metropolitan University
Setting the workers alight: the East End Match Girls' Strike

East End Life

In the late-19th Century, London’s East End was notorious as a place of extreme deprivation. Overpopulated by a chronically poor “residuum”, and characterised by depressing living conditions, sweated industries, poverty, and disease, the East End was viewed with fear and trepidation by many outsiders. Middle-class commentators described this “Outcast London” as a foreign country, and its inhabitants as a foreign race. Some, like George Sims, even compared it to a living hell.

The match girls were unlikely heroines
© TUC Library Collections, London Metropolitan University
It was from this depressing milieu that the Bryant & May matchworkers hailed. Mostly young girls – many of them only 13 – the matchworkers faced a life of hard toil for very little reward, earning a pittance while the company’s shareholders received dividends of over 20%.

Outraged by this exploitation, the socialist Annie Besant decided to investigate conditions at the factory for herself. On 23rd June 1888, after questioning several girls at the factory, she published a shocking expose in The Link, likening the Bow Road factory to a “prison-house” and describing the match girls as “white wage slaves” – “undersized”, “helpless” and “oppressed”.

White Slavery

The match girls worked from 6.30am (or 8am in winter) until 6pm, with just two breaks, standing all the time. “A typical case”, wrote Besant, “is that of a girl of 16, a piece worker; she earns 4s a week, and lives with a sister, employed by the same firm, who ‘earns good money, as much as 8s or 9s per week’. Out of the earnings 2s is paid for the rent of one room; the child lives on only bread-and-butter and tea, alike for breakfast and dinner”.

Eating at work, the girls risked developing the disfiguring "phossy jaw"
© TUC Library Collections, London Metropolitan University
The match girls’ received meagre wages, from which they had to house, clothe and feed themselves. Their “splendid salaries” were also often reduced even further by a huge array of fines and deductions, for everything from leaving a match on the benches to paying for brushes, paints and other equipment.

Working at the factory endangered the girls’ health. They were told to “never mind their fingers” when working with machinery, even if it meant them being injured, and they also suffered “occasional blows” from the foreman. Disease was another constant threat. With no separate facilities provided, workers would eat at their benches, with “disease as the seasoning to their bread”. “Phossy jaw”, a disfiguring and painful disease, was the possible result.

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