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18 June 2014
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Setting the workers alight: the East End Match Girls' Strike

In 1882 money was deducted from the girls' wages for a statue of Gladstone
© Public Monuments and Sculpture Association
“Spirit of revolt”

Outraged by Besant’s article, Bryant & May attempted to bully the matchworkers into denying its revelations. These heavy-handed tactics set the girls alight, and on 5th July, around 200 of them downed tools and “flocked” towards the offices of The Link in Fleet Street, their “spirit of revolt against cruel oppression” aroused by the dismissal of one of their colleagues, who was accused of being a ringleader. The action spread quickly, and soon abound 1,400 workers had walked out in sympathy.

The Match Girls’ Strike of 1888 was not entirely unprecedented. Previous strikes against a match tax in 1871 and the lowering of wages in 1885 had hinted at the solidarity of matchworkers and their potential for resistance. However, the action in 1888 was more lasting, as Annie Besant’s bold leadership helped to give the girls organisation and direction.

While Bryant & May denounced the “twaddle of Mrs Besant and other socialists” in the press, and issued threats of legal action, Besant set about organising a strike fund. An appeal for donations was launched in The Link and other sympathetic newspapers, and money rolled in from all quarters. Even the London Trades Council – a body representing skilled craftsmen, which had traditionally rejected associations with the unskilled – pledged its support.

Into the limelight

The Match Girls’ Strike brought the plight of these vulnerable unskilled workers to wider public attention. There were meetings and demonstrations, and a group of
Matchworkers committee
Some of the matchworkers committee
© TUC Library Collections, London Metropolitan University
around 50 girls visited parliament, to describe their grievances to MPs “in their own words”. The Justice reported how “the contrast between these poor ‘white slaves’ and their opulent sisters” as they walked along the Embankment was “a very imposing sight”.

The strike fund was organised and distributed at Mile End Waste, and a Union of Women Matchmakers was also established. The union, which lasted until 1903, was extremely significant, considering that even as late as 1914, less that 10% of female workers were unionised. It also meant that the organisation of the workers did not just disappear after the strike, as it had done previously.

Threatened by the bad publicity, Bryant & May’s directors eventually agreed to a meeting with a deputation from the London Trades Council and the Match Girls Strike Committee. Started on Monday 16th July, by the next day an agreement had been reached, whose terms “far exceeded the expectations”, and included the abolition of all deductions and fines and the provision of a breakfast room. The agreement represented a resounding success for the match girls, who returned to work the next day, victorious.

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