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

Besant’s propagandist style thrust the match girls into the public eye. Although there was much rhetoric on both sides, their behaviour seriously challenged contemporaries’ preconceptions of unskilled workers. Far from being passive victims of the economy unable to help themselves, the girls
Matchworkers committee
Socialist Annie Besant (right) helped to organise the strikers
© TUC Library Collections, London Metropolitan University
showed remarkable solidarity and mutuality. One woman noted with surprise that when the strike fund was being distributed on Mile End Waste, “few people could fail to be touched by the way in which the girls were determined to stand together at all costs…in every direction girls might be seen plotting how they could help one another on until Bryant & May gave them back their pennies”.

Unlikely heroines

The Match Girls’ Strike was a key moment in British history. “Pale, thin” and “undersized”, the girls were unlikely heroines of labour militancy, and yet it is widely accepted that their strike sparked off the rise of unskilled unionism – or “New Unionism” as it is known – across the country. Historian Pauline Gregg writes “The Victory of these hitherto unorganised and lowly girls struck a spark all over the lower ranks of labour”, and contemporaries were also quick to realise the strike’s significance – on August 4th 1888, The Link described how the strike “put new heart into all who are struggling for liberty and justice”.

The match girls’ success gave the working class a new awareness of their power, and unions sprang up in industries where unskilled workers had previously remained
Most of the matchworkers were very young
© TUC Library Collections, London Metropolitan University
unorganised. In 1889 a Gas Workers’ and General Labourers’ Union was formed and won an 8-hour day, and in August of the same year, a 60,000 strong dockers strike, which virtually closed one stretch of the Thames for over a month, was accompanied by dozens of other stoppages.

London’s East End was certainly the epicentre of this new militancy; however, the match girls’ strike inspired workers nationwide. The rise of “New Unionism” is now a well-established part of labour history, but we should not forget where it all started from. Surely, as John Charlton argues in ‘It Just went like tinder’, “the courage, fighting spirit and resolution of the Match Girls…deserves the recognition accorded to the middle class suffragettes of the following decades”.

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