Bow's brave matchwomen honoured in anniversary celebrations

Bryant & May matchbox
Image caption 'Lucifer' matches were made using white phosphorous, which often killed factory workers

Today, the old Bryant and May match factory in Bow houses a serene and luxurious gated community.

But 125 years ago, this crowded corner of the East End was the scene of an unlikely revolt.

About 1,400 matchworkers downed tools and walked out of the Victorian plant, protesting against inhumane working conditions and malicious managers.

A strike by a group of unskilled women was beyond contemplation in 1888, and seemed destined to fail.

Just two weeks later however, the owners were forced to give in, and the strike became the first by unorganised workers to gain widespread national attention.

Next month, a new festival in Spitalfields is marking the anniversary of the historic struggle, which is said to have inspired the formation of modern trade unions.

Image caption Matchwomen at Bryant and May's factory shortly before their famous strike

'Slave-like' conditions

The horrors of life at the factory were exposed just before the strike, in an article entitled White Slavery in London by prominent Fabian campaigner Annie Besant.

She described how girls would work at the factory from early childhood to old age, constantly at risk of contracting "phossy jaw", a necrotic disease caused by the toxic white phosphorous on the matches.

A short exposure to the chemical would lead to vomiting, but in the worst cases, the poisoning would cause jawbones to rot, and the smell from the putrid abscesses was so unbearable that factory inspectors often found workers dying alone like lepers.

While Bryant and May shareholders were getting a handsome payout, the women could be on their feet for as long as 12 hours a day, and the youngest ones were malnourished and under-sized.

To make matters worse, the women often lost part of their minimal wages in petty fines, handed out for offences such as arriving late, talking or having dirty feet. One woman was even fined for trying to fix a machine that had been cutting workers' hands.

But the brutality of their working conditions could not quash the matchwomen's communal spirit. Collections were made for the strikers, who had to go several days without pay.

'Self organised'

Dr Louise Raw, who wrote a book about the strike, says the match-women, many of whom were Irish, were a tight-knit group.

Despite their economic hardship, they were famous for their "hairstyles, high-heeled boots, and huge hats trimmed with bright feathers, which they bought and shared through communal 'feather clubs'".

Image caption The water tower at the Bryant & May factory, now a gated community with celebrity inhabitants

In response to Besant's article, Bryant & May sacked one young woman they suspected of providing her with information, and the strike - spontaneously organised by the workers themselves - began.

The managers tried to force the match-women to condemn Besant.

They refused, smuggling out a warning note: "Dear Lady, they have been trying to get the poor girls to say it is all lies that has been printed and to sign a paper…we will not sign."

The strikers elected six women to put forward their demands - a re-instatement of their colleague, an end to fines, and a separate dining-room away from the phosphorus fumes.


After their demands were met, they formed the largest female union in the country.

Unfortunately, it was many years until Bryant & May stopped using lethal phosphorous.

"The matchwomen showed other exploited workers the way", said Dr Raw.

"It's no co-incidence that waves of strikes followed, including the great Dock Strike in 1889."

Dr Raw, who is organising the upcoming festival, added: "These were the mothers of the entire modern labour movement, and the Labour party,

"I couldn't let the 125th anniversary of this remarkable and world-changing event go unmarked."

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