It’s 6:30 am, and you’ve just arrived at the Bryant & May match factory in the East End of London for a long fourteen-hour shift of dangerous, monotonous work, ending the day with measly wages of just 1 shilling and 9 pence per 100 boxes of matches you wrap. Not only this but ridiculous fines could be imposed on you, such as 6 pence for dropping a tray of matches or 5 pence for being late. You could even be fined for having dirty feet, which was quite possible considering many workers were too poor to afford shoes. With only two scheduled breaks, and fines for going to the toilet outside of these times, you would end the day exhausted and downtrodden. Horrifically, it gets worse… Bryant & May used white phosphorus in their matches despite it being known to cause ‘phossy jaw’ which, initially starting as a toothache, was fatal in 20% of cases. Appallingly, workers who complained of a toothache were told to immediately have their teeth removed, or faced being fired. This was the sad reality for the 1,400 women and girls who went on strike in July 1888 in a bid to improve their conditions and pay.
The Matchgirls strike was sparked by Annie Besant’s expose ‘White Slavery in London’, published in The Link on 23rd June 1888. Besant was a campaigner for women’s welfare, revealing the terrible working conditions and low wages faced by the women and girls who worked at the factory. In response to Besant’s article, Bryant & May tried to get their workers to sign a paper confirming that she was not telling the truth, but the women and girls understandably refused. The unfair treatment, and refusal to acknowledge it from their bosses, along with the dismissal of one of the workers, led to a full-blown strike in July 1888. Management quickly reinstated the sacked employee but other concessions, particularly regarding wages and fines, were demanded by the striking women. By the 6th of July, the whole factory had stopped working and the women-led strike was in full swing. Although initially ambivalent towards the strikes, as they put women out of work with no means of support, Besant quickly joined the strikers and the London Trades Council became involved. A lot of publicity emerged around this mass movement of women and girls and Bryant, a leading Liberal, became nervous about the exposure. Bryant & May eventually conceded to the strikers and it was stated that the fines and deductions for the costs of materials should be abolished. Meals were also to be eaten in a separate room where food could not be contaminated with white phosphorus. Once this was agreed upon, the strike was ended.
Although a success in regard to unfair pay, the strike did not stop Bryant & May from using white phosphorus in their matches, despite their knowledge that red phosphorus was far less dangerous. Potentially as a direct consequence of the strike, the Salvation Army opened its own match factory in the Bow district in 1891 which used red, rather than white, phosphorus. Despite its closure in 1901, the factory influenced Bryant & May who announced that they would no longer use white phosphorus in their matches. Later, in 1908, the House of Commons passed an Act officially prohibiting the use of white phosphorus in matches, a long-term effect of the strike.
The strike has been memorialised in popular culture and has been commemorated in recent years. English Heritage announced that a blue plaque, at the site of the former Bryant & May factory in Bow, London would be erected to commemorate the strike, and this was unveiled on 5th July 2022. The film Enola Holmes 2 was recently released on Netflix, containing a fictionalised account of the origins of the strike. The strike may have happened over a century ago, but it is clearly still remembered and influential. The successful collective action of the female workers is an inspiring story; they paved the way for better conditions and pay in match-making factories. The efforts of these women stand particularly relevant in today’s society, in relation to the current public sector strikes in universities and hospitals, indicating a continued effort for workers to strive for better treatment and conditions, as predicted by the Matchgirls.