Revolting Women: The Matchgirls’ Strike (or: Working Class Teenagers Kick Corporate Ass)
This post is part of a series on the theme of women and protest. The full series is collected under the tag “Revolting Women”.
One of the 19th century’s best-loved stereotypes is that shivering waif, the Match Girl. Standing in the snow in a tattered shawl and starving to death in a picturesque way, she is well known to all of us thanks in large part to Hans Christian Anderson.1 In Victorian Britain her colleagues worked only slightly less prettily making the matches in factories under horrific working conditions. Many of them were girls too, teenagers and children who started work well before the age of 10.
But is there another side to this charming picture of honest suffering? I’m not saying for a moment that life wasn’t hellish for the matchgirls, and the rest of the Victorian working classes. But I welcome any attempt to dig a little deeper than the hand-wringing waifporn of many contemporary accounts to uncover the experiences and agency of actual persons.
One famous event which lends these pathetic characters another dimension and a bit of agency is the Bow Bryant & May match factory strike of 1888. The broadly accepted chain of events is this…
Outspoken socialist, women’s rights campaigner and general lefty do-gooder Annie Besant heard a lecture by Clementina Black about the terrible working conditions in Bryant & May factories. She discovered that the women worked 14 hours a day for less than five shillings a week, and didn’t often receive this thanks to a system of fines for offences including talking, dropping matches or going to the toilet without permission.
Besant also learnt that the women’s health had been damaged by the phosphorous used to make the matches, which caused yellowing of the skin, hair loss and ‘phossy jaw’, a jolly name for a particularly gruesome kind of facial bone cancer.
Appalled, Besant went to the gates of the factory in Bow the next day and interviewed some of the women as they were leaving. Having the stories confirmed, she wrote an article for her newspaper The Link with the incendiary title ‘White Slavery In London‘.
In response to the bad PR, Bryant & May cleverly attempted to force their workers to sign a statement that they were happy with their working conditions. When a group of women refused to sign, the organisers of the group were sacked, and the rest of the workforce reacted: 1,400 of the women at Bryant & May went on strike.
Cue national uproar. Besant gathered support for her campaign from a number of prominent figures who all seem to have had their own newspapers, and they used them to call for a boycott of Bryant & May matches. The women at the company formed a Matchgirls’ Union and Besant agreed to become its leader. After three weeks the company announced that it would re-employ the dismissed women and bring an end to the fines system. The sacked women returned in triumph.
According to this version of events, Annie Besant encouraged and led the factory workers to strike for better conditions. Certainly the identities of the girls and women involved in the strike have been obscured by her fame.
But a new book by Louise Raw claims that the impetus and leadership for the strike came from the women themselves, and Annie Besant got most of the credit because she was already notorious. And because she was middle class – there were doubts in many circles that the matchwomen themselves could have organised their way out of a paper bag without the help of a learned socialist.
This Times Higher Ed review of <Striking a Light: The Truth About the Match Girls Strike and the Women Behind It explains that the matchwomen “have not been hidden from history but hidden by history” because the standard account of events very early on became the go-to example of women’s industrial action, even to the point of cliché, so historians have avoided revising it. Until now:
In a careful reconstruction of events, Raw exposes inaccuracies in the standard accounts which, while petty, suggest a lazy acceptance of a chronology that fits the conventional story. Not only was Besant not the first mover, and she was probably neither sympathetic to strike action nor optimistic about its outcome, preferring instead a boycott of Bryant and May… Raw’s revised account has the match women themselves deciding to strike, generating leaders and possessing a solidarity usually denied to unskilled workers of this era, especially female ones.
BBC History magazine recorded an interview with Raw, which is available as a podcast. If you’re at all interested I recommend it. In the interview she names the five ‘ringleaders’ identified by Bryant & May – Kate Slater, Alice Barnes, Jane Wakely, Eliza Martin, Mary Driscoll – and describes newspaper accounts about their charisma, inspiring speeches and popularity with the other factory workers. Rather wonderfully, Raw was able to find out more about these women after three of their grandchildren approached her at her talks at the Museum in Docklands and the Ragged School Museum. Local history events FTW!
The Matchgirls’ Strike is a landmark in the history of women and protest, but also in labour history. It famously inspired the Dockers’ Strike: the organisers sought advice from the Matchgirls Union and continually referenced them in their speeches.
BUT WAIT! Where is the pop culture link?
- Well, I reckon the story about the ‘troublemaker’ Eva Smith who leads a factory strike in An Inspector Calls may well have been inspired by the matchgirls. Here’s a YouTube clip of the relevant bit.
- Secondly, in the course of my researches I discovered that there is a MUSICAL version of the matchgirl’s story, called, er, The Matchgirls. It looks appalling. Here’s one of the songs from it.
- Then I found out that lovely East London history music project Songs From The Howing Sea have done a song about the strike! Listen here.
- I am being flippant here but in fact the story reduces me to a crying mess of sentimentality and socialist idealism. There’s also a good recent Disney / Pixar animation. For a horrible moment I thought they were going to happy-end it a la The Little Mermaid and The Hunchback of Notre Dame but they let her die. [↩]