I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
The Bryant and May factory in London’s squalid East End turned out matches by the million. The workers were mostly teenage girls and young women and the conditions of employment were terrible. The product was called “safety matches” but they were far from safe for the women who made them.
Annie Besant Investigates Working Conditions
Trade Union History Online records that a crowd of disgruntled match girls left the factory and gathered outside the offices of a socialist newspaper called The Link in July 1888. The workers enlisted the help of journalist Annie Besant who wrote an exposé of their working conditions.
BBC Legacies writes that Ms. Besant called the Bryant and May factory “a ‘prison-house’… describing the match girls as ‘white wage slaves’ – ‘undersized’, ‘helpless,’ and oppressed.’ ”
The girls worked 14-hour days, standing all the time, and were paid between four and eight shillings a week (that would translate to roughly $30 to $60 in today’s value). But, they had to buy some of the tools of their trade from the company and a system of fines was imposed over trifling rule-breaking such as talking or taking a toilet break without permission.
Meanwhile, the company was paying its shareholders a dividend of 22 percent.
Abuse of Match Workers
The match heads the women worked with contained phosphorous. Spartacus Educational notes that Annie Besant found that the cheap, white phosphorous had some negative health impacts: it “caused yellowing of the skin and hair loss and phossy jaw, a form of bone cancer. The whole side of the face turned green and then black, discharging foul-smelling pus and finally death.”
Additionally, the condition caused jaw and tooth aches and swelling of the gums. The only treatment was the disfiguring cutting away of the affected areas.
The BBC adds that the women “were told to ‘never mind their fingers’ when working with machinery, even if it meant them being injured, and they also suffered ‘occasional blows’ from the foreman.”
More expensive red phosphorus carried much lower risks to the women but the company refused to use it.
Match Girls Go on Strike
Annie Besant’s story was picked up by other left-leaning newspapers that began agitating for better working conditions for the girls. Bryant and May did not like the bad publicity and tried to force the workers to sign a document saying they were happy in their employment.
Then, writes Spartacus Educational, “When a group of women refused to sign, the organizers of the group [were] sacked. The response was immediate; 1,400 of the women at Bryant and May went on strike.” A boycott of Bryant and May products was also organized.
The strike lasted for three weeks and gathered supporters from the middle class and other working people. Eventually, the company agreed to talks with the strikers. The Trades Union Congress records that “At that meeting, Bryant and May conceded almost all the women’s demands (and) that there would be no victimization and the firm would recognize a union formed by the women.”
Union Movement Expands as Result of Strike
According to Britain’s National Archives, “This was the first time a union of unskilled workers had succeeded in striking for better pay and working conditions. It inspired unions across the country. Within a year, the London dockworkers were on strike, confident that if the match girls could succeed, then so could they.”
The BBC adds that, “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 unorganized.”
The Trades Union Congress comments that the match girls strike “is not just of historic interest. It is an absolutely critical example of how after decades of low struggle and disappointment a militant movement can revive. Its genesis could come from the most unpredictable and apparently unpromising source.”
The Congress goes on to suggest today’s supermarket, call centre, and other poorly paid workers could use the example as a springboard for improving their own working conditions.
Exploitation Moved Overseas
Of course, we don’t mistreat workers like that anymore; well, not where such exploitation might fall under the scrutiny of labour lawyers and safety inspectors.
Smitu Kothari is with the People’s Union for Civil Liberties in India. In 2013, he began investigating the match-making business in Tamil Nadu, southern India. What he found was that much of the industry is based on using child labour. Victorian working conditions have been moved to the sub-continent in the 21st century.
The children work 12-hour days with no break periods. According to India Today “The younger children, between four and seven years, earn about Rs 2 (about three cents) a day for this unending work - there are no days off - and the older children earn a maximum of Rs 7 (about 10 cents) a day.”
The employer is called Standard Match Industries.
In 1891, William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, bought a derelict factory. He installed good ventilation, proper industrial hygiene, and made matches using the safer red phosphorus. He enlisted retailers to sell only his red phosphorus matches in boxes labelled “Lights in Darkest England.” His actions shamed other manufacturers into switching to red phosphorus. After his campaign proved successful he closed his factory down.
Phillumeny is the word for the hobby of collecting matchboxes.
In 1805, Frenchman Jean Chancel invented a kind of match, but it was hardly practical. His match was coated with a mixture of sulphur, sugar, rubber, and potassium chlorate. This was then dipped into sulphuric acid and the chemical reaction started the fire.
Swedish chemist Gustaf Erik Pasch created the modern safety match in 1844.
- “The Match Workers Strike Fund Register.” TUC History Online, undated.
- “Setting the Workers Alight: the East End Match Girls’ Strike.” BBC Legacies, undated
- “Matchgirls Strike.” Spartacus Educational, undated.
- “White Slavery.” The National Archives, undated.
- “It Just Went Like Tinder; the Mass Movement and New Unionism in Britain 1889: a Socialist History.” John Charlton, Redwords, 1999.
- “A Match to Fire the Thames.” Ann Stafford, Hodder and Stoughton, 1961.
- “Matchgirls Strike 1888: the Struggle Against Sweated Labour in London’s East End.” Reg Beer, National Museum of Labour History, 1979.
- “Sivakasi Houses World’s Largest Concentration of Child Labour in its Industrial Units.” Smitu Kothari, India Today, July 30, 2013.
© 2018 Rupert Taylor
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on September 05, 2018:
Hello, Rupert, the spirit by which the girls refused to sign the undertaking is that part of a girls ledership. Looking at them as the weaker sex, does not tell a story. I was once an Administrative Officer. I read labour relations but I had not come across such issues. These girls set the trade union to be what it is today world wide. Your historical articles are without any parralle. Thank you.