Courageous action arises from places of misery and oppression — places like Victorian London’s East End.
A starting place for immigrants — Irish dockworkers, Huguenot weavers, Jews fleeing persecution in Russia — the East End was poor, prone to epidemics, and severely overcrowded: cupboards were sometimes rented out as rooms. Factories spewed poisonous clouds into the air and contaminated the water supply, leaving people without water for long stretches.
Annie Gives Voice to the Voiceless
In 1888, several months before Jack-the-Ripper killed and mutilated six women in the East End, Annie Besant, a crusading journalist, heard about the deplorable work conditions at the Bryant & May match factory which employed many women, most of them teens. She made up her mind to spark public concern with her writing.
Besant began by interviewing several workers. She learned that they were paid meager wages for long, grueling days. Fines for petty offenses — talking, tardiness, dropping materials, taking unauthorized toilet breaks — were deducted from the take-home pay. One pale sixteen-year-old who lived with her sister told Annie that they subsisted on bread, butter, and tea for days at a time.
Low pay and 12-hour days were not the workers’ only hardship. The factory air was thick with phosphorus. White sulphur, used on match tips, got onto the workers’ fingers. They ate at their work benches, Annie wrote, “disease the seasoning to their bread.” Poisoned by their work, the young women often became bald, and some developed “Phossy Jaw,” a disease that literally ate their faces.
Charles Dickens, in an 1852 essay, painted a grim picture:
Annie Brown is twenty years of age, of pale and scrofulous aspect. She went to work at the lucifer-factory when she was nine years old, and after she had worked for about four years, the complaint began, like a toothache. Her teeth had all been sound before that time… She was occupied in the lids on the boxes. She could smell the phosphorus at first, but soon grew used to it. At night, she could see that her clothes were glowing on the chair where she had put them; her hands and arms were glowing also… On uncovering her face, we perceived that her lower jaw is almost entirely wanting; at the side of her mouth are two or three large holes. The jaw was removed at the Infirmary seven years ago.
Besant published her exposé in her socialist publication, the Link. In her opening sentence, she described the young workers as underfed, oppressed, flung aside when worn out. She asked, “Who cares if they die, provided only that the Bryant & May shareholders get their 23 per cent?”
The Matchgirls Call a Strike, Chanting “Annie Besant!”
The company threatened a libel suit and insisted that all workers sign a petition certifying that Besant’s article was untrue, exaggerated at best. Despite their desperate straits, not one worker signed.
When the company identified one they deemed the “ringleader” and fired her, all 1,400 women put down their work, stood up, and walked out. On impulse, 200 of them headed for Fleet Street where the Link office was located, chanting in unison, “Annie Besant! Annie Besant!” The matchgirls were on strike.
Besant was as stunned as the management of Bryant & May, but she answered the call. First, she formed a strike committee to draw up a list of demands. (Above photo: Annie at the lectern, surrounded by members of the strike committee.)
When a strike fund was established, donations poured in. With Besant’s help, the workers held meetings, walked a picket line, and gained sympathetic publicity with demonstrations.
The highlight of the strike came when the matchgirls marched to the House of Commons. A delegation of young workers was allowed to enter and speak about their lives in their own words. One fifteen-year-old pulled the scarf from her head to show that she was almost completely bald. The MP’s were shocked.
Regretting bad publicity, the directors of Bryant & May met with strike representatives and agreed to all their demands, including better wages, a separate room where the workers could eat, and the abolition of fines. The matchgirls’ successful strike is still celebrated in British labor history.
One final note: Besant petitioned for a “matchgirls’ drawing room.” As she envisioned it, this was to be a home for working women who had no real homes and “no playground save the streets.” She wanted it to be a pleasant refuge, with a piano, some light reading, games, not, she warned, an institution with rigid rules of discipline and prim behavior. Within two years, a donor made Besant’s dream come true and opened a home for the matchgirls.
To Go Deeper
Annie Besant: An Autobiography. Republished by Dodo Press, August 2007.
Annie Besant (Lives of Modern Women), by Rosemary Dinnage, Penguin Books, 1987
“M Is for match Girl Strike of 1888” Blog by Maryann Holloway
Lewenhak, Sheila. Women and Trade Unions: An Outline History of Women in the British Trade Union Movement. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1977.
“The Little Match Girl Strikes Back” on the blog Robert Frost’s Banjo, July 23, 2009.
“The Matchgirls: Rehearsal” from a musical (6 minute clip)
“The Match Girl Strike” (4 minutes) Artistic and informational video, but inaccurate about the etymology of the word “strike.”
Featured illustration by Peter Jackson from Guilty: Match Boxes that Cause a Strike, original artwork from Look and Learn no. 568, December 2, 1972.
Illustration of women and children working at a table first appeared in The Child Slaves of Britain by Robert Sherard.