In 1888, 1,400 women took a stand for their rights as workers. The London matchgirls weren’t part of a workers’ union, but still managed to pull off one of the most important strikes in the history of England’s labor movement. They provided inspiration for several other movements as well as the formation of workers’ unions throughout England.
At Bryant and May’s Match Factory in Bow, East London, women were expected to work long hours in poor conditions for very low pay. They worked from 6:30 A.M. to 6 P.M. in the summer and 8 A.M. to 6 P.M. in the winter. They only earned four to eight shillings per week.
Many of the workers were girls as young as fifteen and they were forced to work standing all day with only two short breaks. They were also exposed to harmful phosphorus fumes for nearly the entire workday and had to eat their lunch around these fumes.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the workers were regularly fined for simple things, such as taking a bathroom break without permission, dropping matches, and talking while on the clock. If they were even a few minutes late to their shift, they were docked half of a day’s pay.
The health risks from working with this harmful type of phosphorus that the Bryant and May factory used was the worst part. It could cause the women’s skin to yellow, their hair to fall out, and even a type of cancer that caused their bones to glow in the dark, often called “Phossy jaw”, as this type of cancer was often called, would cause the women’s face on one side to turn green and eventually black. Eventually a pungent smelling pus would start discharging and lead to death.
The conditions that these women were forced to work in was brought to light on June 23, 1888 when Annie Besant published an article titled “White Slavery in London” in her weekly paper, The Link. She exposed the way that the company treated employees and many people were outraged.
Annie Besant then joined forces with Henry Hyde Champion of the Labour Elector, William Stead from the Pall Mall Gazette, Catharine Booth the representative for Salvation Army, and many other prominent people in the community. They tried to encourage the public to boycott Bryant and May’s matches until the owners agreed to better working conditions for the workers.
The owners of Bryant and May tried to get their workers to sign a letter saying that Annie Besant’s accusations were false and that the working conditions in the company were normal. The women refused and, as a result, the owners fired one of the group organizers. This outraged the women and resulted in a company-wide strike.
At first, Annie Besant was horrified by the strike when she saw all the women who were without work or any way to support themselves. But she then agreed to be the organizer and leader of the newly-found Matchgirls’ Union.
At first, Bryant and May refused to budge, but they were becoming increasingly worried about the bad publicity. After three long weeks, Bryant and May agreed to hire back the women they had fired and to stop taking deductions from the women’s pay. The women agreed and returned to work at the factory.
However, one major threat to the women was the harmful form of phosphorus that the company was still using. The company refused to switch because it claimed that customers wouldn’t want to pay higher prices for the harmless, but more expensive, red phosphorus.
In 1891, the Salvation Army opened its own match factory where they only used red phosphorus. Soon they were producing up to six million boxes per year and paying their employees twice as much as Bryant and May. Social activist William Booth gave tours to journalists where he would show a comparison of the two companies.
Once again, Bryant and May was terrified of the bad publicity their company was receiving. Ten years later, they finally agreed to switch to a harmless form of phosphorus.
The London Matchgirls provided a perfect example of a successful fight for workers’ rights. Had they not been brave and joined forces to better their working conditions, they might not have given inspiration to later labor movements.
The souls of these women have impacted the lives of all of us in one way or another, whether we knew it or not. Reminding us that health and safety are far more important than the expenses that may be incurred for safe working conditions.