Who cares for the fate of these white wage slaves? Born in slums, driven to work while still children, undersized because underfed, oppressed because helpless, flung aside as soon as worked out, who cares if they die or go on the streets, provided only that the Bryant and May shareholders get their 23 per cent., and Mr. Theodore Bryant can erect statues and buy parks?
In June 1888, journalist Annie Besant – having heard a complaint against match makers Bryant and May at a Fabian Society meeting – resolved to investigate conditions in the factory. By this time, Bryant and May was the largest matchstick manufacturer in the United Kingdom, producing hundreds of millions of matches each day. It was also the largest employer of women in East London, with a staff of over 2,000 women and girls. When Besant went to speak to the factory girls in Bow, she was appalled by what she found.
Low pay and long hours were quite ubiquitous, but the Bryant and May workers were treated without compassion and often endured physical abuse and extortionate fines as punishment for shoddy work. Matchstick manufacture came with particular health implications, and Bryant and May did nothing to alleviate the effects of ‘phossy jaw’, a form of bone cancer caused by the cheap phosphorous that they used. By 1888, resentment had been building for some years: in 1882 employees threw bricks and stones in protest at the unveiling of a statue of William Gladstone, which had been funded through wage cuts.
It was Annie Besant’s exposure of the terrible conditions at the Bryant and May factory which really brought matters to a head. Besant’s article in the The Link pulled no punches, depicting Bryant and May as a tyrannical employer and calling for ‘a special circle in the Inferno for those who live on this misery, and suck wealth out of the starvation of helpless girls’. Management were furious at the workforce for the revelations and fired three women whom they suspected of leaking information. Outraged, 1,400 employees rose up in protest, including girls as young as 12. They stayed out for two weeks: as there was no union to provide strike pay, the Match Girls went door to door raising money in support of their cause, whilst Annie Besant and other members of the Fabian Society started an emergency fund to distribute to striking workers. At the end of the two weeks, Bryant and May finally conceded by agreeing to improve conditions and cease charging arbitrary fines.
The Match Girls’ strike had garnered widespread publicity, leading to a meeting between MPs and a deputation of strikers at Westminster. It had also won the support of the London Trades Council, the most prominent labour organisation of the day. One of the Match Girls’ most enduring successes was to secure Bryant and May’s agreement for them to form a union, and on 27 July 1888 the strikers held the first meeting of the Union of Women Match Makers, which became the largest female union in the country. They used funds left over from the strike fund to pay for premises, and later expanded to include men.
The strike changed the character of organised labour and the Star newspaper, founded the same year, called it a ‘magnificent victory, a turning point in the history of our industrial development’. 1889 saw a sharp upturn in strikes, most notably the Great Dock Strike involving workers from across the Docklands area. In 1892, philosopher and social scientist Friedrich Engels praised the way in which East London ‘has shaken off its torpid despair, it has returned to life, and has become the home of […] the organisation of the great mass of “unskilled” workers’.
By the early 1890s, Bryant and May was seen as a model employer, and held up as a standard in contemporary accounts and illustrated magazines. Change was still slow, however, and public perceptions not always accurate. In 1892 the Star newspaper reported that Bryant and May had been covering up further cases of phossy jaw and failing to pay workers adequate sick pay. In response to this, the Home Office clamped down on matchstick manufacture and required that any hazardous processes take place in a separate part of the factory, with adequate ventilation and washing facilities; it was also obligatory to report all cases of phosphorous poisoning. The Match Girls’ strike heralded an era in which the government took workers’ concerns seriously: when news of another unreported case of phossy jaw came to light in May 1898, the Home Office prosecuted Bryant and May for violating the terms of the Factory Acts. In 1900, Bryant and May finally abandoned the use of dangerous white phosphorous in favour of safer substances.
Ultimately, even if it was the strong arm of the law rather than the voices of exploited women which forced change upon Bryant and May, the Match Girls’ strike had ushered in a grassroots labour movement which MPs could not ignore. As such, it was a vital moment for both female empowerment and the increasing momentum of the workers’ cause.