Over a hundred years before English preteen girls commenced at concert halls to worship One Direction, they were tough and savvy factory employees, demanding respect from superiors who left them drastically underpaid and unappreciated.
Factory workers always had a tempestuous relationship with the bosses of Bryant & May, a company dedicated to manufacturing matches. In 1882, Theodore Bryant, one of these bosses, deducted a shilling from each worker’s pay to erect a statue of his personal hero, William Gladstone.
The young women felt so put out that they pelted the statue with stones at the unveiling – some even cut their arms and bled on the statue, making the phrase “paid for by blood” quite literal.
The events that started the strike of 1888 began when Annie Besant, an activist and journalist, published an article titled “White Slavery in London” in her paper, The Link.
Besant found the working conditions in the factory deplorable. Women and girls worked fourteen hour days and were paid as little as four shillings a week (its equivalent today would be £17.40, or $27.71), with most of their salary paid back to the factory through a system of purposeless fines.
In addition, the women often had severe health complications due to working with white phosphorous. The workers were most often afflicted with phossy jaw, which caused the jaw bone to abscess and turn greenish-white. Phossy jaw often permanently disfigured its victims, and it sometimes caused severe brain damage.
When Besant’s article about Bryant & May was published, the management at the factory attempted to get the women who worked there to sign a statement. By signing it, the women were effectively saying that they were happy with their workplace and that Besant’s article was incorrect. The workers refused to do so.
Soon after, the woman assumed to be the leader of the rebelling force was let go. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. By the end of the first day, approximately 1,500 women and girls had gone on strike in a show of support for their peers.
A large group of these women went to Besant for help. Besant, at first disheartened by the drastic action the workers had taken, agreed to assist them, and the ‘Matchgirls’ Union was formed.
To fund the union and to set up a strike headquarters, the women and girls went door-to-door to collect donations, and Besant used her journalist connections to advertise and call for donations in various papers. The union even had support from the London Trades Council.
After three weeks of the strike, the management at Bryant & May caved in. The company announced that it would re-employ the women they had fired, end the fines system, and allow workers to eat in a separate room away from the white phosphorous that caused so many health problems.
These women and girls, some as young as 12-years-old, would prove to be an inspiration for women and workers across England. There was a sharp rise in strikes in 1889 – a large number of which involved women.
The strikes inspired Ripper Street writer Richard Warlow and Historian Leo Hollis to write some anarchy-prone female characters of their own. Where the ‘Matchgirls’ used (mainly) peaceful means, unlike in Ripper Street, Episode 3 where a group of women terrorized East London to achieve their means.
The most notable strike to have been influenced by the matchgirls was the Great Dock Strike of 1889, particularly because many dock workers were friends or family of the matchgirls.
By Caroline Liddick