Women, Work and Health: The Match-Girls Strike of 1888

On 5th July 1888, approximately 1400 female workers walked out of Bryant and May’s match making factory in Bow, East London, in protest over low pay and poor working conditions. Each woman and girl worked 12- to 14-hour days in hot and unventilated rooms to make and pack match boxes in order to earn an average piece rate wage of around 8 shillings per week; skilled male labourers could expect around 40 shillings. Prompted by the perceived unfair dismissal of one of the workers, one woman reported that the strike ‘just went like tinder, one girl began, and the rest said ‘yes’ so out we all went’. Match production stopped for 16 days. The strike finally ended after the workers accepted a number of concessions offered by the company. These concessions included the abolition of the system of fining workers for being late, deductions from wages to cover cost of paste and brushes and the recognition of the Union of Women Match Makers by management.A sepia picture of Bryant and May 'match girls'.

The match girls’ strike, as the 16 day walk out of women workers famously became known, shaped the future of Britain’s labour movement. As the first strike by unskilled women workers in Britain, this moment was hugely significant in the rise of New Unionism of the late 1880s and 1890s. It was the prelude to a wave of strikes that swept the country, the most famous of which was the Great Dock Strike of 1889. Workers across Britain were no longer willing to accept their poor working conditions and began to demand more from their employers. This wave of strike action resulted in the unionization of tens of thousands of unskilled and semi-skilled workers and sowed the seeds of the Independent Labour Party (ILP). Moreover, the Union of Women Match Makers had a long legacy; it was one of only a few unions that survived the turbulent years after the peak of New Unionism and was still going strong into the 1930s.

Yet, the strike was also important for highlighting and ultimately improving the dangerous working conditions that Bryant and May’s management concessions did not address. Match making was considered part of the ‘dangerous trades’ under the Factory and Workshops Acts due to the fact that highly toxic white phosphorous paste was used to make the hugely popular Lucifer ‘strike anywhere’ matches. Renewed media attention on Bryant and May following the strike highlighted cases of necrosis of the jaw – ‘phossy jaw’ – among both male and female match workers resulting from exposure to the white phosphorous. The resulting government inquiry revealed the horrors of the disease. One testimony stated:

A drawing depicting a woman suffering from necrosis of the jaw (colloquially known as 'phossy jaw'.‘In a certain town I dug out cases of men and women, hidden away in the slums – piteous cases they were. One woman had completely lost her lower jaw, a young girl at earlier stages was constantly in great pain while her suppurating jaw bone was gradually decaying.’

This spectre of an identifiable industrial disease was a powerful weapon not only in the political struggles around working conditions, but also in debates over the degree to which the state should regulate the twenty five match making companies across Britain. State regulations of the late 1890s enhanced worker hygiene through the provision of soap, water and free toothbrushes and toothpaste; improved factory ventilation to prevent phosphorous fumes spreading all over the factory, as well as the separation of dangerous manufacturing processes; and provided medical examinations of anyone with reported toothache. It was a legal requirement for all match factories to employ a resident dentist by 1900 and Bryant and May employed one from 1898. Yet, some match making firms pushed back against new regulation. The underreporting of cases of workers with phossy jaw was rife in the Bryant and May factory. There was also a strong suspicion of collusion between medical practitioners and employers to conceal phossy jaw cases and evidence of at least one case of company intimidation by threats of lost income. Mrs Lean, whose son had died of phosphorous necrosis, was told ‘if I called another doctor in, the pay (ie the sick pay from the firm of 29 shillings a week) would be stopped.’ Prohibiting the use phosphorous in match making production would have decisively ended phossy jaw outbreaks, but such action was quickly dismissed because ‘strike anywhere’ matches were so popular and formed a vital part of Britain national and global trade. Phossy jaw only disappeared as an industrial disease once phosphorous was outlawed in 1910, but the effects of the discussions and events of the preceding decades, and indeed those who took part in them, should not be underestimated.

Boxes of Bryant and May matches.Historical debate has centred on the role of the female workers of Bryant and May in initiating and sustaining strike action and in shaping the fight for better working conditions. Early historiography portrayed women as passive victims, who were only led to action by the campaigns of Annie Besant and other leading middle-class Fabians of the period. Such work largely relied on Besant’s autobiography and documents from the firm, which of course present a rather narrow view of the story. More recent historical work, however, has argued that the workers themselves were central to securing better rights and conditions and has attempted to reconstruct their own experiences from scant evidence. Securing the historical legacy of these women is ongoing, not least by their ancestors. More on Sarah Chapman, one of the match girls, can be found on the blog of the East End Women’s Museum: https://eastendwomensmuseum.org/blog/2018/3/13/sarah-chapman-matchgirl-strike-leader-and-tuc-delegate

Dr Claire Jones

References:

Barbara Harrison, ‘Not Only the Dangerous Trades:’ Women’s Works and Health in Britain, 1880-1914, (Taylor Francis, 1996).

Louise Raw, Striking a Light: The Bryant and May Matchwomen and their Place in History (Bloombury, 2011)

History Research Festival

Wednesday 17th January 2018, 1-6pm

Darwin Conference Centre Suite

The Festival aims bring together colleagues and students from the School of History to have informal conversations about the collective experiences of ‘doing history’ through a variety of panel debates.

1 – 2pm Challenging source materials and methods (chair: Dr Claire Jones)

Dr Emily Mantelow; Dr Jasmine Kilburn-Toppin; Dr Juliette Pattinson; Professor Ulf Schmidt

2 – 3pm Collaborative Working (chair: Dr Emma Purce)

Dr Rebekah Higgitt; Dr Jan Loop; Professor Kenneth Fincham

3pm – Tea and coffee

3 – 4pm Interdisciplinary Perspectives (chair: Dr Aske Brock)

Dr Ben Marsh; Dr Karen Jones; Dr Emma Hanna; Dr Phil Slavin

4 – 5pm Writing and Publishing (chair: Professor Gaynor Johnson)

Dr Barbara Bombi; Professor Charlotte Sleigh; Professor Grayson Ditchfield

5 – 6pm Wine reception

Click here to return to the School of History website.

Autumn 2017 School of History Research Seminar series

This year, our research seminars will take place on alternating Wednesdays (weeks 1,3,5,7,9, & 11) in term time at 4PM in Eliot Lecture Theatre 2 (ELT2). We also have an excellent line-up of post-graduate seminars that will take place at 5:15PM in Rutherford Seminar Room 7 (RS7) on the other Wednesdays (weeks 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, & 12). Please see the attached schedule for a full list of speakers.

In week 1 (at 4PM on Wednesday 27 September), we are delighted to welcome Dr Suzanna Ivanič, a new lecturer in Early Modern History here at the University of Kent.

The title of her paper is Locating Religion in the Homes of Seventeenth-Century Prague Burghers.

A recent focus on religion in the home has provided fertile new evidence about lived religion – the beliefs, practices and identities of the faithful in an everyday context – but, what if we interrogate the relationship between the home and religion more thoroughly? How does religion change as it crosses the threshold? Is ‘domestic devotion’ really more unorthodox and individualistic? What do we mean by ‘domesticating’ religion? It is now well-established that not only Protestants, but also Catholics, practised religion in their homes in early modern Europe. By analysing inventories and objects from the multiconfessional setting of Prague across the seventeenth century, this paper explores the differences in domestic religious practice between confessions, how domestic space enabled unique aspects of devotion (‘private’ forms or particular rituals focusing on doors and beds, for example), and how objects that came into the home could either subvert or reinforce orthodoxy and orthopraxy within this extra-ecclesiastical space.

As ever, a drinks reception will follow this seminar. Please see the attached poster for more information.

The ‘British’ churches 1603-1707: from dynastic union to Anglo-Scottish union

On 22 June 2017 the University of Kent’s School of History and Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies will be hosting an international conference ‘The ‘British’ churches 1603-1707: from dynastic union to Anglo-Scottish union‘.

The two-day conference, timed to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the launching of the Five Articles of Perth by James VI & I in Scotland in 1617, is held in collaboration with Canterbury Christ Church University and its Centre for Kent History and Heritage.

All conference sessions will take place in Keynes College on the University of Kent’s Canterbury campus and aim to bring together scholars with an interest in religion across the British Isles during the 17th century.

The Conference will also include the official launch party for Dr Leonie James’s new book – ‘This Great Firebrand’: William Laud and Scotland 1617-45 (Boydell Press, 2017).

Further information about the Conference including a programme and registration details can be found on its dedicated webpage.

Student trip to Rome

In early April 2017, Dr Emily Guerry took fourteen of her third-year students from her special subject module, ‘Saints, Relics, and Churches in Medieval Europe’ (HI 6058), on a four-day fieldtrip to explore the material culture of medieval Rome. The School of History generously subsidized the cost of travel and accommodation.

Testimonials

“When we arrived in the early evening, the students checked into their hostel near Termini and we all headed straight to the Forum to get a sense of the city of Rome– that still-smoking hearth of culture. Our itinerary was designed to proceed both chronologically and geographically through the development of the Christian capital so our first morning was packed with time spent in the Palatine Hill and the Capitoline Museo, followed by an afternoon in the Pantheon (which was converted into a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary in the sixth century). Next, we examined the first major Rome house-church female cults located Santa Pudenziana, Santa Prassede, and ended our day with a special private tour of the loggia (with captivating city views) atop Santa Maria Maggiore on the Esquiline. On our second morning, we began by spending two hours inside the stunning church of San Clemente and descended into its many layers of archeological history. Then we ventured to the Lateran for private visit of SS Quattro Coronati thanks to the Augustinian nuns (and performed our very own re-staging of the Donation of Constantine), followed by a pilgrimage to the Sancta Sanctorum, wherein four enterprising students actually acquired an indulgence! We spent that in Trastevere to make a private visit– with generous thanks to the Clarissa nuns– to Pietro Cavallini’s monumental Last Judgment fresco in Santa Cecilia, which is said to embody the ‘turning point’ between the transformation of Gothic painting into the ‘Renaissance.’ We ended this special day by looking at the amazing spolia in Santa Maria in Trastevere– purportedly the earliest location for the Roman cult of the Virgin– and marveling at its resplendent medieval mosaics. We spent out last day wandering through the Vatican museums, where we came face to face with dozens of sacred and sublime objects from our course, including early Christian sarcophagi, cult statues, and even Michelangelo’s wall paintings in the Sistine Chapel. In the end, our trip was an awe-inspiring intellectual adventure. The students encountered and examined some of the most transformative examples of church architecture, painting, and sculpture in the history of art and architecture in Rome. We are all so grateful to the School of History, especially Jenny Humphrey, for providing us with this once in a lifetime opportunity.Grazie mille!

Students at the Foro Romano

Students examine Cavallini`s fresco

Students in the nave of Santa Pudenziana discuss the apse mosaic

Students reenact the ‘Donation of Constantine’ in SS Quattro Coronati

Dr. Sleigh to talk about new project on ITV News

Look out for Dr. Charlotte Sleigh on ITV Meridan News on Thursday 16th October at 6pm talking about her new AHRC-funded project which examines art and science relationships through the analysis of a 300-year-old English copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
The project, being led by Dr Sleigh, working alongside scientist Simon Park and artist Sarah Craske, will ‘read’ the book thorugh a biological lens, analysing the bacteria, fungi, viruses and skin cell it has picked up as it has been passed from reader to reader. Their findings will be displayed in a final exhibition.
Find out more about the project here, and keep up to date by liking their facebook page.
Ovid's Metamorphoses Photo by Sarah Craske

Ovid’s Metamorphoses
Photo by Sarah Craske