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)

The ‘Women’s War’, 1929

In the closing months of 1929 the women of Nigeria rose up against British colonialism in a coordinated effort that has subsequently become known as the ‘Women’s War’. Rioting against the power of British-imposed Warrant Chiefs, women from the Igbo ethnic community congregated in their thousands, re-mobilising the traditional practice of ‘sitting on a man’ as a form of anti-colonial and anti-corruption collective action. Ostensibly a revolt against the imposition of a tax specific to Nigerian women, whose marketplace activities allowed them a level of financial independence from their husbands at the same time as supporting their families, the causes of the revolt can be traced back to the imposition of Indirect Rule in Nigeria under Lord Lugard in 1914. The Women’s War was a co-ordinated strategic rejection of British colonialism, and led to reforms in the way the colony was ruled, as well as the abolition of the women’s tax itself.

Indirect Rule and British Colonialism

 Lord Frederick Lugard was famously the architect of indirect rule in Nigeria, a policy by which the British handpicked local African elites who were friendly to colonial rule as ‘Warrant Chiefs’, responsible for the day-to-day running of the colony, and in particular the administering of the law, the organisation of labour, and the levying of taxes. The appointment of the Warrant Chiefs was not only an attempt to have ‘colonialism on the cheap’ on the part of the British, but also to impose British notions of colonial hierarchy – including changes to the gender relations of the people. While in Igbo culture, women and men worked collectively, the British imposed systems of forced labour and taxation that pushed women into what they considered their rightful place: the domestic sphere. When they attempted to tax women’s economic activities (the selling of palm-oil) in 1929, rioting and protest ensued.

‘Sitting on a man’

The women of the ‘Aba Women’s Riots’ (as they were known by the British) cleverly fused traditional forms of protest with collective action against the colonial state. They embarrassed the local Warrant Chiefs by ‘sitting on’ them – a ritual action involving dance, lewd gestures, songs and noise. At the same time, though, they attacked Native Court buildings, cut down telegraph wires, and damaged banks, post offices and factories – all seen as manifestations of white colonial oppression. Thousands of women were involved, and many more suffered from the reaction of the British, who burnt down villages as collective punishment, and fired into crowds of protesting women. In one incident at Opobo on 16th December eighteen women died at the hands of colonial troops, leading to questions in Parliament back in Britain.

Collective Action

Female protesters involved in the Women’s War were savvy and determined. They wore palm leaves as a link to the economic roots of their discontent, they mobilised traditional practices of protest through marching, singing and dance, and they disrupted the administrative mechanisms of the colonial state. Despite attempts in the British press to put this down to female ‘hysteria’, the Women’s War is an example of collective and organised female political and economic action. The British introduced reforms to the Warrant Chief system in an attempt to curb corruption, and abolished the women’s tax itself. Women also became involved in administration, but continued their action when necessary in future disputes such as the Tax Protests of 1938 and the Oil Mill Protests of the 1940s.

Women and Political Activism

‘A feature of the disturbances was that women were the actual aggressors’, noted a shocked correspondent for The Times in January 1930. ‘The trouble was of a nature and extent unprecedented in Nigeria’, continued the correspondent for Nigeria in August of that year. ‘In a country were the women throughout the centuries have remained in subjection to the men, this was essentially a women’s movement, organised, developed, and carried out by the women of the country, without either the help or permission of their menfolk, though probably with their tacit sympathy.’ The Commission sent to investigate the revolt, and the reactions of British troops in particular, came to many conclusions. Perhaps the most interesting for us in the current context is this: ‘More attention… should be paid to the political influence of women.’

Dr. Emily Manktelow

International Women’s Day

In 2018 International Women’s Day (8th March) has arrived in the midst of the Universities and College Union’s industrial action in defence of your lecturers’ pensions. As such, we in the School of History felt it would be a good time to reflect on the role of women in industrial and political action through time. Women have often been active members of such actions, and in this the centenary year of female suffrage (for some) in the UK, it is a good moment to pause and think about the women of the past and their campaigning, suffering and triumphs in the face of oppressive power structures. Women of the past can inspire us all – men, women and trans-persons of the present – to campaign for what we believe in, speak truth to power, and win rights for ourselves and others. To quote from the Mary Poppins song ‘Sister Suffragette’:

 

Cast off the shackles of yesterday!
Shoulder to shoulder into the fray!
Our daughters’ daughters will adore us
And they’ll sign in grateful chorus
“Well done, Sister Suffragette!”

 

 

Dr. Emily Manktelow
(Acting EDI Officer, School of History)