By Jem Knight, BA History, Level 2
If you know a little about the new trade unionism movement of the late nineteenth century and the Match-women’s strike of 1888, you may think about figures like Annie Besant, who many believe to be the leader of this famous strike at the Bryant and May match factory. But how much is known about the working-class Match-women who actually led this strike? A strike that sparked the flame that carried the London Dockers when they took strike action only a year later and a strike that would lead to the formation of a Matchworkers union to protect what those women fought for.
Unfortunately, compared to their middle-class counterparts, very little is known about many of the match women who lead the action against Bryant and May. This may be due to a number of reasons and isn’t uncommon when looking into working-class history. Here is one of the working-class women, whose history hasn’t been lost and who was an intrinsic figure in ensuring the strike and subsequent Matchworkers union went ahead, Sarah Chapman.
Chapman was a young working-class woman who joined the factory at age 19 as a booker. It is said that compared to other workers she had a relatively decent wage but it is unsure if this is due to a lack of fines she may have incurred while working (many match workers suffered massive wage losses due to seemingly constant fines against them) or due to her position in the factory. She was not the only woman in her family to work at Bryant and May, following in both her mother and her sister’s footsteps. This shows the necessity for all members of the working-class families to obtain some form of work, no matter how harsh, so as to contribute whatever they could to battle crippling poverty that followed many, if not all of the match workers.
She saw the growing unrest amongst her fellow workers and knew all too well the dangers of working in a match factory. The long unforgiving hours that were coupled with many young women developing Phossy Jaw (a form of bone cancer) due to being exposed to phosphorous for large amounts of time every day. These factors, combined with the poor pay and crippling fines that were imposed for petty offences such as talking, lateness and having an untidy workbench created a powder keg that just needed the right leaders for it to explode into unified action.
Two factors that probably contributed to Sarah assuming a leadership role in the strike action was the relative stability her family had, regardless of their being working class, and the fact that Sarah had received some education and was able to read and write. Many of the girls would have not had this opportunity and so it made Sarah a rare and important asset to the organisation against Bryant and May.
She was one of the three workers, alongside Mary Cummings and Mary Naulls, who appealed to Annie Besant, a middle-class activist at the time, for help in taking action against Bryant and May and they helped persuade Besant to work with them to form a strike committee. In convincing a middle-class figure to be more active in her support of the match women, this opened the scope for public campaigning as Besant could use her resources to record the struggles of the workers, which is something she had done previously in an article entitled White Slavery in London, published in June 1888.
Ultimately the strike would commence on the 5th July 1888 and it is recorded that around 1400 female workers would walk out in protest to their conditions. It wasn’t until the 18th that Bryant and May would accept all the demands put forward to them and agree to the formation of a union for the workers. Bryant and May agreed to these demands put forward by the women:
- All fines should be abolished;
- All deductions for paint, brushes, stamps, etc., should be put an end to;
- The 3d. should be restored to the packers;
- The “pennies” should be restored, or an equivalent advantage given in the system of
payment of the boys who do the racking;
- All grievances should be laid directly before the firm, ere any hostile action was
- All the girls to be taken back.
This was a landmark victory for factory workers and showed the power of collective action and protest.
Sarah went on to be elected as a union representative for the Union of Matchworkers and attended the international trade union congress of 1888, an incredible victory for the progress of women in trade unionism as trade unionism at the time was still massively male dominated.
She finally left Bryant and May at the end of 1891 and she married a cabinet maker, Charles Henry Dearman with whom she had six children.
Sarah Chapman is just one of many working-class women who led the fight for better pay and working conditions at the Bryant and May match factory in Bow, London. Many of the stories of these incredible workers have been lost to time which is why it is so important to highlight the stories of those we can find.
- If you would like to read more on the Match-Women’s strike I recommend Louise Raws’ Striking a Light: The Bryant and May Matchwomen and Their Place In history, (London, 2009)
Unknown author, Photo of matchgirls participating in a strike against Bryant & May, London 1888, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Matchgirl_strikers.PNG