On this day in history : 5th July 1888 – Three matchgirls are fired from Bryant and May, accused of telling lies to a journalist about their working conditions; 1,400 female workers go on strike….

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Matchgirls striking – Public domain

The mood amongst the Bryant and May factory workers had been darkening for a number of years…. It was a time when employers could do pretty much as they pleased…. Employees could be fined for being late, or even for talking…. In the early 1880s boss Theodore Bryant had even deducted a shilling from each pay packet to purchase a statue of William Gladstone…. Such was the disgust, that at its unveiling in 1882 some workers attended the ceremony to throw stones at it…. Some strike action was taken between 1881 and 1886 – but it had little effect….

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Workers in a match factory (possibly Bryant &; May) – The Graphic – Public domain

Conditions at the factory in Bow, East London were appalling…. Girls as young as 12 worked long hours for very little pay….and the work was dangerous…. Lack of ventilation meant the dreaded ‘phossy jaw’ was almost inevitable….

The phosphorous fumes created during the manufacturing process caused a type of cancer which led to facial deformities…. Phossy jaw is a painful swelling in the jaw that produces a foul smelling pus…. the jaw would then turn green and black as the bone rotted away…. The condition would be fatal without surgery….

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Phossy jaw – Public domain

In 1888 journalist and campaigner for women’s welfare and rights, Annie Besant, wrote a radical article entitled ‘White Slavery in London’…. She told of the terrible conditions in the factory – respectable Victorians would have been shocked when they learned of the appalling working environment these workers had to endure…. The Bryant and May bosses were furious and singled out three girls they believed were responsible for talking to Besant….and they were sacked….

However, the rest of the match girls decided to take action….1,400 workers went on strike which in turn effected some 3,000 Bryant and May staff…. For three weeks production came to a standstill….strike headquarters were established and workers had to rely on donations from the public as there was no strike pay or indeed benefits available then…. The public showed their support by not buying Bryant and May matches…. Rallies and marches were organised and there was a visit to Parliament to speak with MPs….

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Clashing with police at a match strikers’ march – Public domain

The bosses threatened to relocate the factory but finally after three weeks gave in to the workers’ demands….and the 3,000 returned to work – fining had ended and the three girls were re-employed….

Things did not end there though…. On the 27th of July 1888 the first meeting of the Union of Women Match Makers was held…. Premises were secured using money left over from the strike fund and the union grew….eventually being renamed so men could join too….

1889 saw a sharp increase in strike action, such as the Great Dock Strike…. Many workers had gained confidence because of the victory of the match girls….

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Image credit : The Wellcome Collection CC BY-4.0

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