Annie Besant & The London Matchgirls Strike of Bow

When J was living in Leytonstone, East London, not Streatham where he is now, I often used to pass on my bike a plaque about the Matchgirls strike and I didn’t know too much about it.

After looking into the history I even discovered that one my family members offered to assist them in lending out a meeting hall!

We know that the film ‘Made in Dagenham’ is doing its rounds but what about this strike too?

Annie Besant was the extraordinary lady, interested in women’s rights who was appalled at the match factory’s appalling conditions.

A little more on Annie from Wiki:-

Annie was born on 1 October 1847 and died in 1933 aged 85.

She was a prominent Theosophist, women’s rights activist, writer and orator and supporter of Irish and Indian self rule.

In 1873 she married Frank Besant and moved to London where she became a prominent speaker for the National Secular Society and writer and a close friend of Charles Bradlaugh. In 1877 they were prosecuted for publishing a book by birth control campaigner Charles Knowlton. The scandal made them famous and Bradlaugh was elected MP for Northampton in 1880.

Annie became involved with Union organisers including the Bloody Sunday demonstration and the London matchgirls strike of 1888 and a leading speaker for the Fabian Society and the (Marxist) Social Democratic Federation and was elected to the London School Board for Tower Hamlets, topping the poll even though few women were qualified to vote at that time.

She travelled to India and in 1898 helped establish the Central Hindu College in India.

After the war she continued to campaign for Indian independence until her death in 1933″.

and here is a little about the strike:

The strike was caused by the poor working conditions in the match factory,Bryant and May. (who were both Quakers) including fourteen-hour work days, poor pay, excessive fines, and the severe health complications of working with white phosphorus, such as phossy jaw, but was sparked by the dismissal of one of the workers on or about 2 July 1888.

Annie Besant had interested herself in the situation with her friend Herbert Burrows and had published an article “White Slavery in London” in her weekly paper in 1888. This had angered the Bryant & May management who tried to get their workforce to sign a paper contradicting it, which they refused to do. This led to the dismissal of a worker (on some other pretext), which set off the strike.

Initiated by the workers themselves, the strike started immediately and 1,400 women and girls seem to have been on strike by the end of the first day. The management immediately offered to reinstate the sacked employee, but the women then demanded other concessions, particularly in relation to the unfair fines which were deducted from their wages. A deputation of women went to the management but were not satisfied. By 6 July the whole factory had had to stop work, on which day about a hundred of the women went to see Besant and to ask for her assistance. It has often been said that she started or led the strike but this is not so. She knew nothing of it until the deputation called to see her and was at first rather dismayed by the precipitate action they had taken and by the number of women who were now out of work with no means of support

A strike fund was set up and some newspapers collected donations from readers. The women and girls also solicited contributions. Members of the Fabian Society including George Bernard Shaw, Sidney Webb and Graham Wallas were involved in the distribution of the cash collected.

Meetings were held by the strikers and Besant spoke at some of them. Charles Bradlaugh MP spoke in parliament and a deputation of matchwomen went there to meet three MPs on 11 July. There was much publicity. The London Trades Council became involved. At first the management were firm, but Bryant was a leading liberal and nervous of the publicity. Besant helped at meetings with the management and terms were formulated at a meeting on 16 July, in accordance with which it was offered that fines, deductions for cost of materials and other unfair deductions should be abolished and that in future grievances could be taken straight to the management without having to involve the foremen, who had prevented the management from knowing of previous complaints. Also, very importantly, meals were to be taken in a separate room, where the food would not be contaminated with phosphorus. These terms were accepted and the strike ended

Besant and others continued to campaign against the use of white phosphorus in matches.

The Bryant and May factory received bad publicity from these events, and in 1901 they announced that their factory no longer used white phosphorus.

In 1908 the British House of Commons passed an Act prohibiting the use of white phosphorus in matches after 31 December 1910. This was the United Kingdom’s implementation of the 1906 Berne Convention on the prohibition of white phosphorus in matches.

In the 1960s, the British actor Bill Owen collaborated with songwriter Tony Russell to create a musical about the 1888 match-girls strike, eponymously named The Matchgirls.”

A song from the Musical, ‘This Life of Mine’:


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