Little Match Girls

Now, as Yr. Humble Chronicler, I don’t like to make this blog all about me. This isn’t LiveJournal. Plus I don’t want to give too much personal info away. Groupies and that. You know how it is. But today I have had an appalling day. For a start, I’m not even supposed to be writing this, but the thing I was going to be doing fell through. More importantly, my day at work absolutely wrecked me. Also, my tooth hurts.

Wait a second… bad teeth? Terrible days at work? That gives me an idea for an entry!

Yes, there have been some jobs in history that make even the dreaded McDonalds look like an attractive option. The one I’m about to talk about was not the worst in London, but I’d probably put it in the top 10. Below “mudlark” but above “being Gordon Brown.”

In the 19th century, labour was cheap and expendable. The Industrial Revolution brought millions from the country to the cities. Those made redundant by the mechanisation of agriculture sought their fortune in the mills and factories. As a consequence, the industrialists could do more-or-less as they pleased. Sackings for minor offences? Sure, why not? Crap pay? Yes please!

This was painfully obvious in the case of the largely female-staffed Bryant & May match factory in Bow in the 1880s. Conditions were appalling. Your working day was fourteen hours. There were no facilities for workers. Workers had to pay for materials and were docked pay for the most trivial reasons (for instance, leaving a single match on their workbench). Even then, the pay was dreadful. There was no complaints procedure, the foremen providing a barrier between the workforce and the bosses and dealing out the occasional smack. They were on their feet literally all day, with only two short breaks. And then there was the occupational health question. And I’m not just talking about the danger of mangling a hand in the machinery, although that could happen too.

You see, the cheapest (and therefore most popular) matches were made using white phosphorus. This was a highly toxic material. If inadvertently swallowed (as happened to several children whose mothers brought their work home with them) it could be deadly. It could also result in a condition known as “phossy jaw,” as demonstrated by the fellow on the right. This occurred when phosphorus vapours entered the jawbone via tooth cavities – and how good do you think the dental plan was for 19th century factory workers? Once inside the jaw, it set to work killing the bone and causing it to decompose, giving off a pretty green glow as it did so. Untreated, it would poison the organs and kill. The only treatment was to remove the bone. Suddenly I don’t feel so bad about cutting my finger on a staple.

In 1888, writer and activist Annie Besant (pictured left) published an article entitled ‘White Slavery in London’ denouncing the dreadful conditions and tyrannical management. The tyrannical management’s response was to demand that all the workers sign a declaration that no, it was really like Willy Wonka’s factory or something round here. The workers decided to say “Screw that.” Management said, “Hmm, perhaps we have been a little harsh…” No, I’m joking, management responded by sacking a worker more-or-less just because they could.

And this brought down a world of hurt. The women decided that enough was enough and went on strike, approaching Annie Besant for support. In desperation, management tried to appease them by reinstating the sacked worker, but the match girls’ blood was up. They demanded improvements to the working conditions.

And unfortunately for Messrs. Bryant and May, the media took the girls’ side, with some even raising money for the strikers. Parliament got involved, the women airing their grievances directly to MPs. Besant’s experience as an activist came in handy for organising the resistance.

Eventually, management came to terms. Fines would not be so easily imposed, workers would be allowed to complain direct to management and the workers were to be given a separate, non-phosphorus-filled break room. Later, and very importantly, a dentist would be introduced on site.

There’s some evidence to suggest that hypocrisy played a part in the settlement. William Bryant was a Quaker and a liberal. The newspapers showing him up as co-owner of a sweatshop was not exactly good publicity, and the more attention he got, the less he liked it.

The strike remains as a major event in the history of trade unionism and women’s rights. Indeed, the strike resulted in the first women’s trade union in Britain. In 1910, white phosphorus would be banned from the industry altogether in Britain.

The factory, seen right, would go on for another ninety years before closing in 1979. It’s now, perhaps somewhat ironically, an upmarket housing estate called the “Bow Quarter.” John Barrowman used to live there, you know. Barrowman…

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1 Comment

Filed under 19th century, 20th Century, Buildings and architecture, East End and Docklands, History, London, Medicine, Notable Londoners, Politics

One response to “Little Match Girls

  1. Max

    Bill Owen (aka Compo from “Last of the summer wine”) wrote a musical about the strike back in the sixties and to my everlasting embarrassment I performed in an amateur production many, many years ago. Ah, the follies of youth, there was a girl involved obviously …….

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