In the summer of 1888, fourteen hundred workers, mostly young women and girls, walked out of Bryant and May’s match factory in Bow, East London — and, effectively, into the history books.

When it came to popular appeal, the strike had it all: an almost fairy-tale-like struggle between rich, powerful factory owners, and desperately poor workers with all the photogenic waif-likeness of Hans Christian Andersen’s martyred "Little Match Girl," a staple of the Victorian nursery.

Before the strike the matchworkers were regarded as part of the "lowest strata of society": during it they met MPs, and were the subject of editorials in The Times. After it, they formed the largest union of women workers in the country. [Raw 1]

Decorated initial M

atch-making was a "sweated trade" with a largely female workforce. Wages were low, hours long, and heavy fines were imposed on those whose work was deemed unsatisfactory. In addition there were severe health complications, such as “phossy jaw,” a cancer caused by the white phosphorus used for the match heads. Several factories were established to produce match boxes and their contents, one of the largest and the best known being Bryant and May who had premises in Bow, east London. Trade was good and big profits were made but strikes here in 1881, 1885 and 1886 for better conditions did not have satisfactory outcomes. In June 1888 the social activist, Annie Besant, wrote an article which received wide publicity and prompted another strike. This time the workers were successful in getting improvements in conditions and better pay, but the use of white phosphorus was not banned in England until 1910.

Left: "Members of the Matchmakers' Union" (Besant, facing p. 338). Right: "Strike Committee of the Matchmakers' Union" (Besant, facing p. 336).

Improvements in conditions: excerpt from Montagu Williams's London: Down East and Up West (1894)

There are six or seven match manufactories in the East End, and they give employment to some thousands of women and girls. Until within a few years ago this industry was associated with a system of slavery of the very worst description; but I am happy to say that since the great strike at Bryant and May's in 1888, matters have considerably improved.

This firm, or, rather, company, is the largest of the kind in London, and, in the busy seasons, employs about twelve hundred hands. In 1877 the business paid a dividend at the rate of twenty-five per cent., and at that time the hours of work were from six a.m. to six p.m. in the summer, and from eight a.m. to six p.m. in the winter, an hour being allowed for dinner and half an hour for breakfast. The earnings of the great majority of the girls were from four shillings to eight shillings a week. Strict discipline was maintained, and penalties were inflicted for the slightest breach of the regulations. If, for instance, a girl arrived at the factory five minutes behind time, she was frequently shut out for half a day; and for any little act of untidiness, such as omitting to clear away the litter from under the bench, a fine was imposed.

The business is now much more humanely managed, and the labour of the workers has been considerably lightened by the introduction of improved machinery.

Next to Bryant and May's comes Bell's, where some five hundred girls and women are engaged; and the Salvation Army have a match manufactory which gives employment to about sixty persons. On visiting these establishments, you will find that the women are very contented and cheerful. They work with great rapidity which is but natural, for they are paid by results. Men are employed in mixing the materials into which the matches are dipped; the girls prepare the wood and make the boxes.

Speaking generally, the factory hands are a healthy class. One woman who was interviewed had worked continuously in the same establishment for twenty years, and she was as robust as could be wished. Nevertheless, it is a mistake to suppose that phosphorus poisoning is a thing of the past. There is still a terrible amount of the disease, which is termed "phossy jaw." The first sign of the disorder is toothache, accompanied by swollen cheeks. As soon as these symptoms appear the sufferer has several teeth removed, in order, if possible, to save the entire jaw.

The factories are fairly well ventilated, and I am bound to say that, to all appearances, the comfort of the girls and women is studied by their employers. I speak, of course, only of those factories which I myself inspected; whether or no there is equal consideration shown in other establishments of the same class I cannot say.

I have already described what wages were paid before the strike, and I will now explain what wages have been paid since that event. The younger girls, that is to say, the novices fresh from school, are allowed, while they are learning their trade, four shillings and sixpence a week standing wages; though I understand that in some of the smaller firms they receive no remuneration at all. The ordinary hands now make from seven to ten shillings a week, which is a great advance on former figures.

I understand that the Salvation Army have a slightly higher scale of payment than the purely business firms, but it must be remembered that they make only one kind of matches, the "safety"; and I was informed by the manager of one of the other estaurshments that, if his firm had the same demand for those matches as the Salvation Army, they could pay the same rate of wages. [12-14]

Williams on match-box making, still unregulated

It should be understood that box-making is a very important branch of the industry, and is largely carried on by the girls and their parents in iheir own homes. During the few years that I was at Worship Street and Thames Police Courts, many cases of matchbox-makers in distress came before me, and I was consequently enabled to obtain exact information with reference to their earnings. The payment is at the rate of twopence farthing, twopence halfpenny, and twopence three-farthings per gross, the workers finding not only their own paste, but also the twine used for tying up the bundles of boxes.

Matchbox-makers are to be found in nearly every house and, indeed, in nearly every room in all the courts and alleys in the immediate vicinity of Pereira Street. The materials are generally supplied by middle men, or "sweaters," whose existence as connecting links between employer and employed it is very hard to justify. The children of the matchbox- makers are set to work with knife and paste the moment they return from the Board School. They have no play, and Heaven help them! very little time for rest. At early dawn the "skillets," as the bundles of wood are called, are brought out, and the whole family is soon at work. [14]

Links to related material

Illustrations, and extracts from Williams, added by Jacqueline Banerjee. The illustration of Hans Christian Andersen, top right, is by Isa Bowman, and comes from the Wellcome Collection, where it is identified as being in the public domain. Click on all the illustrations to enlarge them, and to see the sources of the other two illustrations. You may use these images without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the person who scanned the image and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.


[Illustration source] Besant, Annie Wood. Annie Besant: My Autobiography. London: Fisher Unwin, 1893. Internet Archive. Contributed by the University of California Libraries. Web. 12 November 2021.

" The Match Workers Strike Fund Register." The Union Makes Us Strong: TUC History Online. [This gives a useful excerpt from John Charlton's It just went like tinder; the mass movement and New Unionism in Britain 1889: a socialist history (Redwords, 1999)]. Web. 12 November 2021.

Pécastaing-Boissière, Muriel, et Marie Terrier's Annie Besant (1847-1933): La lutte et la quête. Paris: Éditions Adyar, 2015. [Review in French]

Raw, Louise. Striking a Light: The Bryant and May Matchwomen and Their Place in History. London: Bloomsbury, 2009.

Williams, Montagu Stephen. Round London, down East and up West. London: Macmillan, 1894. Internet Archive, from a copy in Robarts Library, University of Toronto. Web. 13 November 2021.

12 November 2021