Matches made in hell

Issue: 125

Andrew Stone

Louise Raw, Striking a Light: The Bryant and May Matchwomen and their Place in Labour History (Continuum, 2009), £70

In 1888 roughly 1,400 mainly young women match workers went on strike at the Bryant and May factories in east London. The conventional explanation goes something like this: middle class socialist Annie Besant wrote an article in the Link newspaper, denouncing what she described as “White Slavery in London”, the “slaves” being the matchgirls. They were suffering from poverty pay, unjust fines, and toxic conditions that led to the debilitating “phossy jaw” (disfiguring and sometimes fatal phosphorous poisoning). The management at Bryant and May then began to bully the workers to deny Besant’s account, so the match workers came to her for help and she organised a strike, which was ultimately successful. However, this was a relatively isolated dispute over very specific “bread and butter” issues with little of the wider significance of the organisation of the gas workers or the Great Dock Strike in the advent of New Unionism.

In this well-conceived and researched re-evaluation of the match workers’ strike Louise Raw contends that the above account is flawed and misleading; that the historical image of the workers is clouded by gendered class preconceptions, and that their action helped to inspire the upsurge of 1889, which provided a radical challenge to the insular “craft unionism” that had held sway since the defeat of Chartism. She places them in the context of their East End community and tries to rediscover their authentic voice.

This is no small task. Annie Besant has virtually monopolised the attention of historians studying this dispute. She was a Fabian who had gained notoriety by leaving her violent clergyman husband and was convicted of obscene libel for publishing a guide to birth control. Raw summarises Besant’s many incarnations as “fervent Christian, secularist, atheist, Malthusian, socialist, Theosophist, and advocate of Indian independence”. It is perhaps unsurprising that her life has overshadowed the stories of the matchwomen themselves, but it nonetheless does them a grave disservice.

As Raw ably demonstrates, the strike was not orchestrated by Besant—in fact, she counselled against it in the same issue of the Link in which her exposé appeared. Her stated intention was to provoke not a strike, but a consumer boycott campaign that would embarrass Bryant and May into reforms. Even after the sacking of some workers Besant initially reported her somewhat paternalistic regret at the solidarity offered by the matchwomen to their dismissed colleagues: “We could have managed to maintain, till they got work, a few discharged for giving information, but we can’t support 1,400 women.”

Raw argues that the image of the match workers as passive victims was encouraged both by their supporters and their opponents, in line with ideological stereotypes about “proper” gender roles. Opponents portrayed them as ill-educated but essentially benign girls duped by socialist agitators. Supporters denied this manipulation but invoked a similar image of the young women, encouraging them to be seen as objects of pity (reminiscent of Hans Christian Anderson’s tragic “Little Match Girl”), to shame the Quaker-founded, Liberal-supporting Bryant and May for their abuse.

The lack of autobiographical accounts by the match workers themselves is a frustrating barrier to challenging the demeaning assumptions underlying these characterisations. However, Raw uses several methods to sketch a credible alternative. She finds earlier examples of worker resistance, notably to a statue of William Gladstone erected by their boss at their expense, which to this day is sometimes daubed with red paint in memory of the blood they symbolically smeared on its hands.

Perhaps most centrally for her thesis, Raw discovers that Bryant and May had identified five “troublemakers” prior to the strike, all of whom subsequently formed part of the strike committee. Although ideally we would have accounts from these militants themselves, Raw was able to locate some descendants with memories that reinforce the view that the match workers were able to think and act in their own class interest.

While rejecting the view of “socialist manipulation”, Raw is clear that the working class East End was a highly politicised milieu in which community solidarity and street protests were commonplace. She expands upon John Charlton’s It Just Went Like Tinder in stressing the role Irish republicanism played in the formation of this radicalism. She uses the strike register and the electoral roll to suggest that most of the match workers were of Irish descent. This was also true of the dockers of the time, and Raw uses the same method to show that the two groups of workers were family, friends and neighbours. This helps to build a picture of the match workers as among the vanguard of New Unionism, rather than a curious precursor. This is supported by the steady increase in strike activity in late 1888 and early 1889, and was attested to by dockers’ leaders Ben Tillett and Tom Mann. Such credit has, Raw points out, been hidden not so much from history as by history, with the matchwomen visible but patronised, consigned to what EP Thompson famously described as “the enormous condescension of posterity”.

Despite occasional repetitiveness and a slight tendency to be overcritical of fellow Marxists, this is a book that deserves the opportunity to overturn this traditional interpretation. It was encouraging to see that the BBC History magazine seems to agree, having made Striking a Light its book of the month and given Raw a feature article. It is to be hoped that Continuum decides to release a more affordable paperback edition soon so its insights can be read more widely.