On 15 December 2022 an estimated 100,000 nurses went on strike across hospitals in the UK, marking the first-ever nationwide walkout in the history of the nursing union in the country. This is probably the culmination of a year that has seen a great deal of labour unrest across Britain which has manifested in a series of strikes. From British Rail workers, to postal workers, bus drivers and baggage handlers at airports, and NHS nurses, several essential services have been disrupted and daily activities affected by these.
Labour unions have had a long history in Britain. It is interesting that one of the earliest examples of labour militancy, was in 1888, and was sparked off by young girls who worked in appalling conditions in a match factory. The Match Girls’ Strike as it came to be known was a key moment in British history and a milestone in the labour movement.
This historic development dates back to the late-nineteenth century in London’s East End, an area inhabited by the very poor, with unsanitary living conditions and rife with disease and malnourishment. This area also provided cheap labour for the nearby factories. Among these was the Byrant and May Match Company. The company employed young girls (starting as early as age 13) who worked, standing on their feet, for 14 hours a day, for very meagre wages from which they had to also feed, clothe and house themselves. Their earnings were further cut by fines and deductions for small mistakes such as leaving a match on the work bench. The girls who were forced to work as they came from large and poor families, had hardly anything left to take home. The girls also suffered abuse at the hands of the foremen. Over and above the economic exploitation, was the hazardous work environment.
The production of match sticks involved dipping the sticks, made from poplar or pine wood, into a solution made up of many ingredients including phosphorus, antimony sulphide and potassium chlorate. Within this mixture, it was the white phosphorus that was extremely hazardous for bones and lungs. Inhaling it would cause toothaches, and in the long run, a condition called “phossy jaw” an extremely painful type of bone cancer leading to horrendous disfiguration of the face.
The Company employed around 1400 such women and made huge profits, even as they managed to circumvent some of the basic labour rules of the time. It was fully aware of the impact of phossy jaw but if anyone complained, they simply instructed them to have the tooth extracted. While discontent simmered within the workers, there was little that the girls could do to change the situation; but the glowing embers were getting hotter; until a spark ignited the matches.
Henry Burrows a social activist and Theosophist, and a close friend of Annie Besant, had heard rumours about the work conditions in the match factory. He first made contact with some of the girls who worked in the factory, and Annie Besant met many of them and heard from them about their appalling work conditions. This prompted her to write an article about this titled White Slavery in London. The article was published on 23 June 1888 in a weekly magazine called The Link which was published by Annie Besant.
The powerful matchstick industry had never been challenged like this before, it was outraged, and promptly denied everything. Bryant and May threatened to sue Annie Besant for libel and demanded that their employees sign a statement claiming that the article was untrue. They refused. The company retaliated by sacking one of the workers who they accused of being ring leader. This was the final straw for the Match girls. And so it was that on 5th July 1888, 200 girls and women downed their tools walked out. They marched to the office of The Link and their representatives met Annie Besant. Mrs Besant did not agree with the strike action in principle but she agreed to help them. Her leadership helped to give the girls direction and organization. The ripples spread quickly, and soon about 1,400 workers had walked out in sympathy. 50 girls visited Parliament, to describe their grievances to MPs “in their own words”.
Besant and Burrows proved crucial in organising the campaign which led the women through the streets whilst setting out their demands for an increase in pay and better working conditions. Such a display of defiance against a powerful industrial lobby was met with great public sympathy, and donations for the cause started pouring in. The empathy demonstrated for the plight of working women was also a sign of changing times.
The factory management saw that the bad publicity could harm their interests and they had no choice but to offer improvements in wages and working conditions. This agreement represented a resounding success for the Match girls, who returned to work the next day. Although it would not be until 1908 that the House of Commons finally passed an act prohibiting the use of the deadly white phosphorous in matches.
An important outcome of the Match girls’ strike was the creation of a union for the women to join; this was extremely rare as female workers did not tend to be unionised even into the next century. The Union of Women Matchmakers, which lasted until 1903, was extremely significant, considering that even as late as 1914, less than 10 per cent of female workers were unionised. It also meant that the organisation of the workers did not just disappear after the strike, as had been the case previously.
The Match girls’ success gave the working class a new awareness of their power, and unions sprang up in industries where unskilled workers had previously remained unorganized. As The Link wrote on 4 August 1888 the strike “put new heart into all who are struggling for liberty and justice”. The next year saw the Great Dock Strike, where many of the dock workers were male members of the families of the Match girls. Ultimately, these two strikes led to the formation and growth of the labour movement and Labour Party itself.