British women trade unionists on strike at Bryant & May, 1888

Bryant & May Matchwomen's Strike, 1888

Bryant & May Matchwomen's Strike, 1888

Using Bryant & May's own material, combined with contemporary accounts in personal journals and diaries as well as newspapers, it was possible to reconstruct the events of the strike in detail, and show its seminal importance to a new wave of trades unionism
Louise RawHistorian and author of 'Striking a Light'.

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Trade union history isn't just about men, learn about Irish women trade unionists

The matchwomen who were employed by Bryant and May went on strike over their working conditions in 1888. Their strike is historically significant due to the fact that it was led by working class women, many of whom were immigrants from Ireland. The year of the strike and the women's relationship to London dock workers have also led to the suggestion that their strike may in fact mark the beginning of New Unionism. These papers combine business records from Bryant and May with press coverage of the strike and photographs of the women who were involved.


British women trade unionists on strike at Bryant & May, 1888...

Containing 4,926 pages belonging to 30 documents housed in 6 volumes...

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Early years

Bryant & May grew from modest roots. The founders, William Bryant and Francis May, worked variously as soap and tea...


In 1884 Bryant and May became a public company which was to expand greatly during the remainder of the nineteenth...

The strike

Bryant & May continued to prosper into 1887: the Bryant sons had renounced the Quaker religion, perceived as a serious...


Despite the company relenting to worker demands in 1888, its label as 'the Phossy Jaw firm' continued to prevail. Ten...


  • These records provide a rare insight into the industrial practices and attitudes of the 19th century. Papers on the 'sweating system' cover a range of businesses and industries.
  • Coverage of the strike includes shareholders' reactions to claims made by Wilberforce Bryant as well as reactions to the strike by journalists and politicians.
  • Charles Dickens' journal Household Words features within papers from the early years of Bryant & May. The volume from May in 1852 includes a description of the damage done by phosphorus necrosis.
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