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

Bryant & May Matchwomen's Strike, 1888; an Introduction


1. Provenance and relevance of material »

2. The Bryant & May story »

3. 1888: the Matchwomen's Strike »

4. Phosphorus Necrosis »

5. The Matchwomen and Annie Besant »

6. 'The victory of the girls?is complete' »

7. After 1888 »

8. To cite this resource »


Provenance and relevance of material

Much of the material herein is taken from the records of matchmaking firm, Bryant & May. The firm's papers were initially deposited with the Hackney Archives Department, and held at the Rose Lipman Library. The archive was moved in 2013 to the C.L.R. James Library in Dalston. The Bryant & May company archive is extensive and diverse, with material dating back to the 1820s. The current author began studying the company's papers in the course of research into an 1888 strike by matchwomen at Bryant & May's 'Fairfield Road' factory in Bow, London. This research would uncover the true significance of the strike to British labour history. Historians had previously viewed it as minor, and orchestrated by politically-motivated outsiders: neither conclusion would stand up to examination. 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, 'New Unionism', which swept the country from 1888, and was the foundation of the modern labour movement and the Labour Party. This collection also includes the current author's own papers and interview notes with descendants of the matchwomen.

The Bryant & May story

In 1839, two Quaker businessmen, William Bryant and Francis May, became business partners. Bryant was the youngest son of a starch manufacturer from Devon, and worked for the Plymouth Excuse Service in his youth. He converted from Methodism to join the Religious Society of Friends (the 'Quakers') in 1832. British law from the seventeenth century onwards excluded Quakers from several of the professions, including medicine, the military, law and the clergy. Although being 'in trade' was not considered entirely respectable in the 1800s, a number of Quaker men went into business. Clark's, Rowntree's, Lloyd's and Cadbury's are famous examples of Quaker-founded firms which rose to prominence during the century. The importance of social justice is a central tenet of Quakerism, and firms like Cadbury's had reputations for dealing more equitably with both workforce and customers than might necessarily be the case in business. Francis May was born into a Quaker family. Apprenticed to a grocer in Essex in his youth, by 1824 he had set himself up as an independent tea-dealer at Bishopsgate Without in the City of London. How the pair first met is not recorded, but by 1844 May was sole consignee for some of Bryant's products. In 1843 the first business to bear the name Bryant & May, a provision merchant, was established in London.

Their move into match-making was gradual. In the 1840s, few matches were made in Britain. Some, generally not of the best quality, were produced in small factories and workshops, but the majority were imported from Austria, Germany and Sweden. One of the largest Swedish factories, at Jönköping in the province of Småland, had been established in 1848 by brothers Carl and Johan Lundström. In 1850, Carl Lundström visited England to seek out new customers. After several false starts, Lundström met with May and Bryant in Tooley Street. He noted the sober Quaker clothing of the two men, and the gentle manner of May in contrast to the sterner Bryant. The men placed their first order with him that same day. Orders steadily increased over time, until Bryant & May were effectively Lundströms' sole British agents. Then British demand began to exceed supply, until in 1855 May took out a British patent on a design based on Lundström's specification. In 1861 Bryant & May leased the Fairfield Works at Bow, which consisted of three disused factories. Initially, the company continued to use splints imported from Sweden, and still imported and distributed some Lundström matches until 1902.

Archival material on Bryant & May's businesses includes partnership papers, as well as handwritten letters from May to Bryant. These track the development of personal as well as business ties, with May addressing Bryant affectionately throughout and as 'thee', in Quaker tradition. Later letters on match manufacture demonstrate that Bryant was aware of, and seeking to avoid, the toxicity of (white) phosphorus. The firm would later become notorious for exposing workers unnecessarily to phosphorus particles, and attempting to conceal incidences of the necrosis that resulted ? a grisly industrial disease. Family notes on the founders also touch on a rift between the two men which severed their connection. This seems to have related to a disagreement over the introduction of increasingly hard-line business practices, and would precipitate May's withdrawal from the firm. The primacy of Bryant, and later of his sons, ushered in ever-more aggressive business practices, which would effectively lay the foundations for one of the most important industrial disputes of the era.

1888: the Matchwomen's Strike

By 1888, Bryant & May was at a peak of status and influence. The largest British match manufacturer, it was now a global player of importance to both home and export markets. Both founders were deceased with William Bryant's sons now at the helm. The firm had floated on the Stock Exchange in 1884; within 4 years shares were providing a 20% return for shareholders, many of whom were Liberal MP's and clergymen. The Bryant sons took a very keen interest in public relations, and, as the archives show, kept a weather eye on what was said and written about them, reacting strongly to anything they felt was detrimental to their reputation. The Bryants had assiduously forged friendships within the Liberal government, even erecting a statue to William Gladstone on the Bow Road: this was funded by compulsory subscription from the workforce, to the marked lack of enthusiasm of the latter. They also seem to have renounced the Quaker religion of their father. The drive for profit saw wages forced down and a system of fines imposed on workers - in contravention of the Factory Acts - for a range of infringements, including having dirty feet. In 1887 Wilberforce Bryant, in overall charge, had purchased Stoke Park in Buckinghamshire, one of the most expensive Palladian mansions in the country. It seemed that Bryant & May would carry all before them: but in the summer of 1888, dissension came from an unexpected quarter.

The majority of workers at Bryant & May's Fairfield Works were girls and women. Wilberforce Bryant's evidence to a Parliamentary Commission on Child Labour, included here, shows that some were as young as 8. Contemporaries recalled that the matchwomen were considered to be the 'lowest strata of society', a judgment only partly based on their East End backgrounds (the terms 'East End' and 'East Ender' were freshly coined in the 1880s, originally as insults). The majority of matchworkers were also from the London Irish community. Waves of Irish migration had resulted in tensions between the new-comers and the host population, which were sufficiently pronounced to be remarked upon by Karl Marx. Irish Londoners were also a highly-politicized group, and large demonstrations for Home Rule were a common occurrence in the Victorian East End in particular. At least 1400 workers were employed in the factory at any one time, and thousands more made matchboxes in the surrounding streets and houses, this home work being the lowest-paid work of all.

On the second of July, around 1400 factory-based match-makers walked out of the Fairfield Works and began a strike, the importance neither they nor onlookers could have predicted. Strikes by so-called 'casual' workers (categorized as unskilled and with few employment rights or union protection) were not unusual; but the way in which this dispute played out would be ground-breaking. In a two-week action, the mostly-female strike force completely halted production at Fairfield Road. Forming a strike committee, they held well-organized mass meetings complete with outside speakers on the open ground known as Mile End Waste, and raised and distributed funds to one another. Their activities began to be reported on a day-by-day basis by national as well as local newspapers. Key political figures of the day were drawn into the dispute; records show that Marx's collaborator Friedrich Engels gave to the strike fund (Marx himself had died in 1883). No less a personage than George Bernard Shaw was pressed into service as a clerk for their strike fund register. Matchwomen marched to Parliament, where some of their number met with MPs to discuss their grievances, impressing the politicians with their eloquence and intelligence at a time when few 'respectable' gentlemen would have had dealing with poor East End women - at least, in their working lives. As a result, questions about Bryant & May's practices were asked in the House of Commons. Political pressure and tumbling share prices eventually brought Bryant & May unwillingly to terms, and the strikers' demands ? which included the right to form a union - were met.

This was unexpected. Strikes by those low in the Victorian labour hierarchy rarely ended in victory for the workers. In addition, Bryant & May were immensely powerful and well-connected economic players: their importance to domestic and foreign markets would be acknowledged by successive governments, and policy on occasion modified to take the firm's interests into account. The directors had assiduously cultivated friends in very high places, with the Bryant family in particular becoming powerful individuals in their own right. The workers seemed at the outset considerably out-gunned; their employer's dismissive response to their initial demands seems to confirm that Bryant & May certainly believed this to be the case. Newspaper reports show that news of the surprising outcome spread far and wide, and were not lost on other groups of 'casual' workers. Both locally and further afield, they took their cue from the matchwomen's success, and began to organize themselves into trade unions, often by taking action.

The momentum begun by the matchwomen's action would build to become the New Unionism movement, recognized as the start of modern trade unionism. Broadly speaking, the unions that went before had been mostly concerned with protecting their members' labour price, often by controlling access to their professions. The 'New' unions would embrace wider class and political concerns, and this would ultimately lead to the creation of the Independent Labour Party, the first parliamentary party to dedicate itself to representing the interests of working-class men and women. The matchwomen's strike was therefore a crucial turning-point in British labour history, but its import would not be fully recognized until new research, beginning in late 1990s, uncovered the full forgotten story.

This archive traces the strike from its roots. The first to publicly condemn Bryant & May's business practices in the 1880s was the Reverend W. Adamson, vicar of Old Ford, a parish within which many matchwomen lived. Adamson gave evidence to the House of Lords' Select Committee into the sweating system in 1888, telling the committee about their exceptionally low wages. The company responded furiously, suggesting '?the Revd. Adamson ought to be locked up for three months for making assertions simply based on hearsay.' According to letters from Adamson included here, he received threats from Bryant & May's solicitor. The archive shows that while the firm combatively called the claims 'gross libel' in the press, behind the scenes they were seeking information about the wages paid to box makers, the focus of Adamson's revelations, to discover whether this out-sourced work really was as badly-paid as had been claimed. Also key are letters from Bryant & May to George Shipton of the London Trades Council, who unsuccessfully attempted to negotiate a settlement. The employers agree to meet with them, but also express anger at the interference of socialist agitators, who they say 'misled our work girl and brought about the strike'. They insist that wages are good and the workers' grievances deliberately magnified.

Phosphorus Necrosis

This grisly industrial disease was a source of dread to matchmakers. The Bryant & May workers called it 'the phos' or 'phossy jaw': the jawbone was primarily affected. There was a less toxic alternative to white phosphorus: red phosphorus did not cause the necrosis, but nor could it produce the best-selling 'strike anywhere' matches. Papers in this archive show that Bryant & May were well aware of the existence of the disease, but continued to use white phosphorus due to the popularity of matches made with it. Matters were made more dangerous at Fairfield by the company's failure to provide a separate dining room: legislation in fact required it to do so, as matchmaking was a designated 'dangerous trade'. As matters stood, however, workers would bring bread in from home and set it on their work bench to eat during breaks. This meant that highly-toxic phosphorus particles settled on the food. As Fabian activist and writer Annie Besant would write in an expose: 'Fumes from the phosphorus mix with their poor meal and they eat disease as seasoning to their bread.' In this way the poison gained an easy route into the teeth and gums, where noxious abscesses formed. The face swelled, and the jawbone began to decay, with pieces of bone intermittently working their way out. If the disease progressed it could lead to permanent disfigurement, or an agonizing death from inflammation of the brain and hemorrhaging of the lungs. Despite this, the women tended to try to conceal early signs of the disease, as the foremen would dismiss them on observing these: starvation was a faster and more certain death that even phossy jaw could provide.

The Matchwomen and Annie Besant

Foremost among the 'agitators' Bryant & May blamed for the strike was the aforementioned Annie Besant, a middle-class political activist, writer and journalist, at this time based in the East End and a member of the Fabian Society. A Fabian meeting in June 1888 drew Besant's attention to the low wages and contrastingly high share-holder dividends paid by Bryant & May. Besant records these as 20%, and this was probably accurate: Bryant & May's archive preserves a press clipping from the year before which records 1887 profits at 22.5%. Besant undertook to speak to workers, and interviewed a handful of women as they came off shift, outside the Fairfield Works. Besant would only subsequently realise that she should have been speaking to the home-based box makers - it was actually their low wages that had been quoted at the Fabian meeting. But the sufferings of the factory staff were shocking in themselves, including brutality from foremen, industrial injuries and the dreaded 'phossy jaw'. Besant's findings formed the basis of a hard-hitting expose, entitled 'White Slavery in London', published in her self-produced political paper the Link on Sat 23 June 1888.

The current author read the original article and other extracted pages from the Link in the Bryant & May archives, and noted that whilst history recorded Besant as having orchestrated the strike along with other Fabians for her own political reasons, she in fact called in it only for a consumer boycott; a standard middle-class reforming tactic at this time. On another page of the same edition, she spoke of the folly of attempting to unionize female 'sweated' workers 'like the girls of Bryant & May'. It became clear that her reputation as strike leader warranted further investigation.

The 30th June edition of the Link spoke only of a 'big meeting' which was to be called to discuss the matchwomen's plight. By the 7th July, Besant's paper shows that events had moved beyond her control: with some dismay, she records a visit to her Fleet Street offices from striking matchwomen days into the strike. This was evidently the first the so-called strike leader knew of the dispute. Besant expressed surprise and some dismay at their action, which she viewed as rashly impractical and a tactical error. Besant immediately wrote in the Link that 'The Girls Will Go Back to Work': in fact they did not until their terms had been met. Once their determination became clear, Besant helped to publicize the dispute and to distribute funds. Her final speech to the women announcing the firm's concessions was, however, anything but victorious: she admonished them not to go on strike again. In fact, the Union of Women Matchmakers would take further strike action, after Besant had ceased to be involved.

'The victory of the girls?is complete'

By Friday 13th July, the strike was the subject of a leader in The Star, which reported that shareholders were pressuring Bryant & May. The London Trades Council (LTC) had also become involved: despite previously having 'shunned unskilled workers' , it agreed to lend support once approached, and a committee of matchwomen was formed to liaise with it. However, the LTC found 'the Firm will make no concession'. If the workforce returned to work immediately they would accept the majority back, 'except the ringleaders', otherwise they would replace them. Before long, however, the tide began to return. The Strike Committee successfully blocked an attempt by Bryant & May to break the strike using workers from its Glasgow factories by petitioning the MP for Glasgow, also a shareholder in Bryant & May. Pressure on the company grew further as independent investigators from Toynbee Hall examined Besant's original allegations, and sent their findings to the Times. Besant was vindicated, and further illegal stoppages of wages uncovered. Confronted with these findings, Bryant & May could no longer deny the existence of unjustified deductions and, as The Star reported, admitted that '?the existence of the?as alleged by the girls and denied by them, is in fact correct. The company's directors finally met with a deputation of matchwomen and LTC members on July 16th. After prolonged discussion all parties agreed the following terms to be put to a full meeting of strikers:

1) 'abolition of all fines;

2) abolition of all deductions for paint, brushes, stamps &C;

3) restitution of 'pennies' if the girls do their own racking work, or payments by piece work of the boys employed to do it (the result of this latter will be more than equal to the penny);

4) the packers to have their threepence;

5) all grievances to be taken straight to the managing director without the intervention of the foremen.'

In addition, the company agreed to 'provide a breakfast room for the girls so that the latter will not be obliged to get their meals in the room where they work' and to the formation of a union 'so that future disputes, if any, may be officially laid before the firm'.

After 1888>

By 18th July the Star was enthusing over the workers' 'magnificent victory' as Bryant & May ceded to all their demands, including the taking back of even those women regarded as 'ringleaders'. They also recorded the last distribution of the strike funds on 21st July. The Directors themselves, however, were still ager to present a different view, telling a sympathetic local paper that, '?we have always been ready to give our most careful attention to any complaints brought under our notice, but as a matter of fact there have been no complaints?We have but a friendly feeling towards our workpeople?' The Star, however, expressed no doubt about what had happened or its significance: 'The victory of the girls?is complete. It was won without preparation - without organisation - without funds?a turning point in the history of our industrial development.' The Union of Women Matchworkers, the largest union of women and girls in the country, was formed. The matchwomen's fame spread, as groups of other 'sweated' workers began to organise themselves. The author's research uncovered an example of its direct and immediate impact on unskilled female workers as far away as Ireland. When the news reached some shirtmakers in Derry, they were immediately inspired to approach a local union branch and ask to be allowed to join. The union in turn contacted the Derry Trades Council for advice, and the Derry Trades Council voted to become only the second to admit women and unskilled workers.

An analysis of recorded strikes in Britain directly after the matchwomen's victory also shows a definite upswing in action, with the Times recording more than double the numbers of strikes per quarter in the first half of 1889, after the match strike, than in the first half of 1888, before it. The archive shows that Bryant & May still had a sense of grievance about events, however: in replies to shareholders and business contacts demanding an account, they continue to deny that the workforce had any genuine grievances. Ten years later, after the introduction of compulsory reporting of cases of phosphorous necrosis, the firm was fined for under-reporting, and, as is shown here, condemned as 'the Phossy Jaw firm' by various newspapers. Finally in 1908, the use of white phosphorus was finally banned. Britain was late in its acquiescence to the Berne Convention recommendations which led to the ban, in part because of the might of the match lobby. However, health and safety restrictions on the use of white phosphorus, detailed here, became so onerous that Bryant & May themselves came to support a ban. Many of the 'new unionist' trades unions failed to survive a sustained fight-back by employers, but the matchwomen's did. It also remained independent, until it was absorbed into the General and Municipal Boilermaker's Union (GMB) in 1920.

Bryant & May were never entirely free of association with the strike during their life as a company. Papers from the 1960s, including letters to their solicitor, show the company's frustration at this, as the situation was worsened by modern plays and musicals written about the strike. Correspondence details unsuccessful attempts to have the company name removed from scripts. Finally, their solicitor advised that they should, for better or worse, resign themselves to their place in Britain's industrial history. The company ceased to trade in 1979, by which time the Fairfield Works employed less than 300 workers. As it had prior to 1861, the site remained derelict for some time, until it was bought by developers, and turned into a gated residential community, known as the 'Bow Quarter'. BryMay matches are still made, but by Swedish Match in Stockholm, representing the closing of the circle that began when Carl Lundström had his first meeting with William Bryant and Francis May in 1850.

September 2014.



'The Sweating System: first report from the Select Committee of the House of Lords' Vol xx paper 361, 1888

Bryant, AC cited in Taylor, A (1992) Op Cit p.206


The Star, 18th July 1888

Julia Poynter, 'The London Trades Council and the New Unionism', Dissertation for University of North London (2001), p.45

The Star, July 13th 1888 p.3


The Star, 14th July 1888

The Star, 17th July 1888, in R. Beer, 1979 op cit p.43

The East London Observer, Saturday July 21st 1888, 'The Match Girls' Strike' p.6


The Star 18th July 1888


Acknowledgement of Copyrights:

The publisher acknowledges with thanks the permission granted by Swedish Match to reproduce in digital format documents from the Bryant & May company records. In accordance with UK copyright legislation, attempts have been made to identify and contact the owners of other copyrights in the material published within this archive. In the case of the owners of surviving copyrights whom it has proved impossible to contact, Microform Academic Publishers earnestly request that they write to the Editor at the address below.


To cite this resource:

Louise Raw (2014) Bryant & May Matchwomen's Strike, 1888: an introduction to the British Online Archives edition, Last updated: 10 September 2014.