The matchgirls’ strike of 1888

A landmark victory in working-class history, with much relevance to the many workers today who are once more unorganised and unrepresented by any union.

Proletarian writers

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The strike committee of the Matchmakers' Union.

Proletarian writers

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The matchgirls’ strike of 1888 has a significance that is difficult to put into words. In its physical scale it is unremarkable for the period, but its significance for the future of the British trade union movement was colossal, since the strike redefined the very nature of trade unionism and gave birth to our modern-day general unions.

Background to the strike

It is timely to reflect upon the following words of Tom Mann, written two years before the strike, in which he criticised the old craft unions, with their high contributions and exclusive membership, their well-paid officials and officers.

These ‘old’ trade unionists, so similar to those we see today, had, in their quest for ‘respectability’, entered into direct collaboration with the capitalists and government, abandoning the class struggle and embarking down the path of reformism. They had no desire to abolish the wages system, merely to extract from it concessions for their respective crafts.

Outside of these unions were the vast masses of proletarians, unskilled and unrepresented, with nobody to lead their struggle, and considered by the trade unionists of the day to be ignorant and impossible to organise. Furthermore, ‘official’ unionism was so stagnant it offered nothing to the new masses of industrial workers.

Let all modern-day trade unionists reflect upon the words of Tom Mann, which read as though they were written yesterday:

“To Trade Unionists, I desire to make a special appeal. How long, how long will you be content with the present half-hearted policy of your unions? I readily grant that good work has been done in the past by the unions, but, in Heaven’s name, what good purpose are they serving now? … The true Unionist policy of aggression seems entirely lost sight of; in fact the average unionist of today is a man with a fossilised intellect, either hopelessly apathetic, or supporting a policy that plays directly into the hands of the capitalist exploiter.” (What a compulsory eight-hour working day means to the workers, 1886)

So it was that two years later, growing out of this period of apathy and neglect, the downtrodden labouring masses of East London got up from their knees and used the only weapon the working classes have in their battle with capital – organisation.

The strike took place at a single large factory, owned by Bryant & May in London’s East End. Here, a few thousand girls, many mere children, toiled from 6.30am until 6.30pm. On their return home, many set to work box-making – piecework for the factory that could be done in the home until weariness or hunger made the girls fall asleep.

Conditions of work

Living or working amongst these workers were some radicals who had connections with the early socialist organisations, including the Fabian journalist Annie Besant, who popularised their plight in her newspaper, The Link. Annie Besant used her contacts in the factory to expose the appalling conditions in an article entitled White slavery in London.

The factory conditions were horrific. Poor ventilation made the phosphorus fumes lethal, and ‘phossy jaw’, a form of bone cancer, ran rife. In addition to the chemical hazards, the employers were cruel and draconian. Girls were heavily fined for talking, going to the toilet, dropping matches and being late.

Yellowing of the skin, bald patches and frequent loss of teeth were some of the common ailments the women and children endured as the result of having no separate room in which to eat their food and consequently ingesting the phosphorous along with their meals.

The social status of the matchgirls was described at the time as being rated somewhere below prostitution. (See The Great Dock Strike 1889 by the TGWU, with a foreword by Ron Todd)

In Victorian society, the matchgirls were also victims of the bourgeoisie’s own perverted sense of morality. Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) were a criminal offence subject to imprisonment, and the Poor Law’s treatment of single mothers remained sadistically cruel and twisted; a departure from the evils described in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist had still to be made.

Although the conditions were deplorable, organisation amongst this section of the working class was pretty well nonexistent. With no general trade unions in existence, the voice of the unskilled workforce only gradually became heard in the preceding years during marches of the unemployed and through early socialists like Henry Hyndman.

Three weeks on strike

In May 1888, the matchgirls took action and decided to strike after Annie Besant’s three informants were sacked.

Instead of aimless rioting or the smashing of machinery, the Bryant & May workers understood that the most effective way to achieve their demands would be through the withdrawal of their labour. This maturity had no doubt come about after direct participation in the riots and street fighting of previous years, the events of Bloody Sunday (1887), and the demonstrations for free speech during 1887, which were brutally broken up by the police.

Some recognition must also be given to the role played by Hyndman and the early socialists, who had begun to inculcate a socialist ideology amongst the poorest sections of the working class, despite the ideological limitations that were to turn these men in the fullness of time into pawns of the bourgeoisie.

“During 1888, the years of propagandist effort on the part of socialists, urging the people to bestir themselves and try to find a way out of the terrible poverty that existed, were beginning to show results. The first considerable movement came from the women and girls employed at Bryant & May’s match factory at Bow. Kindly-disposed persons had written about the woeful conditions under which many of the girls worked, resulting in the terrible disease known as ‘phossy jaw’, and other serious troubles, it being argued that better methods might be applied that might materially minimise these evils.

“In addition, the wages were shamefully low. No response to appeals from the workers was made by the firm. Lists of shareholders were published showing that a considerable percentage of these were clergymen; but nothing brought any change for the better until the women and girls went on strike.

“This immediately attracted public attention, and Mrs Annie Besant – at that time devoting her whole energies to the Socialist movement, and doing splendid work as a member of the now superseded London School Board – at once gave close personal attention to the girls on strike. She was ably assisted by Mr Herbert Burrows, the girls were soon organised in a trade union.

“Their case was conducted with great skill. A club was formed, which was used as an educational and social centre, and a spirit of hopefulness characterised the proceedings. The girls won. This had a stimulating effect upon other sections of workers, some of whom were also showing signs of intelligent dissatisfaction.” (Tom Mann, Memoirs, 1923, p58)

The strike itself lasted for a total of three weeks, during which the girls endured great hardship and suffering (they did not, after all, have access to welfare state benefits, to savings, or, for that matter, to credit). They established a strike fund and, with the support of some trade unions and radical clubs, they managed to face down their employer.

New unionism

The strike had involved 3,000 workers in total. The victimised girls were reinstated, the workers had been victorious and a new path was blazed – an example to all the other general labourers that, if they stood united in withdrawing their labour, they too could improve their conditions and stand up to any abuse.

The girls at Bryant & May had set in motion a trend towards a ‘new’ unionism – toward the organisation of the broad masses of proletarians into trade unions of general labourers.

As these new unions sprang up in the years that followed, new leaders of the working class came to the fore: men like Tom Mann, Will Thorne, John Burns and Ben Tillett. These men were instrumental in the creation of the National Union of Gas Workers and General Labourers, which waged a successful struggle for an eight-hour day.

The next year, 1889, saw the great dock strike, and a new era had begun. The proletariat was once more in the ascendancy. In 1892, Engels highlighted this new mass movement as the most important sign of the times:

“That immense haunt of human misery [the East End] is no longer the stagnant pool it was six years ago. It has shaken off its torpid despair, it has returned to life, and has become the home of what is called the ‘new unionism’, that is to say, of the organisation of the great mass of ‘unskilled’ workers. This organisation may to a great extent adopt the forms of the old unions of ‘skilled’ workers, but it is essentially different in character.

“The old unions preserve the tradition of the times when they were founded, and look upon the wages system as a once for all established, final fact, which they can at best modify in the interests of their members. The new unions were founded at a time when the faith of the eternity of the wages system was severely shaken; their founders and promoters were socialists either consciously or by feeling; the masses, whose adhesion gave them strength, were rough, neglected, looked down upon by the working class aristocracy; but they had this immense advantage, that [em]their minds were virgin soil[/em], entirely free from the inherited ‘respectable’ bourgeois prejudices which hampered the brains of the better situated ‘old’ unionists.

“And thus we see these new unions taking the lead of the working-class movement generally and more and more taking in tow the rich and proud ‘old’ unions.” (F Engels, Preface to the English edition of The Condition of the Working Class in England, 1892)

In our struggle today, it is vitally important that we educate the working class about the victories that British workers have scored in the past. If we fight the class-collaborationist attitude of today’s union leaders and Labour party apologists, we can again win gains for the masses of unrepresented and downtrodden workers, and, in so doing, train many more fighters for the cause of proletarian revolution.