Book review: Striking a Light, the Bryant and May Matchwomen

Louise Raw reveals the connection of these militant young East End strikers to new unionism, socialism and Irish republicanism.

The Matchgirls’ strike committee of 1888. Louise Raw’s research places their successful strike at the heart of the militant new unionism movement that Engels viewed with such enthusiasm.

Book by Louise Raw; foreword by Sheila Rowbotham. (Continuum, 2009)


Books are generally reviewed when they first come out, but Proletarian has no need to follow such a bourgeois convention, not when it comes across a very useful historical study, which Louise Raw’s Striking a Light most certainly is.

That is not to say it is perfect, but its defects are peripheral, while its core analysis of the 1888 Bryant and May’s matchgirls’ strike demolishes the standard myths of the strike with a precision that a US drone can only dream of. [1]

For those readers who know nothing of the Bryant and May strike, let alone its myths, the usual tale told is that on 23 June 1888, the then famous secularist-malthusian turned fabian-cum-‘socialist’ Mrs Annie Besant published an article in the small circulation The Link denouncing the terrible working conditions, low wages and illegal system of fines prevailing at Bryant and May (a hugely successful company whose shareholders included the famous bourgeois feminist Mrs Millicent Garrett).

The Link was not any kind of socialist paper: Besant had set it up herself with WT Stead, maverick (even oddball) editor of the liberal Pall Mall Gazette. Stead had unhealthy obsessions with prostitution, friendship with tsarist Russia and Gladstone’s ‘betrayal of General Gordon’ (not necessarily in that order).

The standard myth about the matchgirls’ strike is that, inspired by Mrs Annie Besant’s discovery of their plight, some 1,400 matchgirls went on strike and, with the help of a ‘strike fund’ set up by the Fabians and with Mrs Annie Besant as their strike leader, the matchgirls marched after a three-week strike to total victory.

The strike fund was real and was definitely organised by Annie Besant with WT Stead and Fabian help. However, it was not crucial to the strike’s success. As so few of the matchgirls (if any) were sole breadwinners, they could all have survived the three weeks of the strike with family help. [2]

Although the Bryant and May strike only preceded the massive London dock and gas workers’ strikes by one year, historians generally place the matchgirls’ strike outside new unionism, which is an issue Louise Raw deals with in depth.[3]

But first, using hitherto neglected contemporary sources, she demolishes the great myth of Mrs Annie Besant leading the strike.

Quite the contrary. From her first appearance on the public stage as a militant atheist, and all through her ‘socialist’ phase, Mrs Annie Besant was always fiercely opposed to strike action. In her Link article she called for a consumer boycott against Bryant and May. In another article, she even derided the very idea of a strike:

“How could a union be formed among the girls at Bryant and May? … Suppose a union was formed and the girls went on strike; the foreman would simply announce that so many hands were required at so much an hour, and their doors would be besieged within hours.” [4]

So much for industrial action. Instead, Annie Besant sought to shame the shareholders. How could they accept such large dividends when the matchgirls worked twelve-hour days? Very easily, as it happened.

Instead of Mrs Annie Besant leading the strike, Louse Raw argues that it was instigated by the matchgirls themselves. Using information from the Bryant and May company archives, she names those identified by the company as strike leaders when the matchgirls set up a twelve-strong strike committee. [5]

Raw attempts to trace the lives of the women named in the archive, both before and after the strike, and has discovered that most of them were related to dockers, either as “daughters, sisters and sweethearts” (generally not wives, as wives quickly had children and, if and when they had to work, they preferred to work at home – if the word ‘preferred’ can be used about such a dismal, no-choice ‘choice’).

Casual dock workers often became gas workers in the winter when dock work was slack, and the gas companies needed extra labour, and so the matchgirls were the daughters, sisters and sweethearts not only of the dockers but also of the gas workers, who together made up the two largest New Union strike groups of 1889.

Just as importantly, Raw discovered that many of the matchgirls were of immediate Irish descent, and/or they lived with their families in areas colonised by Irish immigrants. One of the traced named strike leaders, Mary Driscoll, was not only the daughter of an Irish dock worker, but she married a docker and is known to have supported Irish republicanism, making a particular hero of ‘Bold’ Robert Emmett. [6]

From this detailed (if incomplete) family tracing, Raw argues that, far from being non-political and totally disconnected to New Unionism, stemming from these ‘daughters, sisters and sweethearts’ of dockers and gas workers, with their close and militant Irish connections, the matchgirls’ strike should be placed firmly within New Unionism, not regarded as some outside and isolated singularity

The matchgirls’ strike, Raw argues, should be seen as a product of the political awakening heralded by the socialist revival of 1884, which saw the founding of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) by HM Hyndman and the Socialist League (in which Eleanor Marx chose to operate) by William Morris. [7]

Both these groups were active in the East End, holding meetings, selling papers and agitating, along with the anti-Irish coercion movement, which had come to a head in a march to Trafalgar Square that became known as Bloody Sunday (13 November 1887).

The East End sent large contingents to Bloody Sunday, and the furore further politicised the Irish immigrant communities there, while among casual labourers such as the matchgirls, the dockers and the gas workers, the unemployed movement spearheaded by Hyndman’s SDF was also a road to politicisation.

(In 1920, the SDF, renamed the British Socialist Party (BSP), became the largest feeder party to the CPGB, and its late 19th-century unemployed movement inspired the CPGB’s National Unemployed Workers’ Movement (NUWM).) [8]

In short, the idea that a fabian Lady Bountiful in the shape of Mrs Annie Besant (during her brief five-year period as a ‘socialist’) descended on the politically ignorant matchgirls to lead them to an isolated victory against their particular Bryant and May employers is a nonsense.

When they went out on strike, the matchgirls were already heavily politicised by the reality of their own living conditions, by Ireland and by the propaganda of the socialist revival, which had paid special attention to the East End.

Rather than Mrs Annie Besant leading the matchgirls’ strike, she tried to quash it with a consumers’ boycott, but once it took place and proved successful, she was happy to represent the matchgirls at the 1889 TUC conference.

It may be worth making plain that denying Mrs Annie Besant the deciding role conventional history has given her does not make the Bryant and May strike ‘spontaneous’. However, while Louise Raw identifies the strike leaders, she has not traced (perhaps she could not) the full internal details of the strike.

How, for example, did the matchgirls make sure that Annie Besant’s fear of blacklegs defeating any strike did not come true? Was it class solidarity or direct threats against potential blacklegs? Cases heard at the local magistrates courts, which Louise Raw does not use, suggest that the matchgirls policed the strike very vigorously, which in itself would make an interesting study.

Striking a Light does have some imperfections, though on the whole they are minor and space does not permit a detailed analysis. However, one error must be pointed out to Proletarian readers. Raw tells readers (as if to give Annie Besant back some of the kudos she has taken away from her) that Engels mentioned Annie Besant in a few of his letters.

Engels did indeed mention Annie Besant, but never with any praise. In fact, she was total persona non grata to both Eleanor Marx and Engels, and it was not long before both the SDF and the Fabians made it clear to her that, while she could speak and write for them, she would never be admitted into their inner circles.

Once she realised that there was no celebrity place for her within socialism, Annie Besant became a theosophist, and she ended her very long life travelling the world with a young Indian man called Krishnamurta, who she proclaimed was the new messiah, modestly adding that she was his mother.

Forgetting the bizarre Mrs Annie Besant, Louise Raw’s study of the family and community relationships of the matchgirl strikers is an interesting development in Labour history, which has tended to ignore this form of research (called prosopography), pioneered in a different context by Sir Lewis Namier. [9]

As contemporary commentators ignored both the matchgirls’ connections with Ireland and their fellow East End workers on the docks and in the gas industry, and have also ignored the matchgirls in relation to the propaganda work of the ‘socialist revival’, Louise Raw’s book can only be praised. Its couple of imperfections do not interfere with it being well worth reading, and, in fact, well worth buying and keeping.



1. Louise Raw makes a great play on calling the matchgirls “matchwomen”, arguing that this gives them more gravitas and respect. However, as most of matchgirls were teenagers, and a good many were children, while only a few were over the age of 22, it seems more logical to use the traditional term ‘matchgirls’.

2. Raw does not make this point, possibly because feminists might read this as diminishing the strike. However, in the grand tradition of ‘The truth shall set us free’, it is still a point worth making. Likewise, the help that the wages of female members of the family gave the all-male striking dockers and gas workers needs to be acknowledged.

3. New Unionism is the name given to the movement that developed in the 1880s to set up unions open to all workers, including the unskilled, unlike the traditional craft unions, which tended to protect only the interests of better-off skilled workers.

4. Annie Besant, The Link, 23 June 1888.

5. Mary Driscoll, Eliza Martin, Kate Slater, Alice Francis and Jane Wakeling.

6. Robert Emmett (1778-1803), executed for treason against British crown.

7. From 1884-1916, HM Hyndman led the Social Democratic Federation, the first and for a long time the only Marxist party in Britain. In 1920, the SDF (renamed the British Socialist Party) became the largest grouping to join the new Communist party (CPGB). By that time, Hyndman had been expelled over his support for the first world war.

8. The NUWM was identified with is leader Wal Hannington (1896-1966), founder member of the CPGB. In 1925 Hannington was one of 12 members of the Communist party convicted at the Old Bailey under the Incitement to Mutiny Act 1797 (in the run-up to the general strike of 1926), and one of the five defendants sentenced to 12 months’ imprisonment.

9. Sir Lewis Bernstein Namier (1888-1960) studied what he called “placemen” in the 18th-century House of Commons. He made a detailed study of the family and financial interconnections of 18th-century parliaments, proving beyond doubt that MPs of the time saw their entry into parliament as a business venture. (Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose!) A zionist, who converted to Anglicanism while remaining a zionist, “Namier held markedly right-wing views, and has been called the most reactionary British historian of his generation. Ironically, Namier’s principal protege was the left-wing historian AJP Taylor.” (Wikipedia, recalled May 2011)