Strike a light

The beginning of new unionism

Louise Raw Striking a light: the Bryant and May match women and their place in history Bloomsbury Publishing, 2011, pp300, £17.99

This is a wonderful book. Louise Raw has taken a penetrating, fresh look at the Bryant and May strike of 1888, which ended in a sensational victory for the strikers and an inflated reputation for the person who is supposed to have led them - Fabian socialist, theosophist, women’s rights activist and publicist Annie Besant (1847-1933).

Besant wrote an article in The Link, a journal which she produced along with fellow Fabian, Herbert Burrows. This was entitled ‘White slavery in London’, and appeared on June 23 1888. It followed a discussion at a Fabian Society meeting in London the same month, which highlighted Bryant and May’s high profits and low wages. In order to obtain factual information, Annie Besant went along to the firm’s premises in Fairfield Road and interviewed some of the women who worked there.

But she did not in fact suggest that they call a strike: indeed, in the very same copy of The Link which exposed the working conditions at the factory there is a piece on the following page asserting that it would be impossible to organise a union there or stage a strike, since that would only lead to the dismissal of the rebellious elements in the workforce and their replacement with other workers (see p8). Annie Besant’s preferred tactic was different: her aim was to force action via Bryant and May’s shareholders and, if possible, the government.

The workers were subject to a system of fines, with penalties imposed for faulty work and for any matches that accidentally caught fire during manufacture. Then there was the safety aspect, which is surely the area where the management’s activities were at their most heinous.

In 1831 a French chemist called Charles Sauria perfected an easily strikable match by coating the end of a stick of wood with a mixture of potassium chloride, gum arabic, starch and white phosphorus. Unfortunately white phosphorus is a particularly toxic substance - used with searing effect by US armed forces not so long ago in Iraq. The poisonous fumes were inhaled by workers assembling the matches, leading in extreme cases to a disfiguring industrial disease called by the workers “phossy jaw” - see Louise Raw’s vivid description of the symptoms, which sometimes led to a painful death (p93).

All in all, the situation was full of incendiary material (no pun intended). Explode it did, but was that Annie Besant’s doing or was it the matchwomen themselves who took the decisive initiative? Louise Raw answers in this way:

After the matchwomen’s strike Besant published her book, The trade union movement, making no mention whatever of the matchwomen, and praising new unionism on the grounds that “when it desires it will use the ballot box instead of the strike”, and control “women workers and unskilled labourers, the two unorganised mobs which have hung round the disciplined army of unionists and have lost them many a fight …” (pp115-16).

This suggests that it was not Annie Besant’s aim to provoke a strike: what she wanted was a consumer boycott. This is confirmed in her autobiography written in 1893.

Annie Besant did, however, apprise Bryant and May directors of her intention to publish an article on their factory in her journal. If the intention was to sting them into threatening legal action, which would give the case useful publicity, it worked. The directors threatened to sue, and, what is more, began to pressurise their workers into signing statements denouncing Besant’s report as a tissue of lies. But they miscalculated: most if not all the women refused to sign. One was the given the sack on what was fairly clearly a trumped-up charge, and that provoked a walkout.

The first thing Annie Besant seems to have known about this was when around a hundred of the strikers called at her offices two days later. She agreed to meet a small deputation, and promised some sort of action in support, but clearly this turn of events caught her unawares.

However, the strike generated a lot of interest in the press and the adverse publicity this produced eventually forced the company to agree to a settlement, conceding all the strikers’ demands, including reinstatement of the women regarded as “ringleaders” - Louise Raw’s inquiries mean that we now know at least some of the actual strike leaders, such as Mary Driscoll, Eliza Martin and Martha Robertson. The victory led to the establishment of a Union of Women Matchworkers, with Annie Besant as secretary and Herbert Burrows as treasurer (p142).

Clearly, as Louise Raw demonstrates, the matchwomen’s strike, far from being an isolated precursor of the movement known as the ‘new unionism’ (ie, the drive to organise unskilled labour in Britain), was in fact the beginning of that movement. This has not been the prevailing view among labour historians to date, but Louise’s book sought to change that.

Her book is valuable not only for these labour history aspects, but also contains much useful background material on the position of women in the UK in the 19th century, the effects of which are still with us. Particularly telling is her evocation of the typical middle and upper class woman, financially dependent on her husband, with no automatic right to custody of her children, should the marriage break up, and without even the right to a divorce until the latter part of the century, but expected to play her destined role as devoted wife and mother with the fortitude of an angel.

The matchwomen, as factory workers and unruly strikers, acted as a total challenge to these ‘respectable’ notions, and indeed the advent of women able, potentially, to support themselves out of their own earnings posed a problem for male trade unionists, which took some time to resolve.

Chris Gray