Even if you have never studied history, you probably have some vague awareness of the Matchgirls’ Strike of 1888 in London – and think of poor waifs, frail girls and young women, victims of vile Victorian exploitation. If you have studied history, you were probably taught that the strike was led by middle-class Fabian, Annie Besant, who provided the leadership that the uneducated East End women simply could not have found from their own ranks.
In either case, what you should do is read Louise Raw’s Striking A Light: The Bryant and May Matchwomen and their Place in History , a spectacular but very readable account of epic original research that has uncovered a very different story from the traditional tale.
It is astonishing that so long after this iconic event no one before Raw had seriously tried to research it, and very sad that no one recorded the participants’ own views before it was too late – as Raw found had been for the Melbourne tailoresses’ strike of 1882-3 (which has considerable parallels with the later strike).
In fact to find out very much at all, Raw had to engage in some serious detective work, and find creative ways to recover knowledge apparently lost in the mists of time. A lot of her information came from the grandchildren of three of the matchwomen – two of the probably strike leaders, Mary Driscoll and Eliza Martin, and Martha Robertson. Raw combines this with census data and a close examination of contemporary accounts of the strike, to paint a picture of a spontaneous, but well-planned and executed, walkout by the women – their own choice, their own action.
Besant played a role, before the action, in attacking the management, which led them to try to force the women to sign letters attesting good treatment – which when the women resisted led to the sacking that precipitated the strike, and afterwards, in helping to collect strike pay (although the workers also found some of their own from their own community), but she was in no way a leader of the strike, and in fact, Raw shows convincingly, was actually opposed to the whole idea of a strike.
There’s much more to this book too than rewriting a colourful fragment of history – Raw says that New Unionism, a major part of British political history, should be dated back to the matchwomen, rather than the dockers’ strike the following year, as is traditional. The two were closely linked by more than geography – Raw makes a detailed case for the ties of marriage and community (both groups having large Irish continents) between matchwomen and dockers. And Raw quotes from a contemporary account of the dockers strike which has John Burns telling a mass meeting: “The matchgirls had formed a union and had got what they wanted, and so had the gas stokers at Beckton, and surely the Dock Labourers could do the same” to cries of “hear hear”.
One lovely aspect of the story is that through their families, Raw is able to trace the subsequent lives of some of the strikers. Mary Driscoll is particularly lovely – she married a dockworkers in 1894, and had 11 children, five of whom survived. He was a violent man, but the story ends well – for as a widow Mary ended up owning and running two shops, a pillar of her community, and she would leave £13 in her will “a reasonable sum for someone born in poverty”.
Eliza’s story is much darker – also the victim of domestic violence, family accounts suggest she committed suicide, and Martha’s is one of great fortitude – her husband was gravely wounded in World War I, and she nursed him for many years, but her grandson recallled that “a number of Bryant and May matchwomen were his grandmother’s friends to the end of her life. They used to take trips to the seaside together, what they called their ‘beanos’, which often involved fair amounts of drinking.”
You might have noticed that Raw chooses to speak of “matchwomen” rather than “matchgirls”. It is unarguable that many, probably most, of the ringleaders, and the strikers, were under 18, but Raw makes a strong case that in the terms of the East End, they took on adult-level responsibilities, and that the use of the term girl was used by opponents to denigrate them as mere “factory girls” (a very negative stereotype of the time), and even by supporters to attempt to paint them as vulnerable, weak victims.
Her claim for this as an important foundation of New Unionism is strong also, so this really is a must-read book if you’re interested in British political history. And you should read it soon, because coming up later this year is the 125th anniversary of the strike – and there’s going to be one big beano for it.