In 1888 women did not have the right to vote and employment right never existed. The employers had all the powers to push them passed the limit and it was just hell. 1,400 appallingly treated women either couldn’t take any more or found the courage to walk out of the match manufacturing Bryant & May, shocked the Victorian Britain.
This historical first time strike inspired workers round the world even today.
Today the law forbids children under 13 to work apart from theatres, modelling and paper boys. However, it is assumed that about 30,000 children between 13 to 16 years old are employed in England under special licence. This is the official figure but it is thought there are a great number of children working unofficial in the Austerity Britain trying to add a few pennies to the family budget.
In the 1888 merciless bosses ruled the factory of Bryant & May like tyrants. Women who were sick were just thrown out like rubbish and never gave it a thought what would happen to them.
Yet the white sulphur they have to work with poisoned them. Their hair fell out and there was a condition called “phossy jaws” which disfigured them terrible and must have been very cumbersome.
The wage was the lowest and amounted to four shilling a week for 12 hours a day. Draconian rules were set-up for women to be late or even dropped a match.
A well known journalist Annie Besant wrote a detailed account of the conditions in a left-wing newspaper The Link. She torn the owner Theodore Bryant a prominent Liberal apart who had the brutality to take one shilling from the workers wages in order to erect a statue of his hero William Gladstone near his factory.
Besant labelled it an account of one form of white slavery as it exists in London. She said: “With chattel slaves Mr Bryant couldn’t have made his huge fortune, for he could not have fed, clothed, and housed them for four shillings a week each, and they would have a definite money value which would have served as a protection. But who cares for the fate of those white wage slaves? Born in the slums driven to work as children, undersized because underfed; oppressed because helpless, flung aside as soon as worked out. Who cares if they die, provided only that the Bryant & May shareholders get their 23 pc.” According to this nothing has really changed.
The strike in July 1888 which shook the country and still echoes out of history started by a dismissal of a worker who would not call Mesant’s account as lies. They all walked out and demanded better conditions.
Diana Holland, of Unite, used the anniversary to condemn the ConDem wanting to abolish health and safety laws which were introduced in the aftermath of the strike. These women were nothing but heroic to stand up to those draconian employers at a time where nothing but total obedience was expected. The health and safety law was issued because they were working with white phosphorus a great health hazard.
Now the austerity-crazed Government tries to cut the health and safety law and justify it that it would burden business. We can’t forget those with horrific health problems because they were made to eat at the work benches and therefore swallow phosphorous. The sacrifices they made to stand up to the employers to achieve the health and safety act being introduced.
Workers today will recognise the threats issued by Bryant & May since they had all the power to play any dirty trick in bad bosses’ books.
Those heroic women had to face threats from the owners that they would move the factory to Norway. They also told them they would bring in scabs to do the job which in those more than desperate days were plenty and the women not only risks losing the job but their live from hunger and their place from not being able to pay their rent. They faced having to live in the gutter with their family. The incredible courage they must have had to stand up to their bosses knowing very well what it would all mean if they lose.
The managing direct Fredrick Bryant told the newspapers that the strikers told all lies and the working conditions were perfect and supposed fines were imagination of the troublemakers.
However, London started to support the match girls and George Bernanrd Shaw and Sidney Webb donated to their fund. MP Charles Bradlaugh took their plight to the Parliament and after three weeks Bryant & May had to give in because of the bad publicity and loss of business.
The girls went back to work and had improved working condition and no more costly fines for pitiful offences. The girls won a remarkable victory which even shines today.
Rushanara Ali who is the Labour MP in Bethnal Green where the old Bryant & May factory is said the stand of the match girls is encouraging to the poor and suffering of today in 2013. Their historical fight for better working condition and stop exploitation remains a light in our dark times.