The Unsung Centenary
In July we were asked to celebrate two anniversaries: 400 years ago the Spanish fleet did not land in Britain and 300 years ago William of Orange did. The Protestant Orange Order of Northern Ireland used the latter opportunity to parade their bigotry, but neither occasion made much difference to workers. Certainly the claim that William was responsible for parliamentary democracy today is risible when a 40 per cent vote produces a 100 majority in the House of Commons and Members of Parliament behave like unruly children.
The BBC celebrated the centenary of the birth of the crime writer Raymond Chandler, but it fell to my local primary school, in their end of term play, to remind us of a centenary which marked a much more important milestone in working-class, and especially women workers’ history. The Match Girls dealt with the co-ordinated action by unskilled workers which led to the formation of the first non-craft union.
On 7 July 1888 Annie Beasant printed an article “White Slavery in London” in Link, the Fabian paper of which she was co-editor, describing conditions of work in the Bryant & May match factory in Bromley by Bow in London’s East End:
“The hour for commencing work is 6.30 in summer and 8 in winter, work concludes at 8pm. Half an hour is allowed for breakfast and an hour for dinner. This long day is performed by young girls, who have to stand the whole time. A typical case is that of a girl of 16, a piece worker, she earns 4s a week . . . The splendid salary of 4s is subject to deductions in the shape of fines: if the feet are dirty, or the ground under the bench is left untidy, a fine of 3d is inflicted; for putting “brunts”—matches that have caught fire during the work—on the bench 1s has been forfeited . . . If a girl leaves 4 or 5 matches on her bench when she goes for a fresh “frame” she is fined 3d, and in some departments a fine of 3d is inflicted for talking. If a girl is late she is shut out for “half a day”, that is, for the morning of six hours, and 5d is deducted out of her day’s 8d.”
There was also a one shilling compulsory “contribution” towards a statue of Gladstone being put up by Bryant, and employees had to take a day’s unpaid leave for the unveiling. Ay that time shareholders in the company received a 20 per cent dividend.
When the article appeared Bryant & May tried to get the girls to write and deny its content and the three who had talked to Annie Besant were sacked. When the company dismissed another girl they considered the ringleader, the women in her department, followed by the other 1,400 employed by the company, walked out. A deputation sent to the London Trades Council for support were given £20, offered mediation with the employers and help with drawing up the list of grievances. When the meeting took place, Bryant & May conceded almost all the girls’ demands.
The first meeting of the Union of Women Matchmakers was held on 27 July 1888. Later re-named The Matchmakers Union, it only survived until 1902, but the action taken by the matchgirls in 1888 had considerable immediate and long-term effects on the trade union movement. The formation of other non-craft unions soon followed.
How much has the lot of unskilled workers improved since the Victorian values of Messrs. Bryant & May were challenged a hundred years ago? The clothing sweatshop and other low paid workers of 1988 would tell us: not much. They still try to make ends meet on their meagre wages while employers make heavy profits. Although deductions to erect a statue to the present Prime Minister are not yet compulsory, no doubt “invisible” deductions, reflected in poverty wages, still go to swell the funds of capitalism’s parties.