Friday, April 25, 2014

Bryant, May and the Match Girls

When I started to explore the match girls' strike of 1888, I was not surprised to learn that there was a long history of problems in the match trade, nor that even after the strike there were issues that were not fully addressed.  As a result rather than just one blog, the exploration has extended over three.  In the first one, I will look at the origins of the strike and the background of the match trade beginning with the events of 1871.  The second blog will address the events of the 1888 strike itself, and in the final blog I intend to talk about the failure of Bryant and May, the manufacturers, to address a number of issues and, perhaps more to the point, the way in which they attempted to evade responsibility. 

And will the match trade die?
And will the match trade die?
Then thirty thousand working girls
Will know the reason why.
Daily News (25 April 1871)

The Background

"The East End is labor and poverty, chained together by the curse of our time — servitude; the City is the usurer who sells labor and pockets the profit."
J. H. Mackay, The Anarchists

It was a wet, cold and dreary July in London in 1888,  The temperature barely crawled to the average of 72 degrees Fahrenheit on the 23rd and only seven days that month made it to a chilly 70 degrees.  On the 12th of the month there were reports of snow in the suburbs of the Metropolis but whatever the weather, it did not deter those who followed the tennis. In what must have seemed a world away from the East End, at Wimbeldon, Ernest Renshaw defeated Herbert Lawford in three straight sets to win the Gentlemen's Singles and Lottie Dod took out the Ladies' Singles, also in straight sets.   It was still a month before the East End murders were discovered and the name of Jack the Ripper was to become synonymous with the gruesome murders which struck fear amongst residents, particularly women, in the East End. 

It was from the East End that most of the young women who were to "down tools" in 1888 and walk out of the Bryant and May match factory came. The East End was often seen, and quite rightly, as among the worst sections of the great metropolis.  Sylvia Pankhurst, some years later, referred to it as "that great abyss of poverty," and in The Bitter Cry of Outcast London, the Reverend Andrew Mearns described the living conditions in which many of the match workers lived as:
pestilential human rookeries ... where tens of thousand are crowded together amidst horrors which call to mind .. the slave ship. To get into them you have to penetrate courts reeking with poisonous and malodorous gases arising from accumulations of sewage and refuse scattered in all directions. ... Where there are beds they are simply heaps of dirty rags, shavings or straw, but for the most part these miserable beings huddle together upon the filthy boards.
A London Slum
Out of the stinking, pestilential slums and out of Bryant and May's match factory came the girls and women marching for better conditions and marching into history.

Not that it was the first time those in the match industry had marched.  Seventeen years earlier several thousand match workers, mostly girls between the ages of thirteen and twenty, marched from the East End to the Parliament at Westminster to oppose a threatened tax on matches.  The Illustrated London News effectively made the point that this was not something entered into lightly by the East-Enders.
The poor matchmakers, women and children, turned out in large numbers, and may be said to have groped their way into the unknown regions of Westminster to assure some great man, of whom they had heard, that he was going to starve them, and to beg him not to do so.

Several hundred of the marchers actually made their way into Westminster-hall in an attempt to present a petition to the House of Commons.  The march was generally good-natured and was easily dealt with by the police.  The difference between this march and the later match girls march, was that in 1871 the march had the approval, tacit if not overt, of the employers  who were to be hardest hit by the proposed levy. According to the Daily News, in the Police Court
At Bow-street one of the men who had been apprehended stated that a well-known firm of match manufacturers had contributed a band and flags to the demonstration,

 and The Times "Police" report quoted  a witness who identified the firm as Bryant and May.

In reading the various reports, one almost feels as if The Times, was reporting a different march.  It described the demonstration as "attended with riots in the East-end of London and a riotous assemblage around the Houses of Parliament." But for The Times, which was in many respects an organ for the conservative upper middle classes, any march by the lower and labouring classes would probably have been seen as a threat to social stability - even when it was supported by those manufacturers opposed to the match tax.

Between the 1871 "strike" and the 1888 walkout, there were at least three strikes; so, despite the claims of management that there had been peace at the factory until the socialists "forced" the strike, such a claim was, at best, dubious. Besides, from 1873 onward, Great Britain was in the grip of a major depression which was generally considered to have lasted until the middle of the last decade of the century and although the price of matches fell during this period, so too did wages.  Louise Raw points out that by 1888 Bryant and May "had become such a powerful monopoly that they were able to pay wages which were lower than they had been a full 12 years earlier." 

But besides low wages in the industry and the maltreatment of the workers, there was the risk of that most horrible disease, phosphorus necrosis of the jaw or Phossy Jaw as it was more commonly known. At best this could lead to permanent disfigurement and at worst to a slow and painful death.

Phossy Jaw
A brief article in The Journal of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery notes:
The infamous “phossy jaw” that created an epidemic of exposed bone osteonecrosis exclusively in the jaws began around 1858 and continued until 1906, with only a few cases appearing since that time. This epidemic of osteonecrosis produced pain, swelling, debilitation, and a reported mortality of 20% and was linked to “yellow phosphorous,” the key ingredient in “strike-anywhere” matches. In match-making factories, workers called “mixers,” “dippers,” and “boxers” were exposed to heated fumes containing this compound. Related to the duration of exposure, many of these workers developed painful exposed bone in the mouth.
It might be supposed that the information on this foul disease might have been confined to medical journals of the day, but as early as 1852, Charles Dickens was writing about it, and its effect on those in the matchmaking industry, in Charles Dickens' Household Words for May of 1852. One of his informants told of her clothes and hands glowing at night.

Much of the change between 1870 and 1888 centered around the key figure of Wilberforce Bryant.  The son of one of the firm's founders, by 1861 he was managing the Bow Street plant. Although the business was started as a private concern, in June of 1884 it became a limited company with capitalization of 300,000 pounds in 60,000 shares and an additional 150,000 pounds was offered in debentures for public subscription. Thomas A. B. Corley, in his biographical sketch of Wilberforce Bryant notes that 
The financial press was soon condemning the firm for its annual reports --'the most cynically meagre and imperfect documents published by any board in the country;--and fir its insider dealings to rig the share prices for its own ends (Financial News).
Clearly the company was not in good odour in the 1880s. and was being run by a narrow-minded, conservative senior director.

To read Charles Dickens' article "One of the Evils of Matchmaking"  in Household Words for May of 1852, click  here.

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