After 134 years, the East End's heroic Match Girls finally have an official memorial.
English Heritage has unveiled a blue plaque dedicated to the Match Girls' Strike of 1888. The plaque is in Bow Quarter, former site of the Bryant and May match factory in east London, where 1,400 members of its largely female workforce walked out in protest against appalling working conditions and unfair dismissals in early July 1888.
Working in a 19th century match factory wasn't fun; the workers had to contend with 14 hour days, trivial wages, harsh fines for minor misdemeanours, and the risk of 'Phossy Jaw', caused by phosphorous fumes. This was before unions and the welfare state were a thing, and the women who worked at the factory — many aged between 15 and 20 — had few options but to toil in these grim conditions.
Contemporary journalist and activist Annie Besant described the factory workers and the injustices of their employer thus: "Born in slums, driven to work while still children, undersized because under-fed, oppressed because helpless, flung aside as soon as worked out, who cares if they die or go on to the streets provided only that Bryant & May shareholders get their 23 per cent and Mr. Theodore Bryant can erect statutes and buy parks?"
After three strenuous weeks of protesting, the Match Girls won a "resounding victory" — nearly all their demands were met, and the strike paved the way for future labour movements to bloom.
Great granddaughter of strike committee leader Sarah Chapman and Trustee of The Match Girls Memorial, Sam Johnson — who was there at the plaque's unveiling — said: "We all have the Match Girls to thank for laying the foundations of the modern day labour movement and new unionism. They serve as a huge inspiration for young people in the 21st century, as many of the issues they fought against still resonate so strongly today."
On the Bow Road, close to the new plaque, you'll find a statue of William Gladstone, with distinctive red hands. The legend goes that Bryant and May factory workers had a shilling docked from their wages to pay from the statue, and in an act of rebellion, workers slathered the hands in paint. The story is, sadly, unconfirmed, although Gladstone's hands remain red to this day — topped up by dissenters decade after decade.
The London blue plaques scheme, established in 1866, honours buildings with ties to people influential to London's history. Currently, however, only 14% of the total 980+ plaques commemorate women — something English Heritage is keen to change.
You can propose a new blue plaque on English Heritage's website.