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More than a match

Chris Nutty is an educational project worker for the train drivers’ union ASLEF. Here he tells the story of a little known piece of London’s East End history, set besides the mainline outside Liverpool Street station.

Travelling on the train out from Liverpool Street on the former Great Eastern mainline, on the left hand side of the track between Bethnal Green and Stratford, there stands a large Victorian red brick tower surrounded by a complex of buildings (above). Today, this is a gated community of luxury apartments, but back in the 1880s the same buildings had a very different use.

They were the Bryant & May match factory. 1,400 workers were employed there, most of them young girls and women. The working conditions were appalling, they were on low pay, fined for any infringement, worked long hours and suffered the constant threat of contracting the industrial disease, phosphorus necrosis. This enters the body via the teeth and gums and eats away at the jaw, causing foul-smelling decay, and brain damage.

White phosphorus was used in most matches from the 1840s to the 1910s. If they did contract the disease the fact would be hidden from their employer because they knew it would lead to being dismissed. Without work they’d starve. Things came to a head in 1888 and the matchwomen went on strike. Bryant & May were furious and threatened to sack them all and employ new workers. So the stage was set for a David and Goliath conflict that is surely a screenwriter’s dream, if the current crop of British industrial relations films such as ‘Made in Dagenham,’ ‘Pride,’ and ‘Enemy Within’ are anything to go by.

Like the Ford women workers at Dagenham, our matchwomen faced bigotry and prejudice and, like the Ford workers, they won their cause.

This story was brought to life on an educational walking tour organised by ASLEF and run by Dr Louise Raw. Louise has written a book on the matchwomen’s strike, ‘Striking a Light’, and she has made many TV appearances with people like Amanda Vickery, Barbara Windsor, and Len Goodman. Louise used original photos of the women so she can put names to the faces of those involved. Her research into the subject also disproved the popular idea that it was the well-known liberal Annie Besant who was the brains behind the strike and not the matchwomen themselves.

Dr Raw has delivered many lectures on the matchwomen’s strike, but this was her first walking tour of the area where it all took place. East Midlands Trains driver Tim Waterhouse said of the walk, ‘I’ve really enjoyed the tour. Louise has really brought the Matchwomen’s story and the Victorian East End to life.’

The use of white phosphorous was eventually outlawed by international agreement in 1906.

Louise also organises a Matchwomen’s Festival once a year celebrating what the women achieved. The next event is 4 July, 2015.

For more information about the Matchwoman check Louise’s websites at www.louiseraw.co.uk and www.matchfest.co.uk

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