An important moment in trade union history will now be marked by a blue plaque commemorating the 1888 matchgirls’ strike in east London.
It is one of 14 blue plaques to be put up in the capital this year by English Heritage. The organisation has sought to broaden and diversify the scheme by inviting nominations from the public that relate to groups of people as well as individuals.
The strike took place at a single large factory, owned by Bryant & May in London’s East End. Here, a few thousand girls, many mere children, toiled from 6.30am until 6.30pm. On their return home, many set to work box-making – piecework for the factory that could be done in the home until weariness or hunger made the girls fall asleep.
Poor ventilation made the phosphorus fumes lethal, and ‘phossy jaw’, a form of bone cancer, ran rife. In addition to the chemical hazards, the employers were cruel and draconian. Girls were heavily fined for talking, going to the toilet, dropping matches and being late.
Yellowing of the skin, bald patches and frequent loss of teeth were some of the common ailments the women and children endured as the result of having no separate room in which to eat their food and consequently ingesting the phosphorous along with their meals.
After a determined strike with the help of the socialist movement the women won all their demands and ushered in a new era of broad militant trade unionism.