Matchgirl Strike of 1888


This picture from the public domain is of matchgirl workers who participated in the 1888 strike. It is relevant to note the beginning effects of "Phossy Jaw" that can be seen on some of the workers.

The working conditions of the people employed in match factories of Victorian times were horrendous. Children were most commonly employed by the factories, and they worked for long days, for small wages, were fined for small infractions, had wages unfairly garnished, and there were substantial health risks associated with working with the matches. During the matchmaking process, the matches were dipped in white phosphorus, and the exposure to the workers caused them to develop a condition called "Phossy Jaw." This illness was a horrible affliction that caused the necrosis of the jaw, serious infection, loss of teeth, often leading to the disfigurement and death of the children employed.

Phossy Jaw was an issue that was not unknown. In fact, thirty-six years earlier, Charles Dickens wrote about the horrific effects of Phossy Jaw in an essay. Despite the knowledge of the horrific issues caused by the use of white phosphorus, it was still used because of the cheap cost. The company Bryant and May employed thousands of people in their match company but refused to address the harmful work conditions. Not only that, but they also required the workers to work 6 days a week, for 12-14 hours a day, and they received extremely poor wages in return. The wages were even more unfair because the workers were charged for any perceived infractions claimed by a foreman, and they were also expected to buy some of their own materials in the production of the matches. The workers attempted strikes several times previous to 1888 but were unsuccessful.

In 1888, activist and writer Annie Bessant wanted to cast light on the plight of the matchgirls after she heard about the appalling conditions in a speech on female labor given by Clementina Black. Bessant then interviewed many of the matchgirl workers and published a scathing expose entitled, "White Slavery in London" on the conditions for matchgirls. The employers in question, Bryant and May, were upset and tried to force the workers to sign a statement condemning Bessant's article. When the workers refused to sign, one woman who was seen as the leader of the group was fired and the workers began their strike in protest. The workers picketed, held public protests, and even led a march to the House of Commons where they testified to the unfair working conditions that they were subjected to. Some members of parliament got involved and voiced their support of the matchgirls. The public outcry became huge. After 3 weeks of striking, the company met all the demands of the strikers. The system of fines, fees, and other penalties was eliminated; the workers were given a different area away from the phosphorus to eat; the workers were allowed to voice their complaints to management without going through a foreman first, and all the workers were hired back.

While the Matchgirl Strike of 1888 did not solve all the labor issues that existed, it was unprecedented because all the demands of the strike were met. These concessions given during the strike demonstrated to the world that there was power available in the organization and resistance to unfair labor practices. It was one of the most significant milestones in labor reform because it was widely publicized and ultimately successful in changing harmful issues in factories. The Matchgirl Strike was an important stepping stone in the road to labor reform in Victorian England.

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