Remembering the matchgirls who struck for better pay and conditions

UNISON is backing a campaign for a proper memorial for the women and girls who joined together in London’s East End to fight for a better working life

UNISON is backing a campaign to create a lasting memorial to the matchgirls – the women and teenage girls who took strike action against appalling conditions at the Bryant & May match factory in east London, in 1888.

Little could they have known that the ‘matchgirls’ strike’ would become an iconic moment in the history of the British labour movement, cited as the beginning of new unionism, and inspiring many more workers to organise and fight injustice.

UNISON’s national women’s committee will be considering a donation to the The Matchgirls Memorial fund for appropriate remembrances, whether those are statues or sculptures, murals, mosaics, plaques or street naming.

The union is also promoting a petition to save the grave of one of the strike leaders, Sarah Chapman (second from left on the back row of the photo).

It is also promoting events on 24 April to mark the 150th anniversary of the match tax protest, when Bryant & May workers marched on the House of Commons to protest against the planned tax, which they knew could damage their jobs. People will be asked to light a match, photograph it and post to social media.

“The matchgirls have a special place in trade union and women’s history,” said UNISON general secretary Christina McAnea.

“Many of them were teenage girls, earning a pittance, enduring shocking working conditions and life-endangering exposure to phosphorus.

“Their struggle continues to inspire women to challenge injustice in the workplace.”

While many people think of Annie Beasant in relation to the strike, International Women’s Day gives us the perfect opportunity to draw to the forefront of remembrance the names of the strike committee itself:

Mary Naulls,

Mary Cummings,

Sarah Chapman,

Alice Francis,

Kate Sclater,

Mary Driscoll,

Jane Wakeling,

Eliza Martin.

And five more women who later joined the union committee (Mary Cummings was not on the union committee):

Louisa Beck,

Julia Gambleton,

Jane Staines,

Ellen Johnson

Eliza Price.