In July, 1888 a crowd of 200, mainly teenaged girls, arrived outside a newspaper office in Bouverie Street, off Fleet Street in the City of London. They had left their work at the Bryant and May match factory at Bow in the East End in protest when three of their colleagues had been fired.
Management had accused them of telling lies about their working conditions to a radical journalist, Annie Besant. They had come to her for help. In June Besant had heard at a meeting of socialists in Hampstead that Bryant and May, had announced monster profits with dividends of 22 per cent contrasted with paying wages of between 4 and 8 Shillings [20 – 40p] a week.
Annie Besant went down to the factory to investigate. She stood by the gate till the women came out, persuading a small group to talk to her. Besant returned from the East End with a terrible story of cynical exploitation and disregard for the health and welfare of children and young adults. She had recently founded a weekly agitational paper, The Link, in which she wrote up her story of life in the match factory. It was entitled “White Slavery in London”.
From the crowd of 200 women at the door, Besant brought a small group into her office where they set up an organizing committee. Besant had been pessimistic about the organization of unskilled women factory workers and shortly before the strike had criticized the Women’s Trade Union League in The Link for espousing unworkable ideas.
Bryant and May tried to break the strike by threatening to move the factory to Norway or to import blacklegs from Glasgow. The managing director, Frederick Bryant, was already using his influence on the press. His first statement was widely carried. ‘His (sic) employees were liars. Relations with them were very friendly until they had been duped by socialist outsiders. He paid wages above the level of his competitors. He did not use fines. Working conditions were excellent…He would sue Mrs Besant for libel’.
‘Mrs Besant’ would not be intimidated. The next issue of The Link invited Bryant to sue. Much better, she asserted, to sue her than to sack defenseless poor women.
She took a group of 50 workers to Parliament. The women cataloged their grievances before a group of MPs, and, afterwards, ‘outside the House they linked arms and marched three abreast along the Embankment…’ The socialist paper Justice reported that, ‘A very imposing sight it was too, to see the contrast between these poor ‘white slaves’ and their opulent sisters’.
Maybe Disney should write a musical about the Match Girl Strike. Look what they did with the newsboy strike of 1899 in the Broadway musical Newsies.