Matchwomen’s strike was the first, major strike in the United Kingdom. It occurred in 1888 at Byrant and May factory in East London. The working conditions were terrible and the secrets behind closed doors were even worse. The strike changed most of that and now we will reveal the labor conditions before and after.
Before the strike
Years before the strike, women were earning 4-8 shillings per a week. Of that money, they would have to pay 2 shillings for a single room. The working hours were between 6:30 a.m. in the summer and 8:00 a.m. in winter, till 6 p.m. There were two breaks, one of 30 minutes for breakfast and the last one for dinner, of one hour. Only younger women and children were abed to work. Children would sleep in the factory and they would eat bread, butter and drink tea each day.
Probably the most dangerous issue was phosphorus poisoning. It is an essential element for human health, but in large amounts, it will cause phosphorus poisoning. All matches have phosphorus, therefore it was the most common ingredient in the factory. Children would develop breathing complications and women would get necrosis of the jaw bone!
For dirty bench or area under it, a woman could get a fine of 3d! Other, even more, dangerous fines were common and mostly directed towards women.
After the strike
The Matchwomen’s strike lasted only 3 weeks and during that time, the owners of the company tried to prove that women were working in great conditions! They used their relations with the press to spread lies. Luckily, the women, 200 of them didn’t break down and they managed to win several improvements.
The main aspect of the strike was to increase the wages. Women after the strike wouldn’t be fined with the fines and they would have much higher salaries, although some details are unknown. The new contract also restored some jobs in the factory and provided safer working conditions. One of the most relevant objectives of the strike as to allow to women to form a union and the owners of the factory would have to obey it. The union should protect the women from salary deductions which were common as well. For example, Byrant has been deducting 1p of each salary for political reasons!
The Matchwomen’s Union didn’t last long and it ended its existence in 1903, but the amazing effect it had on the society while it existed is still impressive. One year after the strike, the union changed its rules and it opened its doors for men as well.
During the strike, Byrant and May claimed that they will transfer the factory to Norway or that they will hire new workers. Not a single woman left the strike for those claims.
Matchwomen’s strike and later union, had an impressive and the most important effect on working conditions as we know today. It was the first strike of its kind and Matchwomen’s festival is something we must keep within ourselves forever, in order to never forget the success those women achieved.