Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

2 pieces: Match Girls Strike of 1888 & Royal Mail under the Tories

In A.Graham, R.Richardson on September 6, 2013 at 12:39 pm


One hundred and twenty five years ago this summer, women and girls working under horrific conditions at the Bryant & May’s match factory in Bow, East London, walked out . They were striking against both horrific conditions at the factory, and a massive reduction in their pay.

They weren’t seasoned campaigners. They were merely a brutalised workforce – and some of the girls who worked there were as young as 12. But they’d had enough. Working conditions were no longer acceptable. The machines were dangerous, and the phospherous used to make the “lucifer” matches often led to poisoning amongst those who were exposed to it. It was what the girls called “phossy jaw” and it was common amongst those who worked there. The jawbone simply rotted away after they had come into contact with this deadly phospherous.

Conditions at Bryant & May’s had been exposed in an article by journalist Annie Besant – but the decision to come out on strike was taken by the match girls themselves alone. They marched through the streets of London to Parliament, where their appearance caused an uproar. But many MPs were impressed both by their plight and by their eloquence.

Finally, after three weeks, Bryant & May’s were forced into a grudging defeat. The demands of the women were met – and on July 27th they went on to form themselves into the Union of Women Match Makers. From there, they carried on, to organise other female workers employed in jam and confectionary factories.

They also struck again, in support of the great Dockers’ Strike of 1889, and after the dockers had won they took part in the victory parade, all marching with feathers in their hats.

Until now, their achievements have been understated by historians – even those on the Left. But as Louise Raw (author of Striking a Light: the Match women and their place in history) writes, “these were the mothers of the entire modern labour movement, and Labour Party.

In July this year, these achievements were recognised at a festival in London. Meanwhile, the former Bryant & May’s factory has become a block of “yuppie” luxury flats. A sign of the times, perhaps?

Royal Mail: Cable talks from Tory script

Vince Cable, business secretary in the ConDem Government, is a Liberal Democrat. But to hear him talk you’d hardly know it.

It’s his department that’s spearheading the sell-off of the Royal Mail. His utterances could well have been provided by the Tories’ script writers. Maybe they were. Selling off the Royal Mail, he declared, would give it “real commercial freedom it’s needed for a long time”. The Royal Mail is now set on an “irreversible course” for privatisation.

This particular sale of public assets is being presented in the face of overwhelming public opposition. Even the right-wing Bow Group has found that 67 per cent of the public are opposed to the sell off. The Post Office workers union (the CWU) is adamantly against it, with 90 per cent of its members voting for industrial action if this Bill is forced through – rejecting a Government promise to give the workforce a ten per cent stake in any company that buys the Royal Mail.

Will Hutton, writing in the Observer, described the threatened privatisation as “a national disaster”. Under private ownership, the directors of the Royal Mail “would be under the same relentless hammer as those in every other British plc. They will put up prices as much as the regulator will allow, cut into universal provision and relentlessly contract out as much of the delivery to the lowest paid, least protected workers….”

He concludes his scenario with a picture of shareholders and directors taking their bonuses – and then selling on the Royal Mail to a foreign-based postal service, or to a private equity fund based in some overseas tax haven.

The over-riding reason why the Government wants to sell off the Royal Mail is because it’s making a profit. The notion that this profit could provide the administration with much needed revenue is not considered. No, it’s to be passed on to those speculators who no doubt will be queuing up to buy into the Royal Mail.

There are those in the City (and elsewhere) who are no doubt rubbing their hands in anticipation. For the rest of us, it’s important that we back the campaign to ensure that our postal services remain in public hands. Otherwise, the future looks bleak for those who rely on it.


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