In the exceptionally cold July of 1888, some 1,400 workers went on strike at Bryant and May's match factory in the East End of London. These workers - mainly women and girls - walked out of their workplace and into the history books. Indeed, as the author of this fascinating book notes, the match women's strike has become something of a historical cliche, often the only example of industrial action by female workers that even experts could cite.
Yet - and this is Louise Raw's starting point - accounts of the strike have been deeply and systematically flawed. The "match girls" were not only exploited by their employers and patronised by middle-class sympathisers but more recently have been underestimated and infantilised by historians. Even those historians who famously sought to rescue workers' struggles from "the enormous condescension of posterity" failed to rehabilitate the match workers' action.
The Bryant and May strike has remained ghettoised within labour history and, in particular, denied connection to new unionism. Even feminist historians failed the match women; they were reluctant, according to Raw, to compromise their own credibility as serious scholars working on muscular subjects, albeit with a gendered perspective, by association with such a tired old saw as the Bryant and May strike. The match women have not been hidden from history but hidden by history.
Raw's case is that standard accounts overlook the role of the women themselves in the action, and have instead highlighted the part played by Annie Besant, the middle-class journalist and Fabian socialist who had exposed conditions at Bryant and May's in a famous article, "White Slavery in London", published in The Link in June 1888.
Besant and fellow Fabian Herbert Burrows have hereafter been credited with instigating and leading the strike, the implication being that working women as poor and ignorant as the matchwomen were incapable of such independent and organisational feats without external direction.
In a careful reconstruction of events, Raw exposes inaccuracies in the standard accounts which, while petty, suggest a lazy acceptance of a chronology that fits the conventional story. Not only was Besant not the first mover, and she was probably neither sympathetic to strike action nor optimistic about its outcome, preferring instead a boycott of Bryant and May. Besant is, of course, a virtuoso figure ("colourful" is Raw's adjective) and it is not surprising that both her own recollections and those of contemporaries placed her at the centre. Later generations of historians should have been less dazzled. Raw's revised account has the match women themselves deciding to strike, generating leaders and possessing a solidarity usually denied to unskilled workers of this era, especially female ones.
The book is not without faults. It is sometimes repetitive, often unforgiving and occasionally inconsistent. However, it tells a great story with a terrific cast of characters (even sans Besant). William Bryant, for example, is a true Victorian villain: greedy, hypocritical, callous and deceitful. The backcloth, matchmaking, with its grisly industrial diseases, retains a strong grip on the historical imagination.
Moreover, parts of the book read like a detective story, with Raw ingenious in tracking down the strike leaders. Identifying these women not only puts real faces on the Victorian stereotypes of the downtrodden but enables Raw to link the strike back to the families and communities of the East End, and in particular to connect the match women with the other great unskilled activists of the era: the dockers. Kinship, marriage, neighbourhood and community: all bound the match women and the dockers together, providing support for Raw's allegation that the Bryant and May strike was a forerunner of, and indeed the inspiration for, the Great Dock Strike.
At last, the match women escape the condescension of posterity and, as trailblazers of new unionism, take their place in the mainstream of labour history.
Striking a Light: The Bryant and May Matchwomen and their Place in History
By Louise Raw
Published 4 June 2009