Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Louise Raw - Striking a Light: The Bryant & May Matchwomen and their place in History

Louise Raw's book on the famous matchwomen's strike at Bryant and May is a brilliant work of working class history. But it is much more than an account of the dispute. Raw's argument is that up until now the strike itself has been completely misunderstood. Traditionally it has been seen as a strike led by a few outside socialist agitators, principally the Fabian socialist Annie Besant. In addition, the impact of the strike was negligible when compared to the much more important dock strikes that erupted in East London a year or so later. After finishing the book, to test Raw's hypothesis, I picked up a copy of Allen Hutt's "short" history British Trade Unionism, a 1941 book that is effectively an official Communist Party history. He has this to say about the strike:
In July, 1888, a Socialist-led strike of the girls at Bryant and May's match factory in the East End secured wide publicity, alike for the shocking conditions that it exposed and for the revelation of the number of Liberal politicians who were concerned as shareholders. The strike was successful.
To be fair to Hutt he does continue to say that the strike was the "light jostle needed" (quoting Engels) to kick start wider strikes. But his all to brief account makes a number of the mistakes that Raw's book demolishes. Firstly the strike was not led by Annie Besant. While it is true that Besant had published an important expose of conditions in the factory a few days before the strike began, she neither knew of its beginning nor welcomed the event. In fact, Raw's account makes it clear that Besant's middle-class politics preferred the idea of a well publicised boycott of Bryant and May, and perhaps legal action to expose the employers. She did not welcome the self-activity that the Matchwomen displayed, despite the women having some hopes in her.

Hutt himself seems to subordinate the strike to the publicity it generated to embarrass some liberal politicians. This is to downplay the role of almost 1,400 women in bringing out an entire factory and creating a huge political problem for the employers and politicians. The women, despite the vast majority of them being very young, were confident, politically astute and able to articulate their demands. Rather than being the tools of outside agitators as Bryant and May liked to believe these were women who had a history of struggle, organisation and engagement with radical political ideas.

Careful research by Raw shows how deep these traditions went. In 1871 Raw describes how the government (under Gladstone) wanted to introduce a tax on matches. This would have had a significant impact upon the already impoverished workers at Bryant and May. The workers "convened a mass meeting at the Victoria factory, passing a resolution 'unanimously amid great cheering' stating that 'we the matchbox makers and employees of ... match factories, resist to the utmost of our power by all legal means the imposition of this cruel tax upon our labour'." They then marched to Parliament to hand over a petition, and despite their peaceful intentions encountered the full brute force of the police trying to stop them. It is notable that Bryant and May's management simply intended to pass the tax onto their workers rather than challenge the government. 17 years later the workers would again march to Parliament, following the same route as in 1871*.

Popular legend would have the "match-girl" as a tiny, innocent, poor little girl freezing to death on the streets. The reality, as Raw demonstrates over and over, is that she was often a highly political figure willing to organise her comrades, fight the police and protest to try and improve conditions. This wasn't just true of the strike. Raw's research uncovers the latter-day history of some of the strike leaders who became key community figures prepared to fight for their neighbours and friends, as well as being trade unionists.

But conditions definitely needed improving. Despite the enormous profits made by Bryant and May, life in the factories was notoriously hard, and low paid. The work itself inflict tremendous suffering on the workers, with the phosphorous causing a painful bone disease known as Phossy Jaw. Despite the link between phosphorous and the disease the company sacked people who showed symptoms and downplayed the threat. The suffering must have been horrific. Raw quotes one contemporary account of a former Matchwoman who had completely lost her lower jaw.


The second strand to Raw's book is the question of gender and its role within the strike. Raw argues that you cannot understand the matchwomen's strike without understanding the wider position of women in contemporary society and in the trade union movement of the late 19th century. Despite a few exceptions women workers were not seen as part of the workers movement, in fact, the official trade union movement tended to see women workers as a threat that would reduce male wages or employment. This was closely linked with fixed ideas of gender roles within the family. As Raw writes:
The ideological victory of the concept of 'separate spheres', and all that went with it, had resulted from a long and sometimes hard-fought battle over ideas of sexual morality, the sexual division of labour, and gender itself: what it meant, or should mean, to be a man or a woman in the nineteenth century.
This meant too things. It meant that women who did work, like the matchwomen, were portrayed as immoral, violent and lacking in womanly qualities. But it also impacted on the labour movement and those who wrote its history. The result is, Raw argues, a "history of the figureheads of women's unioniusm rather than of the rank and file, and of these leaders' estimations of the female workforce, often as weak and undisciplined before the imposition of order from outside". Here is the origin of the myth that the strike was "Socialist-led" or organised by Annie Besant.

Raw's book rescues the Matchwomen from a "gender blind" tradition that cannot conceive that ordinary women could self-organise and defeat a powerful and rich employer. But her book is much more than this. While telling the story of the strike Raw also tells us the story of working class life in the East End - the extreme poverty, the appalling conditions at work and home, the arrogance of the middle and ruling classes who only saw violence and promiscuity. Against this Raw shows us a world of solidarity and self-organisation. Of women and men who fought as best they could for their neighbours, workmates, communities and their families.

The finest example of this is Raw's argument that there was no real separate between the action of the Matchwomen and the more famous (and more celebrated) strikes that followed. Against those historians who argue that there was a gap, or no interrelation between the events, Raw painstakingly pieces together the close community and family links between dockers, matchwomen and other workers. More recent historians might have believed that there were no links, but that was not true of trade unionists at the time.
Dockers' leaders Tom Mann and Ben Tillett were both unequivocal, indeed generous to an almost surprising degree, in attributing to the matchwomen's action the very beginnings of New Unionism. Tillett described the matchwomen's victory as quite simply 'the beginning of the social convulsion.
In my own studies of rural class struggle I've often noticed how  ruling class accounts of strikes begin with a belief that there must be some outside agitators starting the commotion. They cannot believe that the peasants and labrouers were able in and of themselves to organise, let alone threaten their wealth and power. This condensation is also true of the matchwomen, though in this case, it has also been copied by some labour historians who should have known better. Louise Raw's book is a brilliant rescue of the role of ordinary working class women in fighting to improve their lives. It is also a masterpiece of historical study - a model for those of us trying to understand and write about the struggles of the past. I urge you to read it.

* I would like to add a personal note to this. Louise Raw points out that the Matchwomen marched in 1871 and in 1888 to Parliament via Bow and Mile End. In 2003, when war in Iraq broke out, a march by thousands of school and college students followed the exact same route to Parliament to protest at Tony Blair's war. It was fairly spontaneous, and it is nice to know of the unconscious celebration of East London history.

Related Reviews

Tully - Silvertown
Marriott - Beyond the Tower
Wise - The Blackest Streets
Mayhew - London Labour and the London Poor
Fishman - East End Jewish Radicals 1875-1914
Fishman - East End 1888

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