The Matchgirls’ Strike of 1888: Sarah Chapman

History has always been a passion of mine, but I didn’t venture into my personal family history until 2001. Little did I know how my discovery would change my life. It all started on a trip with my now husband, Graham, to visit his cousin in Biggleswade. Looking through old papers, out slipped a Victorian image of a young man in uniform, with his wife. Graham was astounded to learn that the soldier was his Grandfather, Frederick Robinson Johnson, who had been killed in the Battle of the Somme on 3rd July 1916. No mention had ever been made of Frederick before, or his tragic WWI involvement. Not only did this propel us deep into the archives, poring over endless microfiche film, but it got us irreversibly bitten by the family research bug.

When delving into Graham’s story, it struck me I should be looking at my own lineage. I was intrigued to find family ties to the Squelches in Windsor, wealthy landowners in Oxfordshire and a long line of silk weavers in the East End of London. Research is gripping but time consuming so, reluctantly, I had to stop, as juggling it with a full-time job and two young sons was impossible.

Fast forward fifteen years and a Sunday lunch with newfound Dearman cousins (the silk weaver line in Bethnal Green, as far back as the 1700s) led to a discussion on our possible Huguenot connections. The cousins urged me to dust off my family archives to see if us Dearmans could have started out as ‘De Armans’ from France. Little did I know what I was about to discover!

I remember the day very well, Monday 5th September 2016. I started with Charles Henry Dearman, my Great Grandfather, the son of silk weaver, Francis. I typed his and my Great Grandmother, Sarah Chapman’s names into Google, and couldn’t believe what I found – an Message Board dated November 2003, appealing for information about Sarah. All the details exactly matched my family. I had found a historically important ancestor!

Amazingly, I managed to trace the researcher, Anna Robinson, to find out she had actually written her MA thesis all about Sarah Chapman. It was called ‘Neither Hidden Nor Condescended To: Overlooking Sarah Chapman‘. Dr Anna Robinson, now a friend and fellow Trustee of ‘The Matchgirls Memorial’, is a Senior Lecturer at University of East London. Anna also discovered Sarah’s grave during her research but I’ll come to that later.

Born in 1862 in Mile End, Sarah lived all her life in the East End. She was born at 26 Alfred Terrace (now part of Shandy Street, just south of Mile End Road) and, by the time she was 9, Sarah and her family had moved to 2 Swan Court (the back of the now American Snooker Club on Mile End Road) where she would stay until 1891. Her parents were Sarah Ann Mackenzie (also a matchworker) and Samuel Chapman, who worked at the local breweries and the docks. Sarah was the fifth of seven children and was working as a Matchmaking Machinist alongside her elder sister Mary and her mother by the time she was 19.

Many workers at the Bryant and May Match Factory in Bow were very young. It was commonplace to start work at 12 years old, with lucky ones having some education prior to that. They endured 6-day weeks and often 12 to 14 hours a day, for very low pay. There were fines for talking, untidy workbench, lateness, or simply dropping matches. The Foremen could be abusive and blocked complaints from reaching the Management. On top of this, the matches were made using harmful white phosphorus that risked the workers getting osteonecrosis or ‘phossy jaw’.

Working life was a hard slog but the Matchgirls loved a night out – a chance to dress up, have a sing song and if needs be, settle their differences with a bare armed fist fight! The following contemporary quotes provide a flavour of their antics:

The seeds of the Strike were sown at a fateful meeting of the Fabian Society on the 15th June 1888. Henry Hyde Champion announced that Bryant & May took over 20% dividends for their shareholders but paid their workers ‘starvation wages’. He proposed a motion to boycott the purchase of Bryant & May matches, which was passed unanimously.

The next day, Fabians Annie Besant and Herbert Burrows, went to the factory gates to ask the Matchgirls about their conditions and pay. They heard about the long hours, fines and low pay.

A week later, Annie’s famous ‘White Slavery in London’ article was published in her weekly magazine, ‘The Link’. Annie wrote, ‘Failing a poet to hold up their conduct to the execration of posterity, enshrined in deathless verse, let us strive to touch their consciences, i.e. their pockets, and let us at least avoid being “partakers of their sins”, by abstaining from using their commodities’.

The Bryant & May Directors were furious and threatened to sue Annie for libel and demanded that their employees sign a document to say the article was untrue. They refused.

In the furore of the following days, there was a dismissal and letters were published in both The Star and The Pall Mall Gazette in support of the girls. Then, on 5th July 1888, 1400 girls, boys and women walked out on strike. The Matchgirls wrote an unsigned letter to Annie Besant, which was published in The Link on 14th July:

The next day, around 200 workers marched to Bouverie Street to appeal to Annie. They implored her: ‘You had spoke up for us and we weren’t going back on you’. She invited a deputation into her office (Sarah Chapman, Mrs Mary Naulls and Mrs Mary Cummings) and, despite Annie not favouring strike action, she agreed to help them. Plans soon followed to form a Strike Committee.

Things were moved at pace and by 8th July striking workers had their first meeting on Mile End Waste and Harry Hobart, a Social Democrat Federation activist, suggested a Strike Register. The Pall Mall Gazette and The Star continued to provide positive publicity and MPs started to get involved as Charles Bradlaugh MP raised questions in the House in support of the Strike. Later that same week, Annie took 56 strikers to the House of Commons, and 12 of them (no doubt including members of the Strike Committee) met Robert Cunninghame Graham MP and Charles Conybeare MP. Support came from all directions, including the London Trades Council and Toynbee Hall. Even ‘The Times’ changed its tune and started to support the cause. According to her autobiography, ‘My Own Story’, in 1914, Emmeline Pankhurst says that she too supported the Strike:, ‘I threw myself into this strike with enthusiasm. Working with the girls and with some women of prominence, among these the celebrated Mrs Annie Besant’.

Strike funds were distributed at Charrington’s Hall on 14th July, which led to a jubilant crowd meeting on Mile End Waste the next day. Feelings were probably running high and, on a wave of optimism and courage, two days later the Matchgirls, supported by the London Trades Council, were allowed to meet with the Bryant & May Directors. All strike demands were met. It was a momentous victory for worker’s rights and for working women. The news was greeted by ‘warm applause’ and ‘wild cheering’ from the waiting crowds. The next day it was in all the papers and one of the most important Strikes ever was won, and in just short of a fortnight!

10 days later, the inaugural meeting of The Union of Women Match Makers took place at Stepney Meeting Hall. 12 women were elected, most of whom had been on the Strike Committee.

The first enrolment of Union members resulted in 468 new Unionists. The following week, The Link reported the following from the enrolment meeting:

‘A break in the proceedings was caused by a very kind and pretty act of the girls, the presentation of a little gold brooch to Annie Besant, and of a scarf-pin each to Herbert Burrows and H. W. Hobart (unfortunately absent), as memorials of the victory-crowned struggle’.

Sarah was elected to the new Union Committee and was their first representative at the TUC, a sign that she was highly regarded and trusted by others in the workforce.

As far as we know, the International TUC in London in November 1888, was the first Union event the Matchmakers Union attended. There were only 77 delegates in total at St Andrew’s Hall and Sarah was one of them, along with Annie Besant. What an incredible insight to a different world this must have been for her.

Sarah may or may not have attended other conferences, but we do know she definitely attended the 1890 TUC in Liverpool. She is recorded as having seconded a motion in relation to The Truck Act. This would have been close to her heart as the Truck Act was related to workers having to purchase their own materials. At this conference, there were over 500 delegates but only 10 women, of which Sarah was one.

To go away from home for a week, to Liverpool, must have been an incredibly exciting yet eye opening experience for Sarah. To put into context the significance of her attendance at this event – it was only 20 years earlier that the Trades Union Congress was founded in the Mechanics Institute in Manchester and only 13 years before the first women attended – Emma Paterson and Edith Simcox.

At the 150th anniversary of the TUC, in 2018, 130 years after Sarah had first attended , Sally Hunt, then Congress President, celebrated the Matchgirls Strike and what they had achieved in her Opening Address. She publicly acknowledged Sarah – quite an emotional moment for me! She ended her speech using a match as a metaphor for the Matchgirls struggle and their unity.

So, what became of Sarah after the Strike? By 1891, her Father, Samuel, had become ill. Sarah and her Mother left Swan Court to live in Bromley by Bow and, by April the same year, Samuel had died. Sarah was still working at Bryant and May at that point but soon left to get married, later that year, to Charles Henry Dearman, a Cabinet Maker from Bethnal Green. They had six children, three of whom pre-deceased Sarah. First came Sarah (later known as Elsie) in 1892, who died as recently as 1985, then a son, Charles, in 1894 who sadly he died aged only 10 days old. Two years later, another Charles. He fought through both wars and became a policeman but died of his war wounds in early 1945. William was next in 1898 – he was my Grandad. He did outlive his parents but was still relatively young when he died. Sadly, I never got to meet him, but we believe he served in WWI and was a lifelong West Ham fan. He even attended the White Horse Cup Final at Wembley in 1923. The youngest daughter, Elizabeth, died of leukaemia just 12 days after her 21st birthday. Finally, there was Fred. He was born in 1903 and died in 1984. As his Mother before him, he was a strong trade unionist. Sarah’s, Charles, died in 1922 and she spent the last 23 years in Bethnal Green.

Unfortunately, we have few tangible links to Sarah’s life apart from a few photographs. However, we do have some memories via my Dad, Ken, who recalls Sarah giving him a red train engine when he was 3 or 4 years old, which would have been about 1941/2 (he drew this engine for me from memory). He also recalls visiting Sarah, his Grandma, in a terraced house in Bethnal Green, and going into a dark room with an aspidistra in a large pot, with antimacassars on the chairs with the evocative smell of gas from the wall mounted gas mantles.

We also have a very special wooden box, made by Sarah’s husband, Charles. When he died, he left it to his son, my Grandad, who for the rest of his life, would keep all of his important papers inside. He in turn left the box to my Dad, who has now passed it on to me. It is such a treasure knowing Sarah may once have held it.

Following on from Anna Robinson’s earlier discovery, I re-found Sarah’s grave in January 2017, in an unmarked pauper’s plot, at Manor Park Cemetery in Forest Gate. It is threatened with ‘mounding’ – a brutal process that involves removing all headstones, flattening the ground using heavy machinery, piling on new soil and then, after 2 or 3 years, making new burials. The obvious risk is the disturbance of the existing remains, which of course is illegal. We had some success in negotiating with the Cemetery to mark the grave but after we secured funds for a headstone for Sarah (from Unite the Union and GMB), we heard from a third party that the Cemetery had brought forward their mounding programme from the originally cited 5 to 10 years to now, i.e. June 2020! Sarah’s husband, Charles and two of their children (Elizabeth and baby Charles) have already been lost to mounding. The Cemetery keeps no record even of where they are in the grounds. We recently issued a Press Release to rally support to stop the same fate happening to Sarah’s grave. We have a petition, so please do use the link to sign up and help us.

There is so much worth shouting about with respect to the Matchgirls, to keep their memory and spirit alive. We, therefore, decided to set up a charity, ‘The Matchgirls Memorial’, to raise funds for memorials and to recognise their struggle and victory of the Matchgirls. Supported by our Patrons and Ambassadors, our Trustees continue to raise awareness of the Matchgirls heritage and its resonance today, to recognise their contributions to labour and union history.