‘A shocking expose likened the Bryant & May factory in Bow Road factory to a ‘prison-house’ and described the match girls as white wage slaves, undersized, helpless and oppressed.’

The story of the British matchstick girls who in 1888 took strike action against the world of matchstick making isn’t well known. But these were the women who worked 14 hours a day in the East End of London and who were exposed to deadly phosphorous vapours daily.

Working with white phosphorous, which was added to the matches’ tips, was highly toxic and responsible for the devastating disease known as ‘phossy jaw’. The matchmakers gave this name to the particularly nasty condition’ phosphorous necrosis of the jaw’. The effect was literally causing the jaw bone to rot. Doctors soon began treating the women for the disease–which would often spread to the brain leading to an excruciating and horrific death, unless they removed the jaw. And even then, an extended life was uncertain.

The East End was often seen, and rightly, as among the worst sections of London. Sylvia Pankhurst, some years later, referred to it as ‘that great abyss of poverty.’ The living conditions described, in which many of the match workers lived as, ‘pestilential human rookeries, where tens of thousands are crowded together amidst horrors which call to mind the slave ship. To get into them, you have to penetrate courts reeking with poisonous and malodorous gases arising from accumulations of sewage and refuse scattered in all directions. Where there are beds, they are simply heaps of dirty rags, shavings or straw, but mostly these miserable beings huddle together upon the filthy boards.’

The socialist Annie Besant joined forces with William Stead to establish the newspaper, The Link. The halfpenny weekly carried on its front page a quotation from Victor Hugo: ‘I will speak for the dumb. I will speak of the small to the great and the feeble to the strong. I will speak for all the despairing silent ones.’ The newspaper campaigned against ‘sweated labour, extortionate landlords, unhealthy workshops, child labour and prostitution.’ 

In 1888, Clementina Black, the English writer, feminist and pioneering trade unionist, gave a speech on Female Labour at a Fabian Society meeting in London. Annie Besant, a member of the audience, was horrified when she heard about the pay and conditions of the women working at the Bryant & May match factory. The next day, she interviewed some people who worked at Bryant & May and discovered the women worked fourteen hours a day for less than five shillings a week. However, they did not always receive their full wage because of a system of fines, ranging from threepence to one shilling, imposed by the Bryant & May management. Offences included talking, dropping matches or going to the toilet without permission. The women worked from 6.30 am in summer (8.00 in winter) to 6.00 pm. If workers were late, they were fined a half-day’s pay. 

Furious by the match girl’s exploitation, Annie Besant investigated conditions at the factory for herself. On 23rd June 1888, after questioning several girls at the factory, she published a shocking expose in The Link, likening the Bow Road factory to a ‘prison-house’ and describing the match girls as white wage slaves, undersized, helpless and oppressed. 

The article, entitled White Slavery in London, complained about how the women at Bryant & May were being treated. The company reacted by attempting to force their workers to sign a statement that they were happy with their working conditions. 

Annie Besant discovered the phosphorus that they used to make the matches had severely affected the women’s health. This caused yellowing of the skin and hair loss and phossy jaw, a form of bone cancer. The whole side of the face turned green and then black, discharging foul-smelling pus and finally death. Although phosphorous was banned in Sweden and the USA, the British government had refused to follow their example, arguing that it would be a restraint of free trade. 

Bryant & May employed nearly 5,000 people, most of them female and Irish, or of Irish descent, although the numbers varied with the market’s seasonal fluctuations; by 1895 the figure was 2,000 people, of which between 1,200 and 1,500 were women and girls. By 1888, Bryant and May had become such a powerful monopoly that they could pay wages that were lower than they had been a full 12 years earlier. 

A brief article in The Journal of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery notes: The infamous ‘phossy jaw’ that created an epidemic of exposed bone osteonecrosis exclusively in the jaws began around 1858 and continued until 1906. This epidemic produced pain, swelling, debilitation, and reported mortality of 20% and was linked to ‘yellow phosphorous,’ the key ingredient in strike-anywhere matches. In match-making factories, workers called mixers, dippers and boxers were exposed to heated fumes containing this compound. Related to the duration of exposure, many of these workers developed painful exposed bone in the mouth.

A delegation of women at the factory went to management but were not satisfied by the response, and the entire factory stopped work. That same day about 100 of the women went to see Besant and to ask for her help. It has often been said that Besant started or led the strike, but this is not so. She knew nothing of it until the deputation called to see her and was at first somewhat dismayed by the swift action they had taken and by the number of women who were now out of work with no means of support. 

In 1891, the Salvation Army opened up its own match factory in the Bow district of London, using less toxic red phosphorus and paying better wages. Part of the reason behind this match factory was the desire to improve home workers’ conditions, including children, who dipped white phosphorus-based matches at home. Several children died from eating these matches.

The Bryant and May factory received terrible publicity from these events, and in 1901 they announced that their factory would no longer use white phosphorus. In 1908 the House of Commons passed an Act prohibiting white phosphorus in matches after 31st December 1910. 


Paul Asling takes us on a captivating journey around London, to discover some dark tales that have shaped the city’s compelling and turbulent past.         

Priced at £1.99 –

London Crime Thriller Books by Paul:

I share a special love for London, both new and old. If you like London crime books, you will love these gritty thrillers.


The Carter’s: Wars in West London

Bagley’s Lane: Blood On The Streets

Love You Till I Die

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s