Radical Books

Book Review: Striking a Light by Louise Raw

Striking a Light by Louise Raw (Continuum Press, £16.99)

One of the best known industrial disputes in labour history is that of the matchgirls at Bryant and May’s factory in Bow, East London in 1888.  Yet it’s taken the publication of this book to destroy some of the urban myths around the dispute, the first being that the strike was led by and directed by the middle-class Fabian Annie Besant and her supporters.

Up until now their names and backgrounds were a matter of record but very little has ever been mentioned about the women themselves  The directors and shareholders of the factory held themselves in high regard as model employers who were helping the underclass of the East End.  Their concern was not the dangers to life and limb of manufacturing the highly combustible “Lucifer” match but the “low” moral condition of the women, which tended to excite middle-class males who accepted the lurid tales from the penny dreadfuls and gutter press as true.  Louise Raw skilfully chronicles the previous attempted strikes and disputes at the match factory before 1888.

Conditions were harsh for the 1,400 women, girls and young boys – some as young as six – who worked there.  The day started at 6.30am and finished at 6pm with only two short breaks in between.  Blows and verbal abuse were used to bully workers to work faster to meet schedules and Bryant & May also used a great number of out-workers and their familes who worked for shockingly meagre rates of pay and no legal protection.

Another myth Raw dispels is that the women were illiterate and morally corrupt wasters.  Her research shows that their antecedents were mainly Irish Catholic and they were people who enjoyed full social lives and comradeship.  She reveals the intelligence and skill employed by the workers in organising and running the dispute and negotiating with the employer and the press.

In July 1888 the management of the factory dismissed a “troublemaker” and Raw describes the monitoring of so-called agitators working in the factory.  The management were right to be concerned as unrest had been building and a militant atmosphere was sweeping through east and south-east London.  The strike when it came was solid and well organised and did gain momentum following an Annie Besant article on the strike written in her paper The Link and subsequent correspondence in The Times, although later she was to speak out against further industrial action.  But the employers, aware how solid and well disciplined the strike was, soon capitulated.

The effect of the victory was profound.

Many of the strikers’ brothers, fathers and partners were either dockers or gasworkers and correspondence between the labour leader Tom Mann and Tom McCarthy of the stevedores, reinforces the importance of the dispute in motivating dockers and other workers in organising themselves into unions.

Incredibly well researched and written, this book is a major contribution to labour and social history.  The author is a former trade union organiser with her roots firmly in the working class.

The book is an absolute must-have for serious historians and enjoys an important foreword by Sheila Rowbotham.


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