I want to use today’s debate to highlight an oral history learned at my mum’s knee about the match women of London’s east end, who took control of their lives, setting ablaze a fire of trade union activism that not only secured better conditions at work for themselves, but inspired an era of labour organisation that would see workers’ rights entrenched and a political party of labour founded.
These courageous, poor, ill-educated women worked in appalling circumstances at the Bryant and May factory in east London. In 1888, they came out on strike to secure safer working conditions. Yet their story has been misrepresented and their impact on the early days of the labour movement has been underestimated—they were not the ones writing the histories. Their victory is attributed to Annie Besant, although not in the version I heard from my mum; in fact, she had never heard of Annie Besant. Let us give Annie her due—she did much to highlight the horrific working conditions at the factory—but she was opposed to the strike. She tried to dissuade the women from going on strike; she feared for them.
The version of history in which the defenceless waifs of London’s underclass were rescued by the principled, sympathetic middle-class champions has been comprehensively debunked by the amazing, remarkable, redoubtable author Louise Raw. In her brilliant book “Striking a Light”, she meticulously details just how the match women, led by five workers—Alice Francis, Kate Slater, Mary Driscoll, Jane Wakeling and Eliza Martin—knew their own minds, designed their own tactics, led their own movement and forged their own history. They were the true leaders of the match women’s strike.
Witnesses at the time were in no doubt of the significance of the event. The Star newspaper reported:
“The victory of the girls...is complete. It was won without preparation—without organisation—without funds...a turning point in the history of our industrial development.”
But the true story of the match women is so much more than just proud local women’s history. These women were and are integral to our national story. History records that it was the heroic London dockers of 1889 who spurred the foundation of the labour movement. But the record needs to be clear that it was London’s working-class women, a year earlier, who were the vital spark of trade unionism. The men learned from the women—they learned from their mothers, their wives, their sisters, their daughters and their neighbours. John Burns, a leading trade unionist at the time, told the striking dockers—men—to
“stand shoulder to shoulder. Remember the match girls, who won their fight and formed a union.”
Today the leaders’ names have echoed in this Chamber. But it ain’t enough. We have no memorial to them—their fight, their impact and their place in history. I have asked the Government before, and I ask again: please put pressure on English Heritage. We need to get this changed. I have tried, and so far I have been unsuccessful. English Heritage does not seem the least bit interested, despite its recent commitment to reflect diversity in its blue plaque scheme. I want a blue plaque on the site to recognise the true leaders of the match women’s strike and the 1,400 women who came together to withdraw their labour, demanding and winning safer and fairer working conditions. We need a plaque to remember the women who organised, who fought and who won against massive odds—women who were instrumental in founding a political labour movement that continues to fight for fair pay and conditions for all of Britain’s workers.