Great-granddaughter of match girls striker campaigns to erect memorial on her Manor Park grave
PUBLISHED: 13:45 10 November 2017 | UPDATED: 13:55 10 November 2017
We’re all too aware of the acute overcrowding situation when it comes to housing but what happens when it extends to the afterlife?
Burial space is under threat, with the cemeteries of eight boroughs in the capital now considered full.
In response, London burial authorities are increasingly favouring grave reuse as a sustainable solution.
The practice is controversial as it involves removing memorials and headstones from “unpurchased” or common graves where people are buried together if relatives can’t be traced.
Now the spotlight has fallen on privately-run Manor Park Cemetery, a 43-acre site home to hundreds of thousands of graves.
Open since 1875, the family-run cemetery’s occupants including Jack the Ripper victim Annie Chapman and residents who died in the World War Two Columbia Market Air Shelter Disaster.
Their remains lie in an area at one end due for reclamation soon. A recent discovery of another historical name has seen one campaigner clash with the cemetery.
Last year, Samantha Johnson, 50, traced her family tree unearthing that her great-grandmother Sarah Dearman, née Chapman, was a leading female figure in the match girls’ strike of 1888.
While delighted, Samantha was saddened to learn her social activist relative was buried in a public grave during 1945 with five others in Manor Park Cemetery, presumably having died penniless.
“It did make me feel very emotional to think that after all this time and all the great things she had done, she had just been left there, walked on for all these years,” said Samantha who visited the grave in January, initially mistaking it for a grassed footpath.
The Southampton resident wants to erect a memorial at the site but an exchange of letters between both parties became frosty when Samantha was informed that any memorial may have to be removed and repositioned as the area was “earmarked to be reclaimed by the cemetery in the near future”.
In this instance, reclamation involves a process called mounding in which earth is placed above a designated area “so no interred remains are disturbed in any way”.
It’s legally allowed after 60 years but is big and costly, requiring public notices to be issued six months in advance.
Samantha says the cemetery has been unclear about its timescales, leaving her in limbo and unable to show the grave to her elderly father, who met Sarah as a child.
She has also questioned how unclaimed memorials and headstones are treated.
A letter in July from the directors offered Samantha “a small plaque mounted at ground level on the grave”, a “suitable memorial repositioned nearby after the area had been reclaimed” plus offers including a nearby bench with a plaque on or a personal entry in a book of Remembrance.
At that point reclamation seemed unlikely for at least five years.
“My dad is 80 next year - I said we do not have five years to wait around,” Samantha said.
“I think Sarah deserves to be commemorated where her remains actually are.”
The directors have issued a statement to the Recorder saying it will not reclaim the land “for at least five years” and in that instance Samantha “would be offered the opportunity to purchase a lease of land of the new grave space above Sarah Dearman’s existing grave, and that any memorial she might have installed would be carefully repositioned in its original position once the works had been completed”.
It adds: “We feel Manor Park Cemetery has acted in a wholly reasonable and sensitive fashion and directors and management remain mystified as to why Mrs Johnson has no answered our offer.”
The cemetery also stated families are asked “to advise us if they wish to retain or collect their memorial” but they are unable to store or re-site broken memorials.
Samantha says she is now considering her options with her relatives. Follow her campaign online here
Who was Sarah Chapman and who were the match girls?
Labour history is defined by the match girls’ strike of 1888. It saw 1,400 women and teenage girls from the Bryant and May factory in Bow successfully negotiate better working conditions two weeks after striking on July 5.
Sarah Chapman was one of its key committee members. She was born on October 31, 1862 and later grew up in Swan Court, just off Mile End Road, the third youngest of seven children.
By 1888, Sarah had worked at the factory for seven years and was classed as a secure worker.
The 25-year-old singleton was one of the leaders of the hundred or so women who marched to Fleet Street and alerted women’s right activist Annie Besant - later credited with the strike’s success - of their cause.
“For me Sarah stood out because she was older and she had more to lose,” said Anna Robinson, a history and creative writing lecturer at the University of East London (UEL), who wrote a thesis on her.
“I see her as being a very strong, determined woman.”
Sarah was later elected as the TUC representative for the committee’s trade union, The Union of Women Match-Makers and attended influential meetings.
She married Charles Dearman - Samantha’s great-grandfather - a Bethnal Green cabinet-marker in 1891, giving up her job and union work, although she continued to vote.
She had six children and endured “quite a hard life” Anna says, dying aged 83 in Bethnal Green hospital.
Anna said Sarah and other members had their roles “overlooked” by accounts of the time but in fact they were confident and in control.
Of her own research of British history records, she said: “It is really determined by middle-class activist feminists rather than women who took part in strikes.”
West Ham MP Lyn Brown and historian Louise Raw are among those campaigning for a blue plaque honouring the match girls to be introduced at housing block Bow Quarter, the former site of Bryant and May’s factory.
Louise said: “Their victory ushered in a new wave of inclusive trade unionism, changing things forever.”