MP for West Ham Lyn Brown on why the 1888 Bryant & May strikers are still an inspiration


- Credit: Archant

What a week of ups and downs. The greatest up: I’ve been promoted, coming out of the shadows of the Whips office to become Shadow Minister for Communities. It’s a big challenge and a talking role, to boot.

Talking about talking; I hosted a debate marking the 125th anniversary of the famous Match Women’s Strike in 1888 at the Bryant and May factory in Bow. Their story is one I heard at my mum’s knee and never forgot. It’s one of tenacity and bravery and of leadership that came from within the impoverished, uneducated working-class, mainly Irish immigrant communities, of London’s East End.

The management was brutal and work hazardous. Matches were made using white phosphorus, a material so dangerous it was eventually banned. The fumes inflicted terrible maladies, causing abscesses, pain and disfigurement.

The strike was successful. Bryant and May agreed to settle on the terms demanded by the strikers and even encouraged them to form a trade union, so future disputes were settled more amicably. That, in turn, led to the establishment of the wider trade union movement and, ultimately, the Labour Party. Quite an achievement and played out here on our doorstep.

This type of exploitation is rare in Britain now, but it still exists in dark corners.

A woman came to my surgery. She arrived as a bride, and was soon brutalised by her husband. She ran, sought protection among her community, but they returned her to him. He dragged her back to her parents, as damaged, unacceptable goods. Her family beat her and tethered her, dog-like, outside their home, whilst deciding her future. They discussed killing her.

Eventually, a man took her away. She was overjoyed. He brought her back to Britain taking her around the country finding her work for a few pence a week. Wherever she worked, she slept on the floor. She’s done that for a decade, yet still regards her “owner” as her saviour.

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The contrast between the match women and the trafficked woman is stark. They stood united and won priceless rights for us all. She stands alone, isolated, friendless, frightened, without hope.

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