Sarah Chapman was born on 31 October in 1862 to Samuel Chapman and Sarah Ann Mackenzie; Samuel was a Brewer’s Servant at the time of her birth but was also known to have worked at the docks in his time.
The fifth of seven children, Sarah’s early life was spent at number 26 Alfred Terrace in Mile End but by the time she was 9, the family had moved to 2 Swan Court (now the back of the American Snooker Hall on Mile End Road), where they would stay for at least 17 years.
For a working-class family to stay in one place for such a long time was uncommon. Other evidence of the seemingly unusual stability of the Chapman family is that Sarah and her siblings received some form of education as they were listed as Scholars in census returns and could all read and write.
Bryant and May
By the time she was 19, Sarah was working, alongside her mother and her older sister, Mary, as a Matchmaking Machinist, so by 1888 she was an established member of the workforce at the Bryant and May factory.
At the time of the Strike, Sarah is listed as working in the Patent area of the business, as a Booker, and was on relatively good wages, which perhaps placed her in a position of esteem with the other workers. Her wages just before the Strike certainly suggest she was paid more than most. This may have been because of her position as a Booker, or because she just managed to avoid the liberal fines.
There was undoubtedly a high degree of unrest in the factory due to the low wages, long hours, appalling working conditions and the unfair fines system, which caused the women and girls at the factory to become increasingly frustrated with their bosses. External influences, particularly the Fabian Society, also provided an impetus for the Strike.
Ultimately, 1400 girls and women marched out of the factory, en masse, on 5th July 1888. The next day some 200 girls marched from Mile End down to Bouverie Street to see Annie Besant, one of the Fabians. A deputation of three (Sarah Chapman, Mrs Mary Cummings and Mrs Naulls) went into her office to ask for her support. While Annie wasn’t an advocate of strike action, she did agree to help them organise a Strike Committee.
"We’d ‘ave come out before only we wasn't agreed"
"You stood up for us and we wasn't going back on you"
The first meeting of the striking Matchgirls was held on Mile End Waste on 8th July and both the Pall Mall Gazette and The Star provided positive publicity. This was followed by meetings with Members of Parliament at the House of Commons.
The Strike Committee was formed and the following Matchgirls were named as members: Mrs Naulls, Mrs Mary Cummings, Sarah Chapman, Alice Francis, Kate Slater, Mary Driscoll, Jane Wakeling and Eliza Martin.
Following further intervention by Toynbee Hall and the London Trades Council, the Strike Committee was given the chance to make their case. They met with the Bryant and May Directors. By 17th July, their demands were met and terms agreed in principle. It was agreed that:
1. all fines should be abolished;
2. all deductions for paint, brushes, stamps, etc., should be put an end to;
3. the 3d. should be restored to the packers;
4. the “pennies” should be restored, or an equivalent advantage given in the system of
payment of the boys who do the racking;
5. all grievances should be laid directly before the firm, ere any hostile action was
6. all the girls to be taken back.
It was also agreed that a Union should be formed, that Bryant and May would provide a room for meals away from the room the work was done and that barrows would be provided to carry boxes, rather than the previous practice of young girls having to carry them on their heads.
The Strike Committee put the proposals to the rest of the workforce and they enthusiastically approved.
The inaugural meeting of the new Union of Women Match Makers took place at Stepney Meeting Hall on 27th July and 12 women were elected, including Sarah Chapman (ringed in red below).
The Union of Women Match Makers
An indication of the belief her fellow workers had in her ability, was Sarah’s election as the first TUC representative of the Match Makers’ Union. Sarah was one of 77 delegates to attend the 1888 International TUC in London and may well have attended other conferences. At the 1890 TUC she is recorded as having seconded a motion.
On the night of the 1891 census, Sarah was still a Booker at the match factory and living with only her Mum in Blackthorn Street in Bromley by Bow. By the end of that same year, in December, Sarah married Charles Henry Dearman, a Cabinet Maker. By this time Sarah had ceased working at Bryant and May.
Sarah and Charles had their first child, Sarah Elsie in 1892. They had five more children, one was my Grandad, William Frederick, born in 1898. By this time they had moved to Bethnal Green.
Sarah’s husband, Charles, and their daughter, Elizabeth Rose, were buried at Manor Park Cemetery in Forest Gate. Both graves have since been mounded over and the land reclaimed for reuse so it is not possible to visit them apart from knowing the general area where they were buried.
Sarah’s two youngest sons, William and Frederick lived with her, on and off, into the 1930s. Sarah continued to live in the Bethnal Green area until her death, of lung cancer, in Bethnal Green hospital on 27th November 1945 aged 83.
For reasons that are not clear Sarah was buried along with 5 other elderly people in a pauper's plot at Manor Park Cemetery, perhaps due to lack of money following WWII and trying to make ends meet in a bomb blasted area of London. She was survived by three of her six children, Sarah, William and Fred. A sad end to a life filled with challenges, not least a leading role in a Strike that was the vanguard of the New Labour Movement and helped establish Trade Unionism.
It is thanks to Anna Robinson, Poet and Lecturer at the University of East London, who in 2004 chose Sarah Chapman as the topic of her MA thesis, ‘Neither Hidden Nor Condescended To: Overlooking Sarah Chapman’, that I discovered the story of my Great Grandmother.
I contacted Anna in late 2016, having discovered her post on a family history forum dated 2003, in which she had appealed for information. Until then, I had no idea about Sarah’s past. Anna had also discovered Sarah's grave and was able to provide enough information for me rediscover it in early 2017.
Sarah is buried in plot 147/D/114 in Manor Park Cemetery. Regrettably, due to lack of burial spaces in London, there are plans to mound over her grave. Please sign our petition to help preserve the memory of this courageous woman.
To mark the 130th anniversary of the Matchgirls Strike in 2018, I am planning a commemorative walk to re-enact the steps taken by the Matchgirls on 6th July 1888, from Mile End to Bouverie Street where Annie Besant’s office was.
Please sign up, don your Victorian garb and join us to remember this momentous event – contact firstname.lastname@example.org for further details.
Thank you to Samantha Johnson for this post!