Irish history

Mary Driscoll: Matchwoman, strike leader and shop owner

Always hold your head up. Remember you're as good as anyone.

A group of matchwomen leaning against a wallMary Driscoll was born to Irish parents in London in 1874.  She had three sisters, Katherine, Margaret (known affectionately as Mog), and Elizabeth. Both Mary, Mog, and their mother worked for the Bryant & May match company in Bow in terrible conditions and for very low pay.

In June 1888 when social activist Annie Besant published an article in her weekly newspaper 'The Link' about the conditions at Bryant & May, the management tried to get their workforce to sign a paper contradicting the article, which they refused to do. A worker was dismissed as an example, triggering a full strike in a single day as around 1,400 women and girls refused to work.

The management offered to reinstate the fired employee but the women then demanded other concessions, particularly in relation to the unfair fines which were deducted from their wages. After a week the whole factory had stopped work.  At a meeting with the management on 16 July the matchwomen's terms were accepted and the strike ended in victory. (Find out more about the strike in this talk by historian Louise Raw.)

Mary Driscoll was one of the strike leaders, and at the time of the strike she was aged 14 and living at home with her parents at 24 Cottage Street in Poplar.

Eight years after the strike Mary married a dock worker, Thomas Foster. They had 11 children, of whom five survived infancy. Thomas drank heavily, and could be violent towards Mary, once pushing her down the stairs. She effectively supported herself throughout her marriage as much of her husband's income was spent on drink. Mary took in washing, and took the children hop-picking each summer.

Thomas died in 1916, while Mary was pregnant with their son William, who died a few years later from the Spanish flu. Mary never fully recovered from this loss.

After Thomas' death, Mary was able to set herself up as a shopkeeper, opening a cats' meat shop and a corn chandler's beside each other on the now demolished Parnham Street. Mary could not read or write, but despite this became a successful businesswoman, known for her financial acumen.

It's unclear where Mary found the money to open the shops, it's possible that if Thomas had died in an accident at the docks she would have received compensation as his widow. It's unlikely that her in-laws helped, as she greatly disliked them (she even threw a party when her mother-in-law died in 1930).

Mary retained her Irish Republican beliefs all her life, and displayed portraits of Robert Emmett and Michael Collins in her rooms. Reported to be hardworking, fiercely independent, and typically quiet, Mary Driscoll was prepared to “fight her corner”.

During an air raid in the Blitz Mary once ran through the streets with her newborn grandchild, desperate to find a church in which to baptize him (she succeeded). Mary died in March 1943.

Source

Striking a Light: The Bryant and May Matchwomen and their Place in History by Louise Raw

Mary Jane Kelly

A sketch of Mary Kelly from 1888Mary Jane Kelly was born in Limerick in 1863 and her large family moved to Wales when she was young. Her father John worked in an iron works, and Mary had seven brothers and at least one sister She was a tall (5’7”), pretty girl with blue eyes and though she may have been illiterate was reported to be very clever and to have some artistic ability.

When she was about 16 she married a coal miner named Davies, who was killed about 1881 in a mine explosion. Mary stayed for eight months in an infirmary in Cardiff, before moving in with a cousin and starting to work as a prostitute.

Mary moved to London in 1884 and found work in a West End brothel. Reportedly, she was invited by a client to France, but returned to England within two weeks, having disliked her life there. Gravitating toward the poorer East End of London, she lived for a time near the Commercial Gas Works in Stepney. When drunk, Kelly would be heard singing Irish songs. A friend commented that "she was a very quiet woman when sober but noisy when in drink."

In 1888 Mary moved in with Barnett, they lived in a single room at 26 Dorset Street, Spitalfields. Barnett worked as a fish porter at Billingsgate Fish Market, but when he fell out of regular employment and tried to earn money as a market porter, Kelly turned to prostitution again to pay their rent.

She was only 25 when she was found brutally murdered in Whitechapel on 9 November 1888. Mary Jane was a Catholic, and she is buried in St Patrick’s cemetery in Leytonstone.

Julia Scurr: Socialist, suffragette, and Poplar Rates Rebel

Julia ScurrJulia O'Sullivan was born in Limehouse in 1873 to Irish parents. In 1899 she married local Social Democratic Federation activist John Scurr. Sharing the same radical politics and a determination to improve the lives of working people in the East End, they made a formidable partnership.

Women march to Westminster

In July 1905 Julia worked with other socialist activists Keir Hardie, George Lansbury, and Dora Montefiore to organise a march of 1,000 women from the East End to Westminster to lobby for jobs and welfare for the unemployed.

Poplar Board of Guardians

In 1907 Julia was elected to the Poplar Board of Guardians, and would remain a Guardian until she died. In June 1912 she presented a report criticising the lack of Day Rooms and recreational space at The Bow Infirmary (later St Clement's Hospital), stating that the residents had no choice but to stand around in unheated corridors. One man was refused discharge because he had no clothes. Julia reminded the governors that it was an infirmary, not a place of detention. Her male colleagues dismissed the report as being exaggerated.

Strikes and suffragettes

Julia became well known and respected throughout east London after organising food for the children of strikers during the 1912 dock strike. She also worked to improve the rights of the working class Irish community and became heavily involved with the women's suffrage movement and the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS). She was one of the women elected to the deputation who met Prime Minister Asquith in June 1914, and opened the meeting with a speech:

We women of East London are much concerned in regard to social conditions in our district. There is very great poverty around us and the rents are terribly high. There is much unemployment amongst the men and a very large proportion of the women are the principal breadwinners, although they are both the childbearers and the keepers of the home. We want to say to you that, in our view, a woman attending to her home is as much a wage earner as if she went out into a factory.

Poplar Rates Rebellion

On 1 September 1921 Julia was one of the 38 Poplar councillors and aldermen who were arrested and imprisoned for refusing to pass on unfair city rates to their constituents. Following widespread support for their act from the people of Poplar, the press, and other local councils London County Council backed down and the Poplar Rates Rebels were freed.

Last years

Julia Scurr was elected to the London County Council herself in 1925, but died in 1927 aged just 57. She was admitted to Bromley Infirmary in the last years of her life due to her deteriorating health. Her fellow councillor George Lansbury believed that the treatment she received while in prison was directly responsible for her early death.

Sources