Unions

Sarah Chapman: Matchgirl strike leader and TUC delegate

Childhood

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
taken;
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).

Sarah Chapman and Matchwomen's Strike committee

 

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.

Family

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.

Legacy

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 samdearman0411@gmail.com for further details.

Thank you to Samantha Johnson for this post!
 

Louise Raw on the Matchwomen's Strike

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

Milly Witkop: Anarchist, feminist, and union activist

Picture of Milly WitkopMilly Witkop (1877-1955), was a Ukrainian-born Jewish immigrant and the life partner of Rudolf Rocker, lived in Dunstan Houses, Stepney Green, London E1. In 1897, Milly and Rudolf were refused entry into the United States because they weren't married. Milly told the officials who accused them off advocating free love: "Love is always free. When love ceases to be free it is prostitution."

Milly worked side-by-side with Rudolf building the anarchist and trade union movements amongst Jewish immigrants in the east end. They co-editing Arbeyter Fraynd and Germinal. After Rudolf was interned in 1914 as an enemy alien, Milly continued anti-war activism until she was arrested in 1916.

When released in 1918, she joined Rudolf in the Netherlands (where he'd been deported). They moved to Germany after the war and tried to build the FAUD anarcho-syndicalist union.

Milly was one of the founders of the Berlin Women's Union in 1920 and was involved in building the national Syndicalist Women's Union (SFB). They fled in 1933 and moved to the US where they continued their activism.

Thank you to Donnacha DeLong for contributing this story.

Minnie Lansbury: Teacher, union activist, suffragette, rebel councillor

Photograph of Minnie Lansbury cheered by grounds, on her way to prison in 1921

I wish the Government joy in its efforts to get this money from the people of Poplar. Poplar will pay its share of London's rates when Westminster, Kensington, and the City do the same.

Minnie Lansbury was born in Stepney in 1889, one of seven children in a Jewish family who came to London to escape poverty and persecution in Russia. Her father, Isaac Glassman, was originally a boot finisher but later became a coal merchant. In 1913, Isaac paid the £5 fee to become a British citizen, entitled to vote. In 1914 Minnie married Edgar Lansbury, son of local MP George Lansbury.

Minnie became a teacher in a local London County Council school, earning £7 a month. She joined the National Union of Teachers and became involved in union activism, calling for equal pay for women among other things. She also joined the central committee of the East London Federation of the Suffragettes and played a key role in their campaigns and community actions. During the First World War Minnie became chair of the War Pensions Committee and used her role to protect the welfare of war widows, orphans, and the wounded.

After the War Minnie was elected alderman on Poplar Council. In 1921, she was one of five women who, along with their male colleagues, were sent to prison for refusing to charge full rates from their poor constituents. Although the Poplar Rates Rebellion was a success, while in prison Minnie caught pneumonia and never fully recovered her health.

On 1 January 1922 she died, aged just 32. Her death was announced at a thousand-strong meeting at Bow Baths Hall: "The audience for a moment was stricken silent... Then out of the silence came a woman's cry of grief, followed by the weeping of many women." The meeting was abandoned.

A few days later a crowd of thousands of mourners, mostly women, stood in the streets as her coffin passed by. George Lansbury wrote a moving tribute to his daughter-in-law in the Daily Herald:

Minnie, in her 32 years, crammed double that number of years' work compared with what many of us are able to accomplish. Her glory lies in the fact that with all her gifts and talents one thought dominated her whole being night and day: How shall we help the poor, the weak, the fallen, weary and heavy-laden, to help themselves? When, a soldier like Minnie passes on, it only means their presence is withdrawn, their life and work remaining an inspiration and a call to us each to close the ranks and continue our march breast forward.

Sources

Community history projects put women in the picture

We're not finished! Slogan and photograph of women protesting The East End Women's Museum project had a brief hiatus before Christmas for house-moving and business-starting. Since then we've been doing some research into governance structures and possible funding sources, and we've got some ideas we're really excited to share with you soon. Watch this space!

In the meantime we're incredibly proud to share these fantastic community history projects we're involved in:

We're Not Finished! Campaigning for women's rights since 1883

East End women have changed the world. From the match women of Bow to the Ford factory machinists of Dagenham, the women of East London have fought for their rights, their beliefs, their families and their communities.

We're working in partnership with local charity Eastside Community Heritage to organise a series of school and community workshops and an exhibition about the East End's inspiring women activists.

  • Please help us tell their story by contributing to the project crowdfunder. If we hit our target of £800 the full cost of the workshops will be covered! We've just passed the £500 mark and have one week left to raise the rest. Please donate today!
  • Have you (or has someone you know) been involved in a local campaign or a protest? ECH are looking for people to interview. Please contact kirsty@ech.org.uk to help make history!

St George's-in-the-East vigil and women's history exhibition

In November we worked with a great team of volunteers to organise a vigil for International End Violence Against Women Day, commemorating the women who were killed in the 1888 Whitechapel Murders. The vigil was followed by a moving service at St George's-in-the-East, just off Cable Street.

We're also working with the team on a women's history exhibition which will go on display in the church from May, and a series of events in March. It's not too late to get involved! Email womensmuseum@stgeorgesintheeast.org if you'd like to volunteer. Find out more.

In Her Footsteps: Walking tour web app and exhibition

We were chuffed to join the steering group of the In Her Footsteps project led by Share UK, working with volunteers to develop a walking tour app exploring the history of women-led activism in Hackney, Tower Hamlets and Waltham Forest.

The app will be developed over the next few months, launching with an exhibition and some great events in the summer. Sign up to the project's email list for updates, or contribute your story!

If you're planning or working on a community history project about women in East London we'd love to hear about it and help if we can. Please get in touch!

Share your stories of East End women fighting for their rights

ECH leaflet calling for interviewees

We're working with a fantastic local charity called Eastside Community Heritage to record and share the stories of East End women who have been involved with protests to advance and protect the rights of workers.

Did you have a suffragette or a match woman in the family? Have you taken part in actions for equal pay or fair wages? Have you walked out on strike?

ECH are looking to interview people about their memories, and excerpts from these interviews will be shared online and at a small public exhibition in March as part of Women's History Month.

If you'd like to find out more please contact Kirsty on kirsty@ech.org.uk or 0208 553 3116