Two interactive and immersive digital experiences have been created, allowing greater access to PHM's collection, whilst engaging adults and children alike with the story of two radical female history makers.
Active 90 years apart but both bravely fighting for better working conditions for working class women, Annie Besant supported the Match Girls’ Strike of 1888 and Jayaben Desai led the Grunwick strike of 1976 to 1978.
Funded by AIM Biffa Award History Makers Programme, developed in collaboration with the Creative AR & VR Hub at Manchester Metropolitan University.
The Match Girls’ Strike was a key moment in British history, sparking the rise of ‘unskilled’ trade unionism, or ‘new unionism’. The Bryant & May match factory in east London rose to infamous celebrity in a shocking expose entitled White Slavery in London on 23 June 1888, written by Annie Besant in a newspaper called The Link.
The match workers came from the most deprived poverty ridden conditions. They were mostly young girls, many aged only 13, and they faced a difficult life of hard work for which they received very little. The girls worked 14 hour days, on their feet, for four to eight shillings (20-40 pence) per week. However they rarely received their full wage due to a system of fines, ranging from three pence to one shilling. Offences included being late, talking, dropping matches, going to the toilet without permission and even having dirty feet. One girl told Annie Besant that once a month ‘you get coffee and bread and butter, and jam and marmalade, and lots of it’. This was deemed a special treat as diets normally only consisted of tea and bread and butter. Factory working conditions at this time were detrimental to the girls’ health. Match girls constantly faced the dangers of working with yellow phosphorous which could result in a form of cancer called ‘phossy jaw’.
Phossy jaw was a form of cancer which was extremely painful and disfiguring. Often Bryant & May forced their girls to have their teeth removed as a precaution to the disease. The girls were also told to ‘never mind their fingers’ when working with machinery, even if it meant being injured, and also suffered ‘occasional blows’ from the foreman.
‘Girls are used to carry boxes on their heads until the hair is rubbed off and the young heads are bald at fifteen years of age.’ Annie Besant, White Slavery in London, The Link (23 June 1888)
Annie Besant compared the Bow Road factory to a ‘prison-house’ and described the match girls as ‘white wage slaves’, ‘undersized’, ‘helpless’ and ‘oppressed’. The Bryant & May match factory tried to cover up the allegations made in Besant’s article by forcing their workers to sign false statements. Refusing to do so one of the girls was sacked and on 5 July 1888 in a demonstration of solidarity 1,400 women went on strike and the whole factory stopped working. It is believed that two women in particular led the strike, Mary Driscoll and Eliza Martin.
Annie Besant (1847-1933) was a prominent philanthropist and champion of human freedom. Regarded as unconventional and unorthodox in her time, she dedicated herself to women’s rights, better quality of life for children and self-rule for the British colonies.
On 9 July 1888 a group of women arrived at the newspaper offices of The Link to seek assistance from Annie Besant. Besant helped the match girls to set up a strike fund and form the Union of Women Matchmakers.
In a meeting on 16 July 1888 Bryant & May were eventually forced to make significant concessions. These included the re-employment of the victimised woman, an end to the fines system and the provision of a separate eating area so that food would not be contaminated by phosphorous. The women accepted the terms and returned to work in triumph.
The Bryant & May dispute was the first strike by unorganised workers to gain national publicity. The union, which lasted until 1903, was also extremely significant, considering that even as late as 1914 less than 10% of female workers were unionised. After the Match Girls’ Strike many other workers were inspired to form their own unions and many were established amongst ‘unskilled’ workers across the country. The rise of New Unionism is a well documented part of labour history, and it is important we do not forget where it all began.
Jayaben Desai was born in India in 1933 and when she married she migrated to Tanzania to join her husband. In east Africa there were rising attacks on Asians, with President of Uganda Idi Amin’s expulsion order forcing thousands of Asians to leave the country. Desai and her family were some of the Asians who migrated to Britain – they held British passports and chose to live in the colonial ‘motherland’ of Britain, moving there in 1967. This was the year before Conservative MP Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech and a tightening of immigration controls. By the early 1970s the National Front, a fascist organisation, were on the rise, and there were a number of violent racist attacks in Britain.
Jayaben took up low paid work in Britain as a sewing machinist, before moving to work at the Grunwick film processing factory in north west London. This was a time when it was very normal to send off your camera film to be developed! Working at the Grunwick factory, Desai rose to fame for her strike leadership…
Grunwick employed many migrant workers, including a large number of Asian women stereotypically viewed by employers as submissive and hard working. The Grunwick workers recalled an atmosphere of fear and control at the factory, with the workers treated in patronising and humiliating ways. One striker described: ‘The managers were in a glass cabinet. They could see us, and if they called us into their office, the rest of the workers could see them, but could not hear what was going on. We used to work out of fear.’ Desai described: ‘They had made the rule that you had to get permission from the managers to go to the toilet. This woman said to me that she felt ashamed to ask. I said, when he has no shame making you ask loudly, why should you feel ashamed?’
It was a strike at the Grunwick factory started after managers sacked a young man, and three colleagues walked out in solidarity with him. Soon after, on Friday 20 August 1976, Jayaben Desai was confronted with a short notice demand for overtime. She powerfully responded to her manager: ‘What you are running here is not a factory, it is a zoo. There are many types of animals in a zoo. Some are monkeys who dance to your tune, others are lions who can bite your head off. We are those lions, Mr Manager.’
Desai and almost 100 other workers walked out in protest against their treatment – they were to strike for two years. This was a spontaneous walkout and did not initially have union backing. There had been a number of previous strikes involving black and Asian workers in Britain, particularly in the 1960s and early 1970s, which had not received trade union support. In contrast, the Grunwick strikers soon received support from Brent Trades Council. They were encouraged to form a union and received strike pay – the strike therefore became not just about working conditions but also about trade union recognition. Grunwick saw some of the greatest scenes of black and white working class solidarity in the history of the trade union movement. As Desai argued during the strike: ‘We will not back down now. We want to bring this factory to a standstill. Our fight is for all our rights, and for our dignity. We hope all trade unionists will stand by us.’
Many workers responded to the solidarity call at Grunwick, travelling from all across Britain. President of the Yorkshire area of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) Arthur Scargill led a huge delegation from the coalfields, to join a group of overwhelmingly Asian women outside the Grunwick factory gates. Local postal workers for a period refused to touch the mail going into the Grunwick factory, in solidarity with the Grunwick strikers. There were pickets of up to 20,000 people.
The strike eventually failed. Yet the determination and solidarity during the dispute transformed the politics of race in the labour movement; Asian workers were by no means submissive and weak but were a vital part of the English working class. It was a critical moment in the interweaving of anti-racism within the trade union movement.