Inherited Craziness
A place to share all the nuts found on my family tree

Saturday, 19 December 2020

The Matchgirls at Bryant & May's factory in Bow

Former Bryant and May factory on Fairfield Road, Bow, was the setting of the 'London matchgirls strike of 1888'. Most of the buildings have been converted into housing - creating the Bow Quarter Estate. Photo © David Anstiss (cc-by-sa/2.0)

Ellen Wilton, (b. 1857), younger sister of my 2nd great-grandmother, Elizabeth Wilton (b.1847), had an awful start in life and nothing improved after it. Her father having died in 1858, in 1861, the sisters were inmates in the Great Dunmow Union Workhouse. After her mother remarried, but was widowed again, they moved to London, where we find Ellen and her mother, Catherine Eldred, in 1881, living in Powis Road, Bromley, Poplar

Ellen (24) and Susan Robison (21), a boarder living in their household, are listed as Match Makers, while lodger, James Howard (18) is listed as a Match Maker (Fusee). (A "Lodger" pays for use of a room only. A "Boarder" pays for a room and meals.) Living little more than half a mile from the Bryant & May's factory in Bow, it is probably reasonable to assume that this was where they were all employed, where the conditions were reported to be so awful that Ellen may well have reminisced fondly about her time in the workhouse. 

Matchgirl strikers, several showing early symptoms of phosphorus necrosis. Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
White Slavery in London

At the Bryant and May matchmaking factory in Bow, conditions were especially bad for the workers. 

"The match girls worked from 6.30am (or 8am in winter) until 6pm, with just two breaks, standing all the time. “A typical case”, wrote Besant, “is that of a girl of 16, a piece worker; she earns 4s a week ..." (Worth £26.17 in 2020).

"Conditions were appalling for the 1,400 women and girls who worked at Bryant and May's match factory in Bow, East London. Low pay for a 14-hour day was cut even more if you talked or went to the toilet, and 'phossy jaw' - a horrible bone cancer caused by the cheap type of phosphorus in the matches - was common." 
"If you handled white phosphorus or came into contact with it too much, then it caused serious damage to your health and you ended up with a terrible condition known as ‘Phossy Jaw’ – where you would get severe toothache followed by swelling of the gums. Abscesses would then form on the jaw-bone, and the facial bones would glow a greeny white in the dark. If untreated then ‘Phossy Jaw’ would develop into brain damage and ultimately multiple organ failure."
As a result of these appalling conditions, the London Matchgirls Strike of 1888 started in the factory, which led to the establishment of the first British trade union for women. Having checked the records, I know that my 2x great-grand aunt was not involved in the Matchgirls Strike in 1888, but reading about it gives an insight into what she must have endured. She could have been involved in an earlier, unsuccessful, strike in 1881. We don't know how long she worked as a Match Maker or at what point between 1871 and 1881 she and her mother had moved to London. There is a potentially relevant record of a death of an Ellen Wilton, in St George in the East, in 1882, so maybe she had already become a victim of these dreadful circumstances. 

Having read that Quakers, William Bryant and Frances May, established Bryant and May and, knowing that Ellen's mother's first marriage to Richard Wilton had been celebrated at the Quaker Meeting House in Great Dunmow, it both saddens and angers me to think that it may have been through these circles that the family learned of - and worse, trusted - this 'opportunity'.

At around the same time, in the 1870's, Ellen's sister Elizabeth and her husband, James Hockley (a pair of my 2nd great-grandparents), also moved south from Great Dunmow. Their son, Charles Stephen Hockley was born in Bromley-by-BowPoplar, Middlesex, in 1874. It's not possible to tell who led, or if they all moved down together, but for Ellen and her coworkers, it can hardly have seemed like the streets of London were paved with gold.


  1. Britain: The Matchgirls strike - from a spark to a blaze
  2. Bryant & May ‘Flaming Fusee’ matches for cigars and pipes, London, England, 1861-1895
  3. Bryant and May Match Factory, Bow, Greater London
  4. The ‘Bryant & May Match Factory’ in Bow & the ‘Match Girl’ strike of 1888
  5. Setting the workers alight: the East End Match Girls' Strike
  6. Bryant and May Strike Bow East London
  7. The Match Workers Strike Fund Register
  8. Match Workers Strike, Bow 1888
  9. Match Girls Strike - The British Library

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