Matches have a certain charm that electronic lighters simply lack. While some people prefer to stash their matches in boxes and tins, others like to display them on a stylish match striker, and there are plenty of choices available. The coolest ones have a built-in striker and look just like the antiques that your grandparents or great-grandparents probably used.
It was 14 hundred antique match strikes and girls – the majority of them just children – who walked out of an East End match factory and into history on the summer day of 1888. Their strike against the exploitation of the lowest strata of society had little impact at the time, but it helped bring about sweeping changes to wages and working conditions for all working-class people in Britain. It also gave rise to the Labour Party and sowed the seeds of today’s trade union movement.
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By the 1860s Bryant and May, the dominant match-making company at Fairfield Works in Bow, employed armies of men, boys and young teenage girls to make the matches and armies of home workers to make the matchboxes. They worked gruelling six-day weeks, up to 12 or 14 hours a day. They received very low wages and were punished with fines and deductions for petty offences such as talking or having an untidy workbench.
A few months before the matchwomen’s strike, women’s rights campaigner Annie Besant published an article in The Link, which detailed the appalling conditions in the factories. The article provoked massive public outrage and forced the management to change their ways. The company ceased using white phosphorus and began paying more for raw materials. It also abolished the system of fines and deductions. On 27 July 1888, the women formed a new union called the Matchmakers’ Union and it was recognised by Bryant and May.