“Match girls” were trailblazers for workers’ rights, argues researcher
The story of how women in Victorian match factories fought against the brutal use of white phosphorus, was instrumental in shaping today’s workers’ rights, a University of Manchester dental researcher has argued.
Phossy jaw, which resulted in horrific facial injuries, was directly caused by the chemical to make ‘strike-anywhere’ or ‘Lucifer matches’ in the late nineteenth century by companies including Bryant and May.
However, it was entirely preventable, Professor Hugh Devlin explains in a historical review published in the British Dental journal.
The first and most prominent strike of female workers at the Bryant and May match factory was in the East End of London during 1888; 1400 of them walked out against low pay and harsh working conditions.
After three weeks the ‘match girls’- as they became known - won a resounding victory when the company agreed that all fines and deductions would be abolished and there would be no victimisation of strikers.
Bryant and May were also fined in 1898 for failing to report 17 cases of phosphorous poisoning, despite assurances to the factory inspectors that their workforce was healthy and unaffected.
The fines and costs to Bryant and May amounted to £25.9s, an amount which was easily affordable to the company.
“By 1899, there were alternatives to white phosphorus, though many factory owners refused to use them, “said Professor Devlin.
“Safety matches were available which involved the use of the much safer red phosphorous so working conditions were needlessly atrocious.
“In 1892, for instance, it was reported as common practice that wages were stopped for those who went to the hospital to obtain treatment rather than going to the Bryant and May doctor.”
He added: “There was no or little ventilation, and no separate eating facilities so conditions were highly unsanitary.
“But the authorities had showed little interest in improving conditions, or banning this substance until 1908 when the White Phosphorous Matches Prohibition Act came into force.
”And that was a direct result of the pressure these amazing women and other nineteenth century reformers put on the authorities through their campaigning and industrial action.
“The story of how women in the match factories fought against the poor working conditions, supported by nineteenth century reformers has shaped much present-day debate.
The story of how women in the match factories fought against the poor working conditions, supported by nineteenth century reformers has shaped much present-day debate. Their story provides a more nuanced, insightful, and relevant perspective of working life in that era
“Their story provides a more nuanced, insightful, and relevant perspective of working life in that era.
“The impact of their struggles are still a beacon for today’s work safety campaigners across the world.”
White phosphorus was the main ingredient of ‘strike-anywhere’ or Lucifer matches in the late nineteenth century.
Wooden splints were dipped into a heated mixture to create the matches and then left to dry in a heated chamber.
Workers were exposed to the phosphorous vapour or had skin contamination from handling the moist matches which could be ingested.
Though 1% of people were affected by the phossy jaw, its health impacts were extreme given the absence of available antibiotics and effective surgical treatment.
X-rays were only discovered by Wilhelm Conrad Rontgen in 1895, so they were not available for diagnosis and assessment of the condition.
Some patients died from the resultant bone infection, which usually started with a dull redness of the gum, followed by ulceration and chronic infection and then bone loss and facial mutilation.
Images available: Women working in a match factory in London in 1871; Matchgirl strikers, several showing early symptoms of phossy jaw