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Sarah Chapman, Matchgirl Strike Leader

June 26, 2018
by Samantha Johnson

Samantha Johnson sent me this proud account of her great-grandmother Sarah Chapman who was one of the Matchgirl Strike Leaders. Samantha is organising a hundred-and-thirtieth anniversary walk on July 6th, retracing the steps of the Matchgirls from Mile End to the Strand where they visited Annie Besant, which readers are invited to join. Click here for more information

Sarah Chapman (1862 – 1945)

My great-grandmother was born on 31st October in 1862 to Samuel Chapman and Sarah Ann Mackenzie.  At the time of her birth, her father was employed as a Brewer’s Servant and was also known to have worked in the docks. The fifth of seven children, Sarah’s early years were spent at number 26 Alfred Terrace in Mile End but, by the time she was nine, the family had moved to 2 Swan Court (now the back of the American Snooker Hall on Mile End Rd), where they stayed for the next seventeen years. For a working class family at this time to stay in one place for such a long time was uncommon. Other evidence of the stability of the Chapman family is that Sarah and her siblings were educated, as they were listed as Scholars in the census and could all read and write.

At the age of nineteen, Sarah was working alongside her mother and her older sister, Mary, as a Matchmaking Machinist, and by 1888 she was an established member of the workforce at the Bryant & May factory in Bow. 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 among other workers. She was certainly paid more than most and this may have been because of her position as a Booker, or perhaps because she just managed to avoid the liberal fines which were meted out by the employers.

There was 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 at the factory to grow increasingly frustrated. 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 that fateful day of 5th July 1888. The next day some 200 girls marched from Mile End down to Bouverie St in the Strand to see Annie Besant, one of the Fabians and a campaigner for women’s rights. A deputation of three (my great-grandmother Sarah Chapman, Mrs Mary Cummings and Mrs Naulls) went into her office to ask for her support. Although Annie was not 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 & May Directors and 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, before any hostile action was taken.
  6. All the girls to be taken back.

It was also agreed that a union be formed, that Bryant & May provide a room for meals away from where the work was done and that barrows be provided to transport boxes, replacing the 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. Thus the inaugural meeting of the new Union of Women Match Makers took place at Stepney Meeting Hall on 27th July and twelve women were elected, including Sarah Chapman.

An indicator of the belief her fellow workers put in Sarah’s ability, was her election as the first TUC representative of the Match Makers’ Union. Sarah was one of seventy-seven delegates to attend the 1888 International Trades Union Congress in London and 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 her mother in Blackthorn St, Bromley by Bow, but in December of that same year, she married Charles Henry Dearman, a Cabinet Maker. By this time she had ceased working at Bryant & May.

Sarah and Charles had their first child, Sarah Elsie in 1892. They had five more children, one was my grandfather, William Frederick, born in 1898 when they had moved to Bethnal Green. Sarah’s two youngest sons, William and Frederick lived with her, on and off, into the thirties and she lived out her years there, dying in Bethnal Green hospital on 27th November 1945 aged eighty-three. She was survived by three of her six children, Sarah, William and Fred.

Sarah was buried alongside five other elderly people in a pauper’s plot at Manor Park Cemetery. It was a sad end to a brave 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 in this country.

It is thanks to Anna Robinson, Poet & Lecturer at the University of East London, who 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 2016 after I discovered her post on a family history forum appealing for information. Until then, I had no idea about Sarah’s story. Anna also discovered Sarah’s grave in Manor Park Cemetery and I was able to visit it in 2017. Regrettably, there are plans to mound over her grave.

Please sign the petition to preserve the memory of this courageous woman

Sarah as a member of the Matchgirls Union Committee

Sarah with her husband Charles Henry Dearman

Sarah with her grandson, Frederick William

Sarah in later years

You may also like to take a look at

The East End Suffragette Map

9 Responses leave one →
  1. David Tarrant permalink
    June 26, 2018

    Wonderful account of the life and times of Sarah Chapman. Samantha Johnson is clearly also a scholar.

  2. Judith Baxter permalink
    June 26, 2018

    What an amazing story and thank you for telling it. How many brave people stood up for the working people is something we probably will never know. But each ne we hear of brings those times closer to us.

  3. June 26, 2018

    Sarah Chapman was a courageous woman! Valerie

  4. June 26, 2018

    Whilst I was writing my history of the Matchgirls’ Strike, 1888, I was asked by mother why I was up writing until the early hours, when I told her the reason she casually said, “Oh, I was a matchgirl at Bryant & May.” She died shortly afterwards, without her memories of the 20′s and 30′s being recorded. Also discovered that my brother-in-law’s grandmother, name of Wenborne, was a striker. Two testaments to the importance of oral history to the recording of the lives of ‘ordinary’ people (a shame that in these two cases the work was not undertaken!)

  5. June 26, 2018

    That’s a great story and a life truly well led. Anybody would be proud to have an ancestor like that.

  6. June 26, 2018

    Bravo to Sarah and the other Strike Committee members for taking on the establishment at Bryant and May and for ultimately helping to make the lives of those workers better.
    Samantha you must be so proud to have uncovered your great grandmother’s inspirational story, a strong East End woman.
    I regularly drive past the Bryant and May factory (now luxury apartments) and often think of the appalling working conditions endured there, the blatant exploitation of the needy poor and the physical suffering of those who contracted ‘phossy jaw’.
    Thank you for sharing this story with us.

  7. Delia Folkard permalink
    June 27, 2018

    I thoroughly enjoyed this story and hope that many more will unfold, especially in this year of celebrating women’s suffrage. Wll done Samanther and all who helped bring it to light.

  8. Steven Burr permalink
    June 28, 2018

    What does “Mound over her grave” mean and why would they do it?

  9. Samantha Johnson permalink
    June 30, 2018

    Thank you all for your kind comments.

    Yes Reginald, we have found Annie Wenborne in the Strike Register. Living at 12 Sophia Street with her father, she worked in the Wax, Box store and Patent section.

    Steven, to answer your question briefly:
    London has a shortage of burial sites, and one of the methods of providing more include ‘mounding’ where soil is built up over existing graves (whose headstones are removed), and new interments placed above the old graves.

    Parliament has discussed this, and the Ministry of Justice issues licences if early interments are to be disturbed. There are guidelines for Local Authority cemeteries.

    Manor Park Cemetery is a privately run business. Visit the cemetery now and you will see ‘mounding’ in progress adjacent to the Whitta Road pedestrian entrance. The graves of Sarah Chapman’s husband and daughter have already been lost to earlier ‘mounding’, and cannot be found.

    I would be happy to talk to you in more detail.

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