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A Plaque For The Matchgirls

July 6, 2022
by the gentle author

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Yesterday a blue plaque was unveiled by Anita Dobson in recognition of the heroic achievements of the Matchgirls at the former Bryant & May Match Factory, Bow Quarter, Fairfield Rd, Bow. Today Samantha Johnson outlines the story of her great-grandmother Sarah Chapman, who was one of the strike leaders.

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.

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

6 Responses leave one →
  1. Marnie permalink
    July 6, 2022

    Sarah was a brave young woman. She grew lovelier as she aged. There are so many neighborhood heroines and heroes to learn about and praise. Keep them coming, GA.

  2. Andy Strownan permalink
    July 6, 2022

    This makes me cry because they should never have suffered so much.

  3. July 6, 2022

    Absolutely wonderful.
    A suitable epitaph for such brave women.

  4. John Campbell permalink
    July 6, 2022

    Sarah’s name and story should be part of the national curriculum. An amazing woman who deserves so much more credit. Take down some of those cronies sculpted in bronze around Westminster and put Sarah and her fellow working girls up on the plinth and let the world know their story.

  5. July 6, 2022

    Thank you for sharing the story of this remarkable woman and her peers.
    Several women, and men, in my family worked at Bryant and Mays.
    Some recognition , at last, of the contribution these brave women made to the world of work.

  6. July 10, 2022

    Solidarity with the match girls and victory to the RMT!

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