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The Match Girls At The Hanbury Hall

February 17, 2023
by the gentle author

It is commonly known that brave female employees of Bryant & May – known as the Match Girls – met in the Hanbury Hall in Spitalfields to form one of the very first trade unions in 1888.

There is now a rare opportunity to learn more of this auspicious event when Samantha Johnson great-granddaughter of Sarah Chapman, one of the prime movers, gives a lecture in the Hanbury Hall as part of the Spitalfields Series.


Click here to book for 7th March: Samantha Johnson on ‘My Great – Grandmother and the Match Girls of 1888’


Below Samantha Johnson introduces her great-grandmother

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 Match Girls 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.

Sarah as a member of the Match Girls 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

A Plaque For The Match Girls

The East End Suffragette Map

8 Responses leave one →
  1. Christine Swan permalink
    February 17, 2023

    People are fascinating. Especially those who stood up against injustice. Even now, we benefit from their brave actions. How wonderful to discover that your great grandmother was one of those people! I would encourage anyone who has not discovered their family tree to take advantage of free trials, local archives and parish records. It is an engaging past time for the winter months and uncovers hidden social history which would otherwise be lost. Thank you Samantha and the GA.

  2. Susan permalink
    February 17, 2023

    Thank you so much, gentle author, for sharing Samantha Johnson’s information with us. I am always awestruck by those brave working class individuals who fought the economic system at a time when doing so might not only leave you without employment or in jail, but might even get you killed. (I am thinking, for example, of the Haymarket Affair, a violent confrontation between police and labour protesters in Chicago on May 4, 1886, that became a symbol of the international struggle for workers’ rights. Many people died in their effort to ensure that people had the right to an 8-hour workday.)

  3. February 17, 2023

    An impressive, awesome story of a working struggle par excellence!

    Love & Peace

  4. Milo permalink
    February 17, 2023

    Leaving aside the obvious seriousness and gravity of the situations all those workers in such appalling conditions had to suffer i can’t help but fix a wry smile to my face when i read how these match girls went on ‘strike.’ Is that where the expression came from?

  5. Timothy permalink
    February 17, 2023

    Fantastic. Really eye opening stuff about working people.
    A moving story. Thanks.

  6. Andy permalink
    February 19, 2023

    With great respect and we are coming back to strikes in the worst government this England has had.

    Will we have anything left?

  7. February 20, 2023

    A remarkable story with many details I was unaware of. It might have been unusual 60 years ago but Annie Besant and the match girls strike was a key part of the history A level course I took, but I’d thought that Annie was a match girl too. Thank you so much for introducing me to Sarah Chapman and her crucial contribution to the cause.

    One thing I would disagree with is the assertion that it was unusual for working class families to stay at the same address for long periods time. The key is that you mention that Sarah’s family was educated and that is an important signifier of the differences between the “rough” and the “respectable” working people – it was the respectable who would put down roots, and probably be church-goers, be advocates of temperence, go to photographers, send the kids to Sunday school, and use public libraries. (My family in Liverpool at that time was like that too!). All those swathes of terraced houses we associate working class communities were built in the 1880s so at that time there was plenty of good, relatively inexpensive new housing to be had, and a reason to stay put once you had secured one. It would also insulate you to a degree from the “rougher” elements of the community where there was more squalour, drunkenness, rowdy behaviour and the slums of Dickens’ era where the “moonlit flits” to avoid unpaid rent would be more frequent.

    This is a great read, Thanks again Samantha.

  8. March 6, 2023

    Fascinating life story. But I can’t work out how Sarah Chapman ended up in a pauper’s grave. She wasn’t poor, and three of her children were alive and could have seen to it that she was given a proper burial.

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