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The strike was caused by the poor working conditions in the match factory, including fourteen-hour work days, poor pay, excessive fines, and the severe health complications of working with white (or yellow) phosphorus, such as phossy jaw, but was sparked by the dismissal of one of the workers on or about 2 July 1888.
Annie Besant had interested herself in the situation with her friend Herbert Burrows and had published an article "White Slavery in London" in her halfpenny weekly paper "The Link" on 23 June 1888. This had angered the Bryant & May management who tried to get their workforce to sign a paper contradicting it, which they refused to do. This led to the dismissal of a worker (on some other pretext), which set off the strike.
Initiated by the workers themselves, the strike started immediately and 1,400 women and girls seem to have been on strike by the end of the first day. The management immediately offered to reinstate the sacked employee, but the women then demanded other concessions, particularly in relation to the unfair fines which were deducted from their wages. A deputation of women went to the management but were not satisfied. By 6 July the whole factory had had to stop work, on which day about a hundred of the women went to see Annie Besant and to ask for her assistance. It has often been said that she started or led the strike but this is not so. She knew nothing of it until the deputation called to see her and was at first rather dismayed by the precipitate action they had taken and by the number of women who were now out of work with no means of support.
A strike fund was set up and some newspapers collected donations from readers. The women and girls also solicited contributions. Members of the Fabian Society including George Bernard Shaw, Sidney Webb and Graham Wallas were involved in the distribution of the cash collected.
Meetings were held by the strikers and Besant spoke at some of them. Charles Bradlaugh MP spoke in parliament and a deputation of matchwomen went there to meet three MPs on 11 July. There was much publicity. The London Trades Council became involved. At first the management were firm, but Bryant was a leading liberal and nervous of the publicity. Besant helped at meetings with the management and terms were formulated at a meeting on 16 July, in accordance with which it was offered that fines, deductions for cost of materials and other unfair deductions should be abolished and that in future grievances could be taken straight to the management without having to involve the foremen, who had prevented the management from knowing of previous complaints. Also, very importantly, meals were to be taken in a separate room, where the food would not be contaminated with phosphorus. These terms were accepted and the strike ended.
Besant and others continued to campaign against the use of white phosphorus in matches.
In 1891, the Salvation Army opened up its own match factory in the Bow district of London, using less toxic red phosphorus and paying better wages. Part of the reason behind this match factory was the desire to improve the conditions of home workers, including children, who dipped white phosphorus-based matches at home. Several children died from eating these matches.
The Bryant and May factory received bad publicity from these events, and in 1901 they announced that their factory no longer used white phosphorus. Ironically, the owners (Francis May and William Bryant), who were both Quakers, had started importing red-phosphorus based safety matches from John Edvard LundstrÃ¶m, in Sweden, in 1850. However, Bryant and May's safety matches sales had increased 10-fold by 1855 and Lundstrom was unable to increase his production any further; so they bought his UK Patent, and with his assistance, built a model safety match factory in Bow. They started using red phosphorus in 1855, but could not compete on price against the much cheaper white phosphorus-based matches; hence the use of child labour.
The Salvation Army had the same problem; their own matches were initially three times the price of white phosphorus-based matches. They had some partial success, because many of their supporters refused to buy white phosphorus-based matches; they automated much of the match-making processes, but not box filling, thus bringing down costs; and, the use of child labour in dangerous trades was prohibited. The factory still struggled to compete on price; and after 1898 the War Cry ceased to advertise their matches. Their last make-or-break advertisement was run on 24 February 1900. The Salvation Army match factory finally closed and it was taken over by Bryant and May on 26 November 1901.
In 1908 the British House of Commons passed an Act prohibiting the use of white phosphorus in matches after 31 December 1910. This was the United Kingdom's implementation of the 1906 Berne Convention on the prohibition of white phosphorus in matches.
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