Remembering Bryant and May

Yesterday, a blue plaque was unveiled (by Anita Dobson, no less!) to honour the women and girls who, in 1888, went on strike at the Bryant and May match factory in Bow. Their place in the history of the labour movement is assured, but I found it an odd event in some ways.

Anta Dobson and friends

I hadn’t been inside the factory complex since the late 1980s, when I was part of a demolition crew ripping out the original features, to make way for the conversion from a landmark in trade union history, to “The Bow Quarter”, a heavily gated colony of expensive apartments. Although I needed a job and was too self-absorbed back then, I knew the significance of the building I played a small part in desecrating and have felt a bit guilty about it since.

I think my nan also worked at Bryant and May. So while it was good that yesterday’s ceremony commemorated the leaders of the 1888 strike, I was reminded that thousands of people worked there after them. I’m sure they all benefited from the action of the first strikers, but it was still a hard, horrible, under-paid job.

The writer Louise Raw (link to her important book here), has done a brilliant job correcting the history of the “Matchgirls Strike”, rescuing it from its patronising associations with external influences and reminding us that this was a strike organised from the shop-floor, by independent, militant women.

One of the photos here shows that “men in suits” have literally and figuratively taken over this place, as they have so many others. I was also reminded that, during the 2012 Olympics, surface to air missiles were installed on the roof of The Bow Quarter, perhaps the ultimate expression of the paranoia that underlies such exclusive, fortified enclaves.

Men in suits

When Louise Raw spoke at the unveiling, she made the vital point that what the blue plaque represents is the purpose and power of trade unions. So I was struck by the hypocrisy of my local MP, who attended the event, but like too many of her colleagues, has failed to publicly express support for the recent RMT strikes. Both the 1888 Matchwomen’s Strike and the predecessor union of the RMT were fundamental to the creation of the Labour Party she represents.

Louise Raw

Of course, times change. But the core elements of why the Bryant and May workers went on strike 134 years ago, are no different to why the RMT and other unions are doing it now. It’s great that such an important episode in labour and East End history has been memorialised, but more important to stop the regression to Victorian values and conditions.

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