In the late nineteenth century matches were made using sticks of Canadian pine, dipped into sulphur and then into a composition of toxic white phosphorus, potassium chlorate, antimony sulphide, powdered glass and colouring.
The inclusion of sulphur—nicknamed brimstone—was one of the reasons early matches were called lucifers. .
The level of white phosphorus in the match varied; in 1899 a government report stated that in the UK it was between six and seven percent, while a Royal Economic Society report of 1902 put the figure at "usually about five; sometimes as much as ten per cent.
In the 1880s Bryant & May employed nearly between 1,200 and 1,500 were women and girls. An occupational disease that affected those who worked with white phosphorus was phosphorus necrosis of the jaw, also known as phossy jaw, which developed by inhalation of phosphorus vapour—particularly when the ingredient was heated—which caused osteonecrosis of the jaw bone.
Phossy jaw started with toothaches and flu-like symptoms, tooth loss, abscesses, swelling of the gums, the formation of fistula and necrosis of the jaw. Mortality was reported in around 20 per cent of cases. Bryant & May were aware of phossy jaw. If a worker complained of having toothache, they were told to have the teeth removed immediately or be
The matchmakers had been involved in organised political action in the 1870s and 1880s. An attempt to introduce a tax on matches in April 1871 was strongly opposed by the matchmakers and was criticised in the national press. The day after a mass-meeting at Victoria Park, London, up to 10,000 matchmakers— mostly girls and women between the ages of thirteen and twenty—marched to the Houses of Parliament to present a petition. The Manchester Guardian wrote that "policemen, strong in their sense of officialism, and bullying in their strength, approached the verge of brutality”. Queen Victoria wrote to the prime minister, William Gladstone, to protest about the tax and the day following the march, the proposed tax was withdrawn.
The matchmakers went on strike in 1881, 1885, and 1886 over low wages, poor working conditions, including fourteen-hour workdays, poor pay, excessive fines, and the severe health complications of working with allotropes of white phosphorus, which caused phossy jaw. The strike actions were all unsuccessful.
Social activist Annie Besant became involved in the situation with her friend Herbert Burrows and published an article 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, with approximately 1,400 women and girls refusing to work by the end of the first day.
The management quickly 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 management but was not satisfied by their response.
By 6 July the whole factory had stopped work. That same day about 100 of the women went to see 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.
Meetings were held by the strikers and Besant spoke at some of them. Charles Bradlaugh MP spoke in parliament and a deputation of match women went there to meet three MPs on 11 July. There was a lot of publicity. The London Trades Council became involved. At first, the management was firm, but the factory owner, 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 stated that fines, deductions for the cost of materials and other unfair deductions should be abolished and that in the 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.
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