In the summer of 1888, 1400 young women working in incredibly poor and dangerous conditions at a Bryant & May match factory went on strike. This strike marks the first successful strike of unorganized labor in the UK and acted as inspiration for a number of other labor strikes in the following years. The story of this strike begins in June of 1888 when Fabian Society member and activist Clementina Black spoke at one of the society's meetings about the plight of female workers at the Bryant & May match factory. Fellow Fabian Society member Annie Besant, shocked at what she heard, visited the factory the next day and interviewed several employees about the conditions they worked in. Among other things, Besant discovered that the women employed at the factory, most of whom were only fifteen years old or younger, had to deal with the following:
- The women had to work from 6:30am to 6:00pm in the summer and 8:00am to 6:00pm in the winter for less than five shillings per week.
- The women didn't always receive all of their wages as the factory's management had imposed a system of fines which ranged in deduction from three pence to one shilling. Reasons for being fined included talking, dropping matches, using the restroom without permission, and being late (regardless of how late, the fine for this offense was half a day's pay).
- The excessive exposure to white phosphorus caused the women to suffer from yellowed skin, hair falling out, and, worst of all, phossy jaw, a condition in which the jaw of the afflicted visibly glowed a greenish-white color until it eventually (and painfully) rotted away. Failure to have a disfiguring operation to remove the afflicted areas of the jaw would eventually result in death. White phosphorus had already been banned in Sweden and the United States at this point but the British government felt that following suit would be too restrictive on free trade.
On 23 June, 1888, Besant presented in her newspaper, The Link, an article about what the women of the Bryant & May match factory had to endure. The article, titled "White Slavery in London," caught the eye of "respectable" citizens of the time, many of whom felt that only "inferior races" kept slaves (slavery having been outlawed in Britain in 1833) and were shocked to find women working in such poor conditions. In response to the article, Bryant & May attempted to get the women working in its factory to sign a statement claiming they were satisfied with their working conditions. When the women refused to sign, those who had organized them not to sign were fired. In addition to this, Bryant & May also fired three girls who had spoken with Besant about their working conditions. The 1400 female employees of the factory retaliated by going on strike.
The "Match Girls" received supportive publicity from not only Besant but also Catherine and William Booth of the Salvation Army, Henry Hyde Champion of the Labour Elector, William Stead of the Pall Mall Gazette, and others such as Hubert Bland, Stewart Headlam, Sydney Oliver, George Bernard Shaw, and Graham Wallas. Besant, Champion, and Stead used their newspapers to call for a boycott of Bryant & May matches, which many people subsequently did. Not all of the strike's publicity was positive though: The Times blamed Besant and other socialist activists for causing the conflict between the workers and Bryant & May, casting them in a negative light.
Despite any negative publicity the strike received, many people contributed funding to support the women's protest. The workers organized into a trade union, requesting Besant lead them (which she did). On 21 July, 1888, three weeks after the strike had begun, Bryant & May gave in and stated it would rehire the workers it had fired, as well as remove the system of fines that was reducing the workers' already low wages. The strikers accepted this and returned to work victorious. Seeing this victory inspired workers in other fields to take a stand for better working conditions and, not even a year later, London dock-workers went on strike.
Once the Match Girls' Strike ended, Besant, Stead, and the Salvation Army continued campaigning against the use of the toxic white phosphorus. In 1891, the Salvation Army opened a match factory of its own in Old Ford, East London that used only harmless red phosphorus in its matches. In addition to this safety precaution, the Salvation Army match factory also paid its workers twice what Bryant & May did. Soon enough, the Salvation Army match factory was successful, producing six million boxes of matches per year. Salvation Army founder William Booth gave tours of the factory to journalists and members of parliament and showed them the homes of "sweated workers" still enduring twelve hour shifts at workplaces such as the Bryant & May factory. The continued bad publicity of Bryant & May's policies led to its managing director, Gilbert Bartholomew, changing its policy to cease using white phosphorus in 1901.