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Hull MP pays tribute to Labour's 'Founding Mothers'

Hull North MP Diana Johnson made the following speech in a Westminster Hall debate on the match women's strike of 1888.

Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under you today, Mr Dobbin. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) on securing the debate and on setting out with great passion the facts about the match women’s strike. She also set the record straight on a number of issues. Furthermore, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on her personal account of how important the match women’s strike was for the trade union movement, not only in this country, but because of its wider ramifications abroad.

Most of my time is spent grappling with present-day issues in my constituency, and focusing on the future for that area. Occasionally, however, we are reminded of how key moments in our history can shine a bright light on the present and on the future. Pausing to think about the past does not mean that we are living in it; it helps us to understand where we come from, as well as the road ahead.

How did I become interested in a strike that happened in east London 125 years ago, involving mostly women, many of whom were from the Irish immigrant community? Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham, I am not a native of the east end of London. Originally, I am from the north-west, and I represent a constituency in east Yorkshire—all up north—but in 1985 I came to east London to study at Queen Mary and Westfield college in Mile End, at the other end of Bow road from the Bryant & May factory site. In addition, I served as a Poplar councillor, for Lansbury ward, its name another echo of the proud Labour history of the east end of London.

Earlier this year, I had the great pleasure of reading historian Louise Raw’s book on the match women, which my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham has already mentioned. Louise spent 15 years studying the events of the 1880s and their historical significance. Her book, “Striking a Light”, sets the record straight on what really happened, what it led to and why the strike is so relevant today. I was also honoured to attend the first match women’s festival, on 6 July this year.

The match women’s strike has never been given the prominence that it deserves. Their self-organisation has been overlooked and their bravery has never been properly recognised, but if it had not been for them winning their strike in 1888, it is possible that many of us here today, especially the Labour women MPs, would not be Members of Parliament and speaking in the House of Commons.

In 1888, the match women had few rights at work and even weaker rights as citizens—the right to vote was still 30 years away for the first women, and parliamentary democracy as a means of improving the lot of working people was at a far less advanced stage. As women, the match women were frowned on for working at all, even though doing so was a matter of survival. I understand that there was even a sense of shame about working for Bryant & May, which is ironic and poignant, considering how proud of those workers many of us are today. The material poverty and exploitation experienced in everyday life by the match women was truly shocking. Bryant & May in the late 19th century was a prime example of what today would be called a flexible labour market, taken to its ultimate extreme. Today, I am sure that Bryant & May would be misusing zero-hours contracts to the hilt, and the concept of a living wage would be utterly alien to it.

As my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham said, Fabian journalist Annie Besant, whom I like to describe as the Polly Toynbee of her day, supported a consumer boycott of Bryant & May, not a strike. As has been asked in this debate, how therefore can she be said to have led the strike? Annie Besant, however, did write in The Link on 23 June 1888 some of the most moving words about the match women—words that led to the strike, if only by accident:

“But who cares for the fate of these white wage slaves? Born in slums, driven to work while still children, undersized because under-fed, oppressed because helpless, flung aside as soon as worked out, who cares if they die or go on to the streets provided only that Bryant & May shareholders get their 23 per cent and Mr. Theodore Bryant can erect statutes and buy parks?”

The words written by one of the match women in response to management bullying, which my hon. Friend mentioned, received by Annie Besant on 4 July 1888, were similarly moving:

“Dear Lady they have been trying to get the poor girls to say that it is all lies that has been printed and trying to make us sign papers that it is all lies; dear Lady nobody knows what it is we have put up with and we will not sign them. We thank you very much for the kindness you have shown to us. My dear Lady we hope you will not get into any trouble on our behalf as what you have spoken is quite true.”

A number of Lib Dem MPs signed my recent early-day motion 337 about the match women. I wondered at the time whether any of them had studied their own party’s history, considering how badly the match women were treated in the years leading up to the 1888 strike at the hands of a company owned and run by prominent supporters of the Liberal party. Those Liberals imposed low and falling pay, dangerous working conditions, covered up the horrendous phossy jaw disease, and had a draconian system of fines. Their bullying led to the 1888 strike,

after they tried to force workers to denounce Annie Besant’s article. Those were the employers who docked 1 shilling from the pay of the match women to fund the statue of Liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone that still stands today in Bow road.

This episode is heavy with irony. The director running Bryant & May when the statue was commissioned by Theodore Bryant was one Wilberforce Bryant, who took over from his Quaker father. As a Hull MP, I am proud of Hull’s William Wilberforce and his anti-slavery campaign.

The irony of this worst of employers carrying the name Wilberforce is not lost on me.

It is even more ironic that the poverty pay of the match women was docked to put up a statute in tribute to William Gladstone. After all, the Gladstones could easily have financed the statue from the £93,526 compensation that they received for losing their 2,039 slaves when slavery was abolished. Annie Besant’s famous “White slavery in London” article in The Link reported that the match women, given half a day’s unpaid holiday to attend the unveiling, threw blood on the statue, protesting, “We paid for it!” If people go down Bow road this morning, they will see that the hands of that statute are still red—a great tradition that has been kept up.

These events go some way to explaining the political climate in which the Labour party was created a little more than a decade later, and why the Liberal party could not and would not stand up for ordinary people, especially women. During the suffragette campaign of 100 years

ago, the Liberal Government introduced the “cat and mouse” Act to force-feed suffragette political prisoners, including Emily Wilding Davison. I cannot help but notice that the Liberal Democrats still seem to have a problem with women. There are still no women Lib Dems in the coalition Cabinet, and there are more male Lib Dem MPs with knighthoods and similar titles than Lib Dem women MPs.

The victory of the match women inspired the growth of trade union recruitment among the lowest paid unskilled workers, many of them women, who had been ignored by trade union leaders throughout the 19th century. Until then, unions were largely only interested in organising skilled male workers, who were regarded as more respectable. At the recent match women’s festival, I was delighted that Frances O’Grady, the first woman general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, spoke—someone who represents a positive image of trade unions now, just as the match women did in 1888.

As my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham mentioned, by inspiring the 1889 dock strike by male dock workers from the same east end households, streets and communities, the match women changed trade union history. Of course, this was acknowledged by dockers’ leaders at the time, such as John Burns, but then faded from history textbooks until Louise Raw’s recent research. This new unionism led to historic political developments, too, as growing working class alienation from the Liberal establishment set the scene for the creation of the Labour party in 1900. Anyone who understands Labour’s origins is better equipped to answer the current slur about our being the welfare party, because we are the party of work.

Many men and women who have had such an influence on our history have great monuments to them. Winston Churchill stands outside the Palace of Westminster; Emmeline Pankhurst stands next to the House of Lords; and William Wilberforce looks down from a column 90 feet high in Hull.

The match women are marked only by an inaccurate blue plaque outside the Bow Quarter in Fairfield road, at the Bryant & May site. Worse still, round the corner on Bow road stands that statue to the Liberal politician admired by their employer and paid for by docking the match women’s pay. Perhaps the Minister for blue plaques, who is here today, will consider what else he can do to ensure that there is an appropriate plaque and appropriate recognition of the role played by these women.

Anyone studying the achievements of the Labour party, such as our National Health Service, rightly thinks of Nye Bevan and Clement Attlee, but they should also remember those 1,400 brave match women in Bow, especially those at the forefront of organising that strike campaign: Alice Francis, Kate Slater, Mary Driscoll, Jane Wakeling and Eliza Martin.

For the Labour party, this is where it all began: with the founding mothers of the party.

This speech can be watched at The whole debate, held on 8 October 2013, can be read at or watched at

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