In the 1800s Bow was home to the Bryant and May Match Factory, employing over 2,000 women and girls, many of whom were teenagers. At one time it was the biggest factory in London.
Women worked 14 hour days in poor conditions and were exposed to dangerous phosphorous vapours on a daily basis. Working with the white phosphorus – the tips of the matches to enable a “strike anywhere effect” – was highly toxic and caused a devastating disease known as ‘phossy jaw’.
Even though the disease was widespread and deadly, it was the height of the Industrial Revolution and factory owners were not legally required to create safe working conditions. Women also experienced low pay and excessive fines for dropping a match or talking to others.
It was here, in 1888 the London Matchgirls strike against the dominating patriarchal world of factory life. This led to the establishment of the first British trade union for women.
The factory finally closed in 1979 and the site became one of east London’s first urban renewal projects. The factory building still stands today and is used as flats. An English Heritage Blue Plaque outside the entrance commemorates the achievements of the Matchgirls. As Frederik Engels said in 1935 – ‘The light jostle for the entire avalanche to move.’