This is the first we hope in a new series of reviews of books which have come in to the Library. Let us know if you fancy contributing a review yourself!
Striking a Light: The Bryant and May Matchwomen and their Place in History, by Louise Raw
Continuum Press ISBN 978-1-4411-1426-6 £17.99
Louise Raw’s book is not only a fascinating history of the matchwomens’ strike in 1888 but also an exposé of how little real research has been done into what has come to be seen as a turning point in British trade union history. The strike of 1400 women and girls at the Bryant and May factory has been underplayed in terms of their actions and the significance of the strike. As the author says: “I hope this book will go some way towards restoring to these women and their workmates their own voice and agency, serving both as a rewriting of the very beginnings of modern British labour history and as a tribute to the women”.
Louise starts off with the best of credentials for writing this political history for she has worked in the East End with local people and has herself been on strike with them. Her research on the Matchwomen has provided us with a new story about the women that has been ignored by more famous and lauded historians. This book is the first proper history of this group of women workers taking industrial action. She had to write a history without any autobiographies written by the individual women, and with all the participants long dead. Her account is fascinating not least because of Louise’s research methods. She spent several years laboriously tracing the women through local papers and history talks and eventually succeeded in interviewing and speaking to the grandchildren of those whom she believed were the true leaders of the strike.
One of the key myths of the strike is that Annie Besant (a middle class journalist and Fabian) actually led the strike. Louise demonstrates that in reality Besant was fundamentally opposed to the kind of action that the women instigated, in fact she wanted a more middle class compromise ie boycott of the Bryant and May products.
This is an important book on many levels but particularly in giving back to these women and their descendants the true history of their lives. Too often in histories the independent actions and motivations of working class people are ignored or underplayed. This book conveys to us an understanding of who these women were and why they decided to go on strike. Also it puts into context the vibrant political community they came from, which was largely an Irish community, a community that has through the years played a significant role in British trade union history. As Louise says: ”Certainly there is good evidence that the working-class Irish community in the Victorian East End was a politicized one. The London Irish brought with them traditions…passive mass defiance, street violence and armed rebellion.”
In this book Louise shows that the Matchwomen’s strike was an important part of the lead up to the wave of strikes, including the Great Dock Strike of 1889. which led to the birth of the trade union movement in this country and the creation eventually of the Independent Labour Party. In 2011 as we are going through a major attack on public services in this country it is important that we look back and learn from past experiences. The Matchwomen are part of the fabric of the trade union movement in this country and as such quite rightly deserve their place in our history. I am confident Louise’s excellent and sympathetic book will ensure that this happens.