Thursday, June 19, 2014

Income vs Expenditure in Working-Class Victorian England

East Enders
Every school student must be aware of the financial advice that Charles Dickens has Mr Micawber offer the eponymous hero of his novel, David Copperfield. In fact, Micawber offers this guidance twice within a dozen pages.
Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness.  Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds aught and six, result misery.  The blossom is blighted, the leaf withered, the God of day goes down upon the dreary scene, and --and in short you are for ever floored.
Published in 1850, it leaves the question as to the actual value of twenty pounds unclear.  What is clear, of course, is that Micawber is one who invariably spends more than he has and lives in the expectation that something will turn up.

For those who lived in poverty in the East End in the latter half of the nineteenth century, there was all too little hope that something would, in reality, "turn up."  We have seen the fearful conditions under which the Matchwomen laboured and the niggardly pay they received for long hours and the risk of disease that constantly haunted their lives. But what about other workers?  What did they earn and what were their expenses like?

One problem faced by students of the Victorian Era is the relationship between income and expenditure.  A common mistake, of course, is to equate these with present-day figures.  To do so fails, particularly in the area of expenditure, to recognize changes in the inherent value of goods.  For example, if a product is new on the market, the cost will probably be higher than the price of the same product several years later, when competition may have increased and production methods improved. Other factors which may effect costs (as well as rate and volume of production) may be as diverse as advertising and the weather. Income may also be effected by the provision (or lack) of benefits as well as the influence of the seasons on employment. A servant might earn as little as  £10 per annum, but would have all of his or her living expenses covered and would be employed for the entire year whereas an agricultural labourer was at the mercy of the seasons and of the weather. For these, as well as other reasons, probably the best approach in trying to determine what is, essentially, standard of living is to use a "slice of life."  So, for our purposes, we might look at some incomes of the working class in London and some of their expenses in the middle years of the ninth decade of the nineteenth century.


A Matchwoman in the East End of London, in the 1880's would, as we have seen, be likely to have earned from 6-12 shillings a week.  Even were one of these women fortunate enough to be employed throughout the year, her annual income, at best, would be around £30.  A bank clerk, a shopkeeper or a street-seller would be doing well to bring home a pound a week. Some indication of the level of wages in the latter years of Victoria's reign can be garnered from A. L. Bowley, Wages in the United Kingdom in the Nineteenth Century (1900).

It might be worth digressing here for just a moment.  Although the UK today uses decimal currency, this is a relatively recent phenomenon.  Until February of 1971, the currency was based on pounds (£), shillings (s) and pence (d).  Beyond this there were farthings (¼d) and half-pennies as well as other coins of varying values which are recognizable by their names (three-penny bit, sixpence). To further confuse, there are sovereigns and crowns, half-crowns and florins and most confusing of all the guinea.  The last of these has not been minted for almost 200 years but is still used to quote prices, especially when one is seeking to add a bit of an aristocratic tone.

Back to basics, however.  In the old coinage it was twelve pence to a shilling, twenty shillings to a pound and to help understand prices 21 shillings or one pound and 1 shilling to the guinea. Money figures were usually written in the format £/s/d so a figure of 36 pounds, 7 shillings and five pence would appear as £36/7/5.

The Farthing, 1/4 Pence

So, how much did various tradesmen and unskilled labourers earn in the '80s and '90s?  According to Bowley, a bricklayer might earn just slightly less than two pounds a week in the summer but only 36 shillings in the winter while a bricklayers labourer would, on average earn about 12 shillings less than the bricklayer. Farm labourers in the '80s would have taken home around 15 shillings a week, but work was seasonal and many weeks might have seen no income, or a much lower income. A Mason might earn 29 shillings a week and a carpenter twenty-five.Overall, in the middle years of the 1880s, the average annual wage for workers in England,   £46/12/- was greater than the average wage in Scotland or Ireland.  In the latter, it was only £23/6/-.  For the United Kingdom overall, the adult male average wage was £56 while the average wage for all workers was £42/14/-.


While grappling with the actual amounts of earnings can prove difficult, even limiting expenditure to the working class includes a wide range of employments and incomes.   Situations might differ dramatically depending upon what an individual did and his family circumstances. Fortunately, we can gain some idea of what individual items cost from newspapers, catalogues and  personal papers.  But even this does not allow us, in most instances to determine what basic expenditures might be.

An article, "Life on a Guinea a Week," which appeared in The Nineteenth Century in March of 1888, offers some insight into what a clerk, earning 50 guineas (i.e. £52/10/- might have in the way of expenditure.  The figures given are for a single male who, because of his employment, is faced with the "imperative demand for respectability." The author of the article makes the point that " ... a guinea a week can be squeezed when necessity compels" and goes on to further point out

...That there are large numbers of young and middle-aged men in London absolutely dependent upon twenty-one shillings per week is a proposition which admits of no question.

It is clear from the text that the author believes that a working man could live on much less.  But this is based on the assumption that the working man is single, has no familial responsibility and is in regular employment. Keeping these caveats in mind, how does our author suggest that his aspiring clerk can survive and even prosper on a guinea a week?

First, there is the question of clothing.  Our young friend expends, on average, a sum of £7/18/7 per year.  Since this includes such items as a silk hat, a suit of Sunday clothes and an overcoat which is to be replaced at two-yearly intervals, it is unlikely that a labourer would be subjected to such expenses. Indeed, the author of the article points out that 
a mechanic or artisan, ...preferably selects the coarsest and most wearable material as clothing.  Even this is protected whilst the man is at work by a rough apron.
As for a hat, or head-covering, "a three-and-sixpenny felt hat" will do and will last for several years for everyday wear when it is no longer appropriate for Sunday wear.

Nonetheless, the weekly expenditure for our clerk, based on the figures presented, comes to a penny over three shillings. For his weekly expenses he presents the following table:

..........  6 0
..........  1 8
..........  5 0
..........  1 0
..........  0 3
Coals and wood
..........  1 0
..........  0 9
Tobacco, etc.
..........  0 6

When all of the calculations are complete, we find that the total comes to 19s 3d.  Our self-righteous author preaches abstinence from alcohol and dining frequently at vegetarian restaurants in order to save money.  While this may be good advice for the clerks he writes about, for a labourer with a family to support, even when his wife and children work to contribute, it is unlikely to offer a realistic budget.

Buying from the street stalls in the East End

To download Bowley, Wages in the United Kingdom in the Nineteenth Century, click here.
To translate the figures presented here to current purchasing power go to

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Bryant, May and the Match Girls Part 3

. . .Go to the mouldering lane
Where the match-girls cry in their terrible pain;
Where the phosphor eats to the festering bone,
Till the Merciful Angel claims its own,
     And the sufferers gladly die. . .

Go, shareholders, you with the dividend fair,
     Go, see and consider it well
How the daughters of women are perishing there
     In your Lucifer's Brimstone Hell!

Star, 19 January 1892, cited in Lowell J. Satre, "After the Match Girls' Strike:
Bryant and May in the 1890s,Victorian Studies, Autumn 1982, p. 17.

The strike of 1888 was not the end of the problems faced by Bryant and May.  Below the surface, tensions continued to seethe, leading to sporadic outbreaks of dissatisfaction.  Despite the company's strategic back-down in 1888, it never admitted or accepted blame for the conditions that brought about the Match Girls' Strike.  Indeed, the nearest it came to doing so was in its attempt to divert blame from the directors on to the supervisory staff.

Although such a strategy may not have fooled those who felt that the industry was both dangerous and exploitative, it seems to have worked for others.  As Lowell J. Satre points out in his article, "After the Match Girls' Strike: Bryant and May in the 1890s," throughout that decade, "...writers treated Bryant and May as a model company, both in its modern technology and in its treatment of workers." In addition to a clear policy of denial, the match company mounted a campaign aimed at consumers, urging them to buy Bryant and May matches and suggesting that failure to do so was at least "inconsiderate" if not unpatriotic!
If all consumers would purchase Bryant and May's matches, that firm would be enabled to pay £1,000 a week more in wages, and large numbers of the unemployed in East London would thus be provided with work, instead of swelling the ranks of  pauperism.
In the decade following the 1888 strike, the situation of women in the workforce, particularly the physical danger those in factories were exposed to was raised on a number of occasions.  There were particularly strong campaigns in 1892 and in 1898. The more radical newspapers campaigned against the health risks to employees in several industries, among the most noteworthy of which was match-making. In these campaigns, Bryant and May were among those singled out, clearly because of the horrendous nature of the disease of phossy jaw and the company's attempt to contain any information regarding their inadequate safety features.

In the company's ongoing attempt to minimize the magnitude of health problems, phossy jaw in particular, Bryant and May constantly reiterated their claim that theirs was a safe workplace . Their public statements suggest that they viewed this serious problem simply as collateral damage.  After revelations in January of 1892, by the Star, of  cases of phossy jaw at Bryant and May other of the more left-wing newspapers, including Reynolds's Newspaper, attacked both the Government of the day and the company for their apparent lack of concern.

CHEAP MATCH-MAKING leads to what is called "phossy jaw"; that is, the rot of the mouth through the action of the phosphorous used in matches.  These matches are mostly made by young girls.  The profits on their sale are pocketed by clergymen and members of the pious middle class.  They are, of course, mainly responsible for this cruel fate of the daughters of the masses.  I venture to say that not one would abate a quarter per cent. of interest, even if he thought it would stop this frightful industrial cancer.
Should there have been any doubt as to the target of this tirade, in the very next column the reader would find that

BRYANT AND MAY, the matchmakers, pay a dividend of seventeen per cent.  It is stated that the application of a portion of this dividend to improvements would prevent the terrible disease of "phossy". ... Lord Salisbury the Tory Prime Minister, and his family are large shareholders; so are many parsons of the State Church; so is the Coercionist Whig Sir Julian Goldsmid M.P. How many of the parsons have implored that a portion of the dividends shall be spent for the protection of the poor girls? Not one. Nor, from the known character of these ecclesiastical bagmen, would anyone expect them to interfere in the cause of humanity. if, by doing so, their earthly treasures were diminished.
Much of the venom was aimed directly at the Home Minister, Henry Matthews. With the general election scheduled for July, Matthews was attacked for his failure to have factory inspectors  dealing with the obviously recalcitrant company.  Among the more vicious attacks on Matthews was one described by The Graphic as "an atrocious cartoon showing Death with a bandaged jaw, emerging from a match-box with the legend, "Vote for Matthews and "Phossy Jaw." The pressure on the Home Secretary seems to have had a positive effect. Within weeks of the election, and following  an investigation by his department, Matthews  "issued a notice that a factory inspector may call upon the firms ... To adopt such special rules or measures as may be necessary to mitigate the evil."

In 1893, a Report of the Committee of Inquiry into Lucifer Match Works noted that the only two cases of necrosis  since the special rules were established were two "which  ... occurred in the factory of Messrs. Bryant and May." The Committee went on, however, to indicate that in the opinion of its members "danger from that disease exists to all workers where white or yellow phosphorus is used."  In order to diminish the risks associated with the match making process, they suggested that the rules should be tightened even further.

The years from 1892 to 1898 represented, in many respects, the heart of what became known as "The New Journalism."  As Carolyn Malone has pointed out in Women's Bodies and Dangerous Trades in England 1880-1914,

The theme of the physical dangers of women's work, secondary in the match girls' strike to exploitative working conditions, came to the forefront in extensive newspaper coverage of women's work in 1892 and 1898.
In 1898 the attack on Bryant and May reached new heights, and Bryant and May was certainly not innocent of the charges from the newspapers and others. On the 3rd of May, 1898, Edward Pickersgill, MP for Bethnal Green in the East End rose to ask the Home Secretary

whether his attention has been called to the report of an inquest held at Bow, on Saturday last, on the body of Cornelius Lean, lately employed at the match factory of Messrs. Bryant and May, from which it appears that Lean was poisoned by the yellow phosphorus used in the manufacture; that the factory doctor, who admitted that the death was due to "phossy-jaw."
The Home Secretary replied that he had some knowledge of the case and found the circumstances surrounding it far from satisfactory but went on to point out that there had been no other reports of phosphorous poisoning since the Act of 1895, and in light of that there seemed insufficient justification to ban the use of yellow phosphorous.

On 1 June 1898, the firm of Bryant and May was called before the Worship Street Police Court by A. P. Vaughan, one of the Factory Inspectors, charged with breaches of Rule 6 of the Factory Acts. Gilbert Bartholomew, the managing director of Bryant and May appeared for the company which was accused of not providing evidence, as required, of phossy jaw to the certifying surgeon.

As Bartholomew, and therefore the company, was not represented by counsel, the Managing Director pleaded "guilty" to the charge, probably hoping that with a speedy conviction and a small fine the mater would be quickly buried. However, as Inspector Vaughan noted, this "was only one of a long series of cases, which had been deliberately suppressed by the firm." Bryant and May, Vaughan told the court, had advised one of the Factory Inspectors "that up to that particular date no other cases of death from phosphorous necrosis had ever come to the knowledge of the firm."

Vaughan then went on to point out that there had been at least six deaths in the previous five years and that these "could be directly traced to phosphorous poisoning" contracted in the company's factory. In addition, there were eleven further cases under the care of a doctor from Bryant and May.

Bartholomew attempted to minimize the cases by admitting to the charge but he claimed that with the exception of one death the others were "old cases" which predated the Special Rules of 1895.

The Magistrate summed up by describing it as "a very bad case" and went on to castigate the firm before imposing the maximum penalty, £10 for the breach of the special rules and £5 for not reporting cases. With costs, the total came to £25.

As a part of the continuing campaign to defend themselves as well as to paint a picture of the company as sympathetic and caring, Bartholomew, in his role as managing director of Bryant and May, wrote to the papers on 3 June 1898.  In his letter he argued that while the company had failed in one respect, it had actually met all of the other requirements of the Factory Act.  He went on to point out that the company provided treatment for those afflicted with the awful disease, adding that of the 47 cases dealt with over the last twenty years, "81 percent of those attacked have been completely cured, and many of those cured are still in our employ, enjoying the best of health."

In July, the radical politician John Burns MP took the Home Secretary to task for being all talk and little action..
I want to call the Home Secretary's attention to the fact that for 50 years at the table of the House of Commons we have had similar speeches made while these women are dying of phossy jaw and lead poisoning. The time has arrived when, in the absence of legislation, we should have administration to put a stop to this terrible condition of things.
  According to The Times, in late July, the Home Secretary addressed the House of Commons on the dangers of phosphorous in the match trade and what might be done to reduce these dangers.

The Times accused those who challenged the Government of laying claims which were lacking "the support of unimpeachable authority." It went on to claim that critics of Bryant and May had "created an impression that the evils to be guarded against are much greater than there is any evidence to show." The really guilty parties, according to the newspaper were the workers and  it was their unsanitary practices which led to the problems of phossy-jaw.

The truth is that one of the chief impediments to action in all such cases arises from the attitude of the workers themselves.In very many instances they strongly object to precautions which are intended to secure their safety, and either actively or passively resist their adoption.
Clearly it is easier to blame the victims than the firm that employs them.

The newspapers, too, continued to pursue the matter even to the point of making jokes in order to keep the matter before the public. On the 19th of August, for example, the following appeared in the Dover Express:
You haven't got phossy jaw have you ma?" "Of course not; What makes you ask such a question?" "Well, Miss Overthewell said you were a frightful matchmaker!"
According to the Annual Report of the Chief Inspector of Factories and workshops for the Year 1898, "the number of cases of phosphorous poisoning notified in 1898 was 21." All but one of the cases occurred in match factories where "Lucifers" were made and of the 21 reported cases, 15 were directly traceable to one factory.

The campaign against the horrors of "Phossy", mounted by the newspapers and brought before the Parliament was to have its effect.  But it had arrayed against it strong opposition from the match firms as well as segments of the government.  The main argument against the banning of the substance was the effect it would have on industry on the one hand and on employment in the industry on the other.  Nonetheless, laws were tightened, with new special rule instituted in 1899.  Eventually, in 1908, Britain passed legislation prohibiting the use of white phosphorous in matches after 31 December 1910

Although alternatives to while phosphorous, or the treatment of that substance to make it less dangerous, had certainly been known years earlier,  it was not until after 1910 that the process of making a safe, "strike anywhere" match began to be widely employed.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Bryant, May and the Match Girls Part 2

Unlike the 1871 "strike," the 1888 walkout was not over taxes on matches.  It was concerned primarily with wages and working conditions and was clearly aimed at the management of the factory.  According to Charles Booth's survey of London, in the late 1880s and early 1890s there were over a thousand young women and girls employed in the match-making trades.  In May of 1888, more than one-fifth of the women and girls so employed earned from 4 to 6 shillings,  just over four percent earned 12 shillings or more and three-quarters of this cohort earned between 6 and 12 shillings.  These figures were not much different from those attributed to Mr Theodore Bryant in The Times of 9 July 1888, that "the girls earned on an average from 5s. a week learners to 18s. per week competent hands, and in one instance a family of three earned £2 a week between them." It is hard to comprehend Bryant and May's view that the company "tried to give ... work-people a fair remuneration."

Just what was the value of the earnings of the young women at Bryant and May?  If we take the figure of from 6 to 12 shillings, a figure which represented the earnings of 75 per cent of the group we are looking at, and consider it in terms of buying power today, it would equate to a figure of between £29/16s and £59/12s.

Clearly the company saw its first responsibility to its shareholders and evidence for this can be seen in the  enormous growth in the value of the shares, more than 300 percent in less than five years, as well as a dividend rate that regularly exceeded 20 percent. 

Match Girls at Work - 1888
For those on the lowest rate of pay, 4 shillings, even the most basic necessities of life were expensive. Bread, for a two kilogram loaf, cost around 3d a loaf and beer was more than 1d a pint.  Beer was an important part of the diet since water in many of the areas was only available from a standpipe and was always of questionable purity and even more questionable quality. For those few who might have smoked cigarettes, rather than the ubiquitous clay pipe, W.D. and H. O. Wills newly launched Woodbines could be purchased at a price of 5 for a penny.  Strong and rough, like the East End workers themselves, they were to become known colloquially as "gaspers."  

The common work-day was ten hours long and for most of that time the young women were on their feet cutting in half the long strips of wood, both ends of which had been dipped into a compound of chemicals to create the match-heads. The cut matches were then packed into boxes. The work was not steady as the demand for matches was seasonal with the greatest number of matches being required during the colder months.  Since many of the women and girls were unemployed in the summer months they augmented their incomes through employment in jam factories or, in the late summer and early autumn through going hop-picking.

Girl At Work at Bryant and May 1888
A number of well-known and influential individuals took up the cause of the match workers, the most outspoken and prominent was Annie Besant,  a socialist,  writer and  women's rights activist.  In her Autobiography she tells how she interviewed some of the match girls and "got lists of wages, of fines, &c."  The information was published as "White Slavery in London" in The Link, A Journal for the Servants of Man a left-wing, half-penny weekly. In the article she points out that the workers started at 6.30 in the summer and 8.00 in the winter. Work concluded at 6.00 in the evening and workers were allowed half an hour for breakfast and an hour for dinner. 

Annie Besant
In some departments a fine of 3d . is inflicted for talking. If a girl is late she is shut out for 'half a day', that is for the morning six hours, and 5d. is deducted out of her day's 8d. ...A very bitter memory survivies in the factory.  Mr. Theodore Bryant, to show his admiration of Mr. Gladstone and the greatness of his own public spirit, bethought him to erect a statue to that eminent statesman.  In order that his workgirls might have the privilege of contributing, he stopped 1s  each out of their wages, and further deprived them of half-a-day's work by closing the factory, 'giving them a holiday'. ('We don't want no holidays', said one of the girls pathetically, for - needless to say - the poorer employees of such a firm lose their wages when a holiday is 'given'.) 
Gladstone Statue at Bow Church
Over the poor conditions and underpayment, over the fines and long hours, there hovered the spectre of disease.  The young women ate at their workbenches where the lucifer matches were made thus being exposed, even as they ate, to the fumes from the white phosphorous with which the matches were tipped.  Even as late as 1888 Bryant and May were still using this deadly substance despite its effects having been well known since the  late 1830s.

The 1888 strike itself was provoked by the firing of one of the match girls but the tinder of dissatisfaction had been smoldering for some time.  Whether the term "sweatshop" was used or not (in general it was applied to clothing manufacturing), Bryant and May ran one in their factories.  The environment was dangerous and certainly unhealthy.  The pay was low, the hours long and the employees were victims of abuse and without recourse. On the 23rd of June, The Link published "White slavery in London," an article by Annie Besant in which she accused Bryant and May of the worst sorts of practices.  
Born in slums, driven to work while still children, undersized because underfed, oppressed because helpless, flung aside as soon as worked out, who cares if they die or go on the streets, provided only that the Bryant and May shareholders get their 23 per cent., and Mr. Theodore Bryant can erect statues and by parks?  Oh if we had but a people's Dante, to make a special circle in the Inferno for those who live on this misery, and such wealth out of the starvation of helpless girls.
The East London Observer, a weekly paper which was, according to L. Perry Curtis, one of the "small local papers that catered mostly to the commercial or small-business classes in Tower Hamlets and environs" chose to use the term "sweated" in its edition of 30 June 1888, in which it raised the question regarding the girls, "Are they Sweated?"   In the article it reported that Theodore Bryant was threatening legal action against Annie Besant.  On the same day, Besant wrote in The Link that she had been informed that the girls were being bullied in an effort to find out who had provided the information that had appeared in "White Slavery in London." In the same piece, she challenged Bryant and May to sue her for libel in order to "disprove my statements in open court ... instead of threatening to throw these children out into the streets."

Besant continued to goad Bryant and May.  A week later she noted that there had been no sign of legal action and claimed that three girls believed by the company to be her informants had been dismissed.  At this point, although Bryant and May claimed that only one girl had been dismissed and that was for matters unrelated to the complaints, 1400 girls walked out.  The issue escalated with meetings being held through the first weeks of  July.  Although Besant's own writings tend to place her at the centre of events, Louise Raw, in Striking a Light, suggests that this was not the case and that, in effect, she came late to the struggle and left early. As for the threats to take legal action against Besant, these came to nothing.  Indeed, the whole counter-offensive launched by Bryant and May seems to have little or no effect on either the strikers or their supporters and if anything, their threat to bring in workers from Scotland hardened the stance of the women.

Whatever the case, Bryant and May offered to rehire the sacked worker but the striking women must have felt a sense of power when they saw how quickly Bryant and May responded in order to keep their factories working.  Even so, the women were still out of work and the company continued to play "hardball." The London Trades Council then took up the cause of the match workers and with the concurrence of the Girls' Strike Committee approached Bryant and May offering its services to bring the matter to settlement. Interestingly, the first meeting between the LTC and the directors of the company which apparently did not include any representatives from the Girls' Committee appears to have been met with a complete unwillingness to negotiate.  According to the East London Observer for 21 July, "The deputation urged the points on behalf of the strikers, to which the directors replied seriatim, and repeated their previous statements that they paid full current wages, and had no desire to burden their work-people."  The meeting lasted for an hour and three quarters and achieved no satisfactory resolution. 

Match Girls and Match Seller
The following day there was another meeting at which, in addition to the LTC representatives the Girls' Strike Committee was present.  By now the directors of the company had undoubtedly had time to reflect on their position and would have realised that the strikers were prepared to fight for what they believed were their rights.  After considerable discussion and debate there was agreement on a settlement.  This included the abolition of fines and the stopping of deductions for a variety of supplies, changes in the manner of payment and access, in the case of grievances, to the managing directors without going through the foremen. As well, Bryant and May agreed to take back all of the strikers including the so-called ringleaders and "said they would, as soon as possible, provide a breakfast-room for the girls so that the latter will not be obliged to get their meals in the room where they work."  And, in what was possible the greatest concession, they "expressed a strong wish that the girls would organize themselves into an union so that future disputes, if any, may be officially laid before the firm."

Surely the company could not have offered a greater capitulation and, not surprisingly, the strikers unanimously accepted the terms.  The strike was over. The London Daily News, on 18 July, complimented Bryant and May for admitting "in the most handsome way that the girls were right, and that they had themselves been misled by some of their officials." The statement, of course, attempted to remove the blame from those who were most responsible, the directors of the company.

Clippings from The Link related to the 1888 strike, and including Annie Besant's "White Slavery in London," can be found by clicking here.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Bryant, May and the Match Girls

When I started to explore the match girls' strike of 1888, I was not surprised to learn that there was a long history of problems in the match trade, nor that even after the strike there were issues that were not fully addressed.  As a result rather than just one blog, the exploration has extended over three.  In the first one, I will look at the origins of the strike and the background of the match trade beginning with the events of 1871.  The second blog will address the events of the 1888 strike itself, and in the final blog I intend to talk about the failure of Bryant and May, the manufacturers, to address a number of issues and, perhaps more to the point, the way in which they attempted to evade responsibility. 

And will the match trade die?
And will the match trade die?
Then thirty thousand working girls
Will know the reason why.
Daily News (25 April 1871)

The Background

"The East End is labor and poverty, chained together by the curse of our time — servitude; the City is the usurer who sells labor and pockets the profit."
J. H. Mackay, The Anarchists

It was a wet, cold and dreary July in London in 1888,  The temperature barely crawled to the average of 72 degrees Fahrenheit on the 23rd and only seven days that month made it to a chilly 70 degrees.  On the 12th of the month there were reports of snow in the suburbs of the Metropolis but whatever the weather, it did not deter those who followed the tennis. In what must have seemed a world away from the East End, at Wimbeldon, Ernest Renshaw defeated Herbert Lawford in three straight sets to win the Gentlemen's Singles and Lottie Dod took out the Ladies' Singles, also in straight sets.   It was still a month before the East End murders were discovered and the name of Jack the Ripper was to become synonymous with the gruesome murders which struck fear amongst residents, particularly women, in the East End. 

It was from the East End that most of the young women who were to "down tools" in 1888 and walk out of the Bryant and May match factory came. The East End was often seen, and quite rightly, as among the worst sections of the great metropolis.  Sylvia Pankhurst, some years later, referred to it as "that great abyss of poverty," and in The Bitter Cry of Outcast London, the Reverend Andrew Mearns described the living conditions in which many of the match workers lived as:
pestilential human rookeries ... where tens of thousand are crowded together amidst horrors which call to mind .. the slave ship. To get into them you have to penetrate courts reeking with poisonous and malodorous gases arising from accumulations of sewage and refuse scattered in all directions. ... Where there are beds they are simply heaps of dirty rags, shavings or straw, but for the most part these miserable beings huddle together upon the filthy boards.
A London Slum
Out of the stinking, pestilential slums and out of Bryant and May's match factory came the girls and women marching for better conditions and marching into history.

Not that it was the first time those in the match industry had marched.  Seventeen years earlier several thousand match workers, mostly girls between the ages of thirteen and twenty, marched from the East End to the Parliament at Westminster to oppose a threatened tax on matches.  The Illustrated London News effectively made the point that this was not something entered into lightly by the East-Enders.
The poor matchmakers, women and children, turned out in large numbers, and may be said to have groped their way into the unknown regions of Westminster to assure some great man, of whom they had heard, that he was going to starve them, and to beg him not to do so.

Several hundred of the marchers actually made their way into Westminster-hall in an attempt to present a petition to the House of Commons.  The march was generally good-natured and was easily dealt with by the police.  The difference between this march and the later match girls march, was that in 1871 the march had the approval, tacit if not overt, of the employers  who were to be hardest hit by the proposed levy. According to the Daily News, in the Police Court
At Bow-street one of the men who had been apprehended stated that a well-known firm of match manufacturers had contributed a band and flags to the demonstration,

 and The Times "Police" report quoted  a witness who identified the firm as Bryant and May.

In reading the various reports, one almost feels as if The Times, was reporting a different march.  It described the demonstration as "attended with riots in the East-end of London and a riotous assemblage around the Houses of Parliament." But for The Times, which was in many respects an organ for the conservative upper middle classes, any march by the lower and labouring classes would probably have been seen as a threat to social stability - even when it was supported by those manufacturers opposed to the match tax.

Between the 1871 "strike" and the 1888 walkout, there were at least three strikes; so, despite the claims of management that there had been peace at the factory until the socialists "forced" the strike, such a claim was, at best, dubious. Besides, from 1873 onward, Great Britain was in the grip of a major depression which was generally considered to have lasted until the middle of the last decade of the century and although the price of matches fell during this period, so too did wages.  Louise Raw points out that by 1888 Bryant and May "had become such a powerful monopoly that they were able to pay wages which were lower than they had been a full 12 years earlier." 

But besides low wages in the industry and the maltreatment of the workers, there was the risk of that most horrible disease, phosphorus necrosis of the jaw or Phossy Jaw as it was more commonly known. At best this could lead to permanent disfigurement and at worst to a slow and painful death.

Phossy Jaw
A brief article in The Journal of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery notes:
The infamous “phossy jaw” that created an epidemic of exposed bone osteonecrosis exclusively in the jaws began around 1858 and continued until 1906, with only a few cases appearing since that time. This epidemic of osteonecrosis produced pain, swelling, debilitation, and a reported mortality of 20% and was linked to “yellow phosphorous,” the key ingredient in “strike-anywhere” matches. In match-making factories, workers called “mixers,” “dippers,” and “boxers” were exposed to heated fumes containing this compound. Related to the duration of exposure, many of these workers developed painful exposed bone in the mouth.
It might be supposed that the information on this foul disease might have been confined to medical journals of the day, but as early as 1852, Charles Dickens was writing about it, and its effect on those in the matchmaking industry, in Charles Dickens' Household Words for May of 1852. One of his informants told of her clothes and hands glowing at night.

Much of the change between 1870 and 1888 centered around the key figure of Wilberforce Bryant.  The son of one of the firm's founders, by 1861 he was managing the Bow Street plant. Although the business was started as a private concern, in June of 1884 it became a limited company with capitalization of 300,000 pounds in 60,000 shares and an additional 150,000 pounds was offered in debentures for public subscription. Thomas A. B. Corley, in his biographical sketch of Wilberforce Bryant notes that 
The financial press was soon condemning the firm for its annual reports --'the most cynically meagre and imperfect documents published by any board in the country;--and fir its insider dealings to rig the share prices for its own ends (Financial News).
Clearly the company was not in good odour in the 1880s. and was being run by a narrow-minded, conservative senior director.

To read Charles Dickens' article "One of the Evils of Matchmaking"  in Household Words for May of 1852, click  here.

Monday, January 06, 2014

Conquering the Channel

A Caricature of Captain Matthew Webb (Vanity Fair, 9 October 1875) shortly after his conquest of the English Channel

With the failure of J B Johnson's attempt on the English Channel, interest in the possibility of a successful crossing grew. By the middle of the '70s, it had reached fever pitch and another attempt was soon to be made. This time the swimmer was Matthew Webb or, as he was more commonly styled, Captain Webb. Webb had read of Johnson's earlier attempt and obviously felt that he could succeed where his predecessor had failed. At the time, Webb was serving as captain of the steamship Emerald.

The young Matthew Webb had come to the sea through childhood stories of adventure under sail and, at the age of twelve, he left home to sign on as a merchant seaman. He spent three years aboard the training ship, Conway where he was already noted for his staying power as a swimmer.  Kathy Watson, in her biography of Webb, The Crossing, quotes one of his colleagues aboard the Conway,
We thought very little of him as a swimmer but admired his staying power.  He could swim about for an hour without putting his foot to the floor, although in a race he was nowhere.
The water apparently held no fear for him and even as a trainee,  as Watson points out, he won a silver pencil for rescuing another boy who had fallen overboard. Rescuing, or at least attempting to rescue, people from drowning was to have a significant impact on Webb's life.  In 1873, as second mate aboard the Cunard Ship, Russia, travelling from New York to Liverpool the 25 year old Webb jumped overboard in an attempt to rescue a seaman who had fallen from the rigging.  Unfortunately, the sailor was not seen again and only his cap was recovered.  After half-an-hour in the water, Webb was brought back on board the steamer.  For his bravery he was awarded both the silver medal of the Royal Humane Society and its newly created Stanhope Medal. Sadly, in 1989, all of Webb's medals, including the Stanhope and the Royal Humane Society Medal were sold at auction to a private collector for  £12,650.
The man with his medals
Webb's first attempt to swim the English Channel  was made on 12 August 1875.  At the time he was, according to the volume, Swimming, in the Badminton Library,
5 ft. 8 in. high, measured 43 in. round the chest, and weighed about fourteen and a half stone. ...During his training he once swam out to the north-east Varne Buoy, which is more than half-way across the Channel, and also from Dover to Ramsgate, about eighteen miles, in 8 hrs. 45 mins., as well as in the Thames from Blackwall to Gravesend in 4 hrs. 52 mins.
The Channel attempt was widely covered in the newspapers of the day with many of them relaying reports from their local correspondents.  At just before five in the evening, Webb was liberally coated in  a yellow fatty oil obtained from porpoises.  Fair weather and calm seas were expected and at just a minute or two before five the swimmer entered the water.  According to the London Daily News, "he commenced his journey amid a round of cheers."  Despite expectations of fine weather, a breeze had sprung up and the water was beginning to roughen.

Webb set off briskly, covering the first quarter mile in ten minutes using a breast stroke, but the weather began to turn and just before midnight, after swimming about thirteen and a half miles in just over 6 hours and 48 minutes and  despite feeling "warm and quite well," he decided not to continue saying that "it was impossible for any mortal man to swim as far again in such a sea."  According to The Times, in the opinion of those accompanying him, "had the weather been fine he would have succeeded in reaching the French coast."

Webb and his team watched the weather carefully and planned another assault on the Channel.  Monday, 23 August looked good for a midnight departure but the weather forced a further delay until the following day. At just before one in the afternoon, Webb dived from the end of Admiralty Pier and headed for France.

Admiralty Pier, Dover
Using his slow breast stroke, he made such progress that the lugger which accompanies him across as before, although it had all sail set, had to put out oars and row to keep up with him.   Two rowing-boats follow him with the referees and a young man who is ready at any moment to plunge into the sea to render Captain Webb any assistance he may require.
Swimming at 23 strokes to the minute, Webb made good progress initially but the length of time in the water, the coldness, the stings of jellyfish and the tide which forced him to swim a much greater distance than he had anticipated all began to tell on the swimmer.   After just over 21 hours and 45 minutes, the exhausted swimmer dragged himself ashore in France. Kathy Watson describes the moment when,
Exhausted, delirious, his face encrusted with salt, one eye blind from the waves, his body rigid and greasy like a lump of cold wax, Webb stood, stumbled and fell, lifeless, into the waiting arms of his friends.
Webb recovered quickly and within days was being lionized.  Early in September he visited the Baltic, the Stock Exchange and attended the Covent Garden Promenade Concerts.  Subscription lists were started for him and he was an honoured guest at the officers' mess of the Royal Artillery.  Although not a good speaker (he was described as speaking in a "brief, genial but not too fluent manner which is usually associated with sailors") he strongly advocated the teaching of swimming, telling one group according to the Manchester Times that
he considered it very important that more people should be able to swim than at present: and if in swimming across the Channel he had caused people to think more of teaching their boys to swim he should be well satisfied with what he had done.
It didn't take long for the enterprising book market to cash in on Webb's fame.  Within days The Channel Feats of Captain Webb and Captain Boynton was on the market.  Only 64 pages in length, it featured  "a dashing picture of Captain Webb bravely breasting his way across the Channel." Reviewed in The Penny Illustrated Paper and Illustrated Times of 11 September 1875, it was described as a "seasonal little book" and one which "provides the reader with a complete account ... as well as a brief memoir of Webb and Boynton."

Webb's face was soon well known throughout the length and breadth of the land. Here was a real hero, a conqueror of the most elemental forces. His image appeared on mugs and cups, on matchboxes and other innumerable forms of ephemera.


As if that was not enough, advertisements featuring his image appeared on walls and song sheets praising his valour and his accomplishments were available.

"Ghost" sign on a wall

Song Sheet

The chorus to the 1875 song, "Captain Matthew Webb or Swimming from England to France," seemed to capture the public approbation engendered by the feat.
Hurrah! for Captain Matthew Webb, the hero of the age,
His noble name shall always fill a space in History's page ...
For the next few years Webb was in and out of the news.  Various swimming exhibitions and competitions both in England and in the United States either failed to materialize or were less satisfactory than the swimmer might have wished.  finally, in July of 1883, just short of eight years after his magnificent Channel crossing, he made one final attempt to regain the stature he so desired.  For a fee of $10,000 he undertook to swim the rapids and whirlpool at Niagara Falls.  The funds were put up by various railway companies in the hope that such an attraction would draw crowds to the scene requiring them to run special trains.

Despite attempts to discourage him, Webb entered the water from a small boat.  According to Reuter's,
on entering the rapids [he] was almost turned over by the force of the water.  He swam the rapids, however with great determination, being now and again caught sight of by a few of the spectators.  When last seen he was entering the whirlpool, and at first appeared to be doing well, but very shortly afterwards threw up his arms and disappeared.
When Queen Victoria heard the news, she wrote in her Journal on the 27th of July, "the celebrated swimmer, Capt: Webb was drowned while trying to swim across the rapids at Niagara, very shocking."

The very next day, July 28th, His body was recovered from the river.  It was Captain Webb's last swim.

 Despite his latter years, nobody would ever be able to take away from Matthew Webb the glory of having been the first to swim the English Channel.  Over the years many others attempted to duplicate his feat, but it was not until 36 years later that Thomas William Burgess succeeded in swimming from Dover to Gris Nez in 22 hours and 35 minutes.  In the years between the two successful swims, there had been more than eighty attempts; all of which ended in failure. Certainly for the 36 years between Burgess's and Webb's crossings, the Badminton Library's volume on Swimming was not wrong when it said Webb's triumph was "the greatest authenticated long-distance swim in the sea without any artificial aid."

While Captain Webb may have faded from popular memory, only to be known to Channel swimmers and historians, he did manage to reappear from time to time. In 1940, John Betjeman (later to be appointed Poet Laureate by Queen Elizabeth II) wrote "A Shropshire Lad," in which he has Webb's ghost swimming back to his home in Dawley along the canal. In a completely different context, the American cartoonist and creator of the comic strip, "Pogo," Walt Kelly briefly paid tribute to the swimmer in his strip in 1968.

The full "Pogo" comic strip can be seen by clicking here.
To hear "Tom O'Bedlam's reading of John Betjeman's "A Shropshire Lad," click here.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

The Challenge of the Channel

With the growth of leisure time in the later years of Victoria's reign, the variety of sports both for participants and spectators grew rapidly.  Men and women competed against time, the elements and one-another. Much was conquered but much remained and in 1870 the English Channel retained its mystique and its reputation as being unconquerable - at least by swimmers. There was something special about this fascinating body of water.  It was, after all, what divided England from the European continent and was, to use William Shakespeare's image, part of "a moat defensive to a house/Against the envy of less happier lands."

This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,--

                                          William Shakespeare, "ing Richard II, Act 2 scene 1

The English Channel had always been part of the great defensive net around England and while it was regularly crossed by boat, experience had shown that it was a bulwark against invasion. But by the last quarter of the nineteenth century it was becoming easier to cross.  The first balloon passage took place as early as January of 1785 when  Jean-Pierre Blanchard, with the American, Dr. John  Jeffries, navigated from England to France in about 2½ hours.

  Thirty years later, in March of 1815, the steamship √Člise in a harrowing seventeen hour crossing conquered the Channel for steam. But it was not until 1872 that the first recorded attempt to swim the English Channel took place.  The swimmer, J B Johnson, lasted for only three minutes more than an hour before abandoning the effort.

Johnson was a professional swimmer based in Leeds who came to prominence in 1871 when he won the swimming championship at the Welsh Harp Lake at Hendon in the teeth of a driving hailstorm and in front of a crowd of three or four hundred spectators. The Times described him, at the time, as "undoubtedly the best swimmer [in] England." Johnson had already attracted some interest and attention in the press when, a few days earlier, he had leapt from London Bridge apparently to rescue a gentleman who had fallen from a Thames Steamer. According to The Badminton Library volume on Swimming, this "afterwards turned out to be a mere exhibition. Johnson dived to rescue a drowning person, the said 'drowning person' being his brother Peter, who was nearly as good a swimmer as the famous J. B., and a capital stayer under water."

In August of the following year, Johnson attempted to swim the English Channel.  He clearly realised the value of publicity and a few days before his attempt had posted placards around Dover from where the swim was to originate. The placards announced that the "hero of London-bridge and champion swimmer of the world" would swim from England to France.  Such a feat was generally deemed to be impossible, although there were stories of three escaped French political prisoners attempting to swim to England.  Two were supposed to have completed the swim, one of whom died almost immediately thereafter while the other survived and lived in Dover for a number of years.  But the attempt by Johnson was not to be one of rumor or half-truth; it would be thoroughly documented.

At the time, Johnson was twenty-four years old and a superb physical specimen as well as being captain of the prestigious Serpentine (swimming) Club in London.

Johnson's attempt came about as a result of a bet placed in Leeds, his home town, at odds of 1000 pounds to 30 pounds, a wager which was quickly doubled. Having already made his mark as a swimmer, he must have realised that a successful crossing of the Channel would raise him even further in the eyes of both the public and the swimming fraternity. Always aware of the power of publicity, in addition to the placards which had been placed around Dover, Johnson hired the brass band of the Royal Surrey Zoological Gardens to play at the start of his swim. A steamer, the Palmerston, was engaged to accompany him.  He was cheered by a crowd estimated by the Times's correspondent at thousands  when he dove into the water from the steamer at 10:40 am on Saturday, 24 August. After an hour, however, it became clear he would be unable to go on.  He took some port wine at 11:20 and again at 11:30 while still in the water, but by 11:45 he was out of the water and on the deck of the steamer.

According to the Times, when he was pulled aboard, his legs were numb from the thighs down and he was suffering from hypothermia to such a degree he was even unable to drink some of the beef-tea which was proferred. Nonetheless, always the showman, when the Palmerston arrived at Calais at 3:00 pm, he, and his brother who was accompanying him, "dived into the water, one from each side of the boat, and delighted the spectators anxiously awaiting his arrival with various specimens of aquatic skill."

While perhaps not achieving the fame he sought, Johnson certainly was the subject of much adulation.  Despite his failed attempt at the Channel, a popular song, "I wish that I could swim like J. B. Johnson, was soon being heard.

The other day he tried to swim,
To Calais right from Dover,
The task seem'd easy unto him.
When seven miles were over,
Right through the sea, he seem'd to fly,
He stop'd, tho' not through failure,
When I can swim, you'll see I'll try,
To go right to Australia.

Two of the verses refer to his feat at London Bridge and his failed attempt on the Channel, neither of which seemed to, in any way, to lower his popular appeal.  But it was not until three years later that the English Channel was finally conquered, not by J. B. Johnson, but by Captain Matthew Webb.

To see the whole song, I wish that I could swim like J. B. Johnson, click here.