Sharon spoke in a Westminster Hall debate, called by West Ham MP Lyn Brown, on the contribution of the Bow Match Women to industrial and political history.
Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) on her excellent and moving speech. I am feeling emotional after her final words. This is an important debate on the history of women in the trade union movement and politics more generally. My hon. Friend’s case for greater recognition of such trailblazers by the Government was extremely well argued.
The story of the match girls and women played a formative part in the development of my political beliefs and eventual political engagement, both as a trade unionist and later as a politician. At school, during my history O-level, I remember learning about the terrible conditions endured by the young women of the Bryant & May match factory in Bow, some of whom were a lot younger than I was at the time. Those conditions involved 14-hour days and harsh fines for missed work days, and there were the terrible health implications of working with white phosphorus, which led to phossy jaw and blindness, as we heard from my hon. Friend.
While learning about those extraordinary women and girls and relating their struggle to my own experience as a working-class girl living and working in north-east England, I began to understand and appreciate the necessity for collective action and a strong trade union movement. I felt that it was a case of “There but for the grace of God go I”, and I appreciated what they and others had achieved for people like me. I was poor, but I could still get a good education and a good job with safe working conditions. My first job was in the office at a Tyneside glass factory, so the comparison is not so far-fetched.
I agree with my hon. Friend that we should recognise the significant help of Fabian socialists such as Annie Besant. Ultimately, however, as my hon. Friend said, that event in our labour history was one of ordinary working class women collectively organising and acting to change their pay and working conditions. History is written by the victors, so working class women have been written out of it regularly, but this was a momentous victory, although it is still not featured as a significant moment in our industrial and political history. The match women and girls simply do not receive the recognition that they deserve.
The late 19th century was a period of fervent political action by workers: there was the rebirth of the trade union movement that we know today, following the actions of the Tolpuddle martyrs; the beginnings of the women’s suffrage movement; and the formation of the British Labour party. Yet the match women of the east end of London are regularly overlooked in the history of the period, and their significance is ignored. Trade unions were not decriminalised in Britain until 1871, after decades of repression by the political and industrial elites, but it was the match women and their collective action in Bow that encouraged other workers in the east end and the wider country to collectivise and to create trade unions.
Working class women standing up to powerful factory owners during a period when women were largely excluded from public life, and reigniting an appetite for collective action and trade unionism, is such a significant and extraordinary feat that we should certainly recognise it. Henry Snell, a supporter of the match girls and former MP for Woolwich, said:
"The number affected was quite small, but the matchgirls’ strike had an influence upon the minds of the workers which entitles it to be regarded as one of the most important events in the history of labour organisation in any country”.
It certainly had a huge influence on me, and is definitely one of the reasons why I am standing here today. As we all know, it is important to understand and recognise our history so that it does not repeat itself, and the story of the match girls is a part of that tradition. It is a story that reverberates with us today, both here and abroad.
We hear regular jokes and stories, some emanating from Government, about health and safety regulations “gone mad”, or the need to cut the “red tape” put in place to improve and protect the working conditions of British workers, but that prompts the question: where would we be without that much-maligned red tape, the vast majority of which has been so hard fought for over the past 100 years? The answer can be seen in developing countries such as Bangladesh, where, earlier this year, we saw thousands of women and men dragged, dead and injured, from the rubble of a collapsed factory used by well-known high street retailers. A report commissioned by the Bangladesh Government found that there had been more than 400 violations of work practices and safety standards. It is not too much of a stretch to say that, were it not for the trade union movement in this country, the health and safety of British workers would be similarly ignored.
Factory life in Britain during the industrial revolution was arduous and back-breaking, but for the men and women working in the coal mines of the north-east, the cotton mills of Yorkshire, or the matchstick factories of Bow, trade unions and collective action gave them a voice when previously they had been voiceless, and that voice won them better working conditions and a fairer share of the wealth that they were creating. Whether workers and trade unions in Britain who continue to fight to improve and maintain those conditions in this country, or those abroad who are struggling to improve conditions, everyone can glean inspiration from the match women and girls, who taught us about the positive impact that collective action, a little tenacity and a lot of bravery can have. I for one honour their memory, and thank them for being my inspiration. It is only right that the Government should also recognise their contribution, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.