Bryant and May Matchmakers
Quakers William Bryant and Frances May established Bryant and May in 1850, to sell matches. At first they imported the matches from Lundstrom’s in Sweden, but as demand outstripped supply, they decided to produce their own, and set up a factory in Bow, in London.
Many of the poor, uneducated, and unskilled women they employed had come from Ireland following the potato famine. They liked to drink and got into fights, which made them widely despised. Not the behaviour expected of a woman in Victorian society!
At this time there were about thirty matchmaking firms in London. Many of them, including Bryant and May, employed children. public concern was growing about the conditions in which children were working, in many different industries. The Commission on the Employment of Children in Industry was set up, and it investigated all 30 of the London match making firms in 1863. Generally they were critical of the working conditions, but they found Bryant and May’s factory to be “a very nicely conducted place”.
In 1861 Wilberforce Bryant, eldest son of William, had become overall manager. He was keen to sell as many matches as possible and decided to increase production. Francis May disapproved of his aggressive approach but refused to give up his partnership. It was only the threat of a court case, which would have brought shame on Quakers, that forced him out in 1875.
By 1872 Bryant and May had over 5000 employees, many of whom were also seasonal fruit pickers. Most of the workforce were piece-workers, so it is difficult to calculate exactly how much each worker was paid. Many of them made matchboxes at home and had to pay for the materials such as string, glue and fuel for the fire to dry the finished boxes.
At the factory Wilberforce had invested in three hundred match-dipping machines. These were based on the ground floor of the factory, and the fumes from the white phosphorous they used permeated the two floors above. This sometimes had horrible results. Workers could contract ‘phossy jaw’, a disfiguring affliction caused by inhaling these fumes. Bryant and May paid the workers £1 per week to stay at home whilst they recovered, which they never did, and payment ceased after a few months.
During the 1880s Bryant and May grew rapidly, and In June 1884 the business became a limited company with shareholders. As a company it was committed to dividends for the shareholders. Furthermore management salaries were based on a minimum dividend of 10%. This was no longer the Quaker family firm the Commission had inspected in 1863, though Wilberforce remained a Quaker. This change may have had an influence on how the workers were treated, though conditions had been harsh for a long time, especially with regard to the ever-present risk of phossy jaw.
In 1888 socialist journalist Annie Besant became interested in the working conditions of the ‘matchgirls’ at Bryant and May. She got her information from talking to workers outside the factory gates. She wrote an article in her magazine ‘The Link’ entitled ‘White Slavery in London’ in which she described their ten hour day, low wages and fines for being late or talking during working hours. She also reported that the foremen often hit them and hired and fired at will. The first reaction of the Bryant and May management was to sack the girl that they suspected of being the ringleader in passing on information to Besant. They followed this up by asking the other girls to sign a document refuting the accusations. They refused, and went on strike. They asked Annie Besant for help.
Newspapers at the time were mixed in their reactions to the strike, with some blaming the trouble on agitators outside of the factory. Bryant and May were adamant that most of the accusations were unfounded, but they soon made significant changes. They ended the system of fines, provided a subsidized canteen, and allowed a Union of Women Matchmakers to replace the foremen. The strike ended, and the girls went back to work.
The Quaker reputation as good employers was tarnished by this strike: whatever the reasons, Bryant and May had not taken the care of their employees that people expected of Quakers.