Campaign launched as Matchgirl striker’s grave comes under threat

Sarah Chapman’s grave in Manor Park Cemetery Image courtesy of Sam Johnson

A campaign has been launched to save the grave of one of the Matchgirl strikers. 

Sarah Dearman (née Chapman) was a leader of the famous 1888 Matchgirls Strike in London’s East End. The women worked at the Bryant and May factory in Bow and are seen as the founders of modern trade unionism and inspiration for the 1889 Dockers’ Strike that saw 100,000 people taking action – and winning – in the Port of London.

The Matchgirls went on strike over poor working conditions, including fourteen-hour days, poor pay, excessive fines, and the dangers of working with white phosphorus, which led to ‘phossy jaw’, a disease that destroyed the jaw bone.

The strike lasted a fortnight before it was called off when changes were made in the firm’s grievance procedures and meals were allowed to be taken in a separate room, away from the white phosphorus. The action eventually led to a ban on white phosphorus.

The Matchgirl’s story has been told in plays and musicals around the world and was commemorated at the 2012 London Olympics.

Sarah Dearman died of lung cancer in 1945, aged 83, and was buried in a pauper’s grave at Manor Park Cemetery, Forest Gate in east London. Her unmarked grave was discovered by chance a few years ago.

Sarah’s great granddaughter Sam Johnson told union-news.co.uk: “It was nothing but a grassy patch. It was a pathway being trampled on by people walking past, so we put a little chainlink fence around it, and a wooden cross with a plaque, just to mark it.”

But now the private owners of the cemetery have announced plans to ‘mound’ the graves with extra soil to make way for new plots. Mounding is not recommended by the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management, which suggests alternative methods to increase burial space. In the past, skulls and bones have been visible at the Manor Park site after similar destruction work.

The Matchgirls Memorial charity has launched a campaign to stop the destruction of this important heritage site. A petition calling on the cemetery to save Sarah’s grave has already been signed by more than 8,000 people.

Patron Anita Dobson said: “Sarah and these women fought for our working rights and to destroy  her resting place is abhorrent. People want to come here to pay their respects and remember what she and the Matchgirls achieved for us all”.

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