Unions must defend Sarah Chapman’s grave, not as a monument but as an inspiration

Matchgirls’ Union committee, with Sarah Dearman (née Chapman) ringed. Image courtesy of TUC Library Collections at London Metropolitan University http://unionhistory.info

It is a bit naff to start a comment piece with a quotation from Shakespeare but I am going to – because I think he was wrong.

He had Richard II say: “Nothing can we call our own but death, and that small model of the barren earth, which serves as paste and cover to our bones”. Well, I don’t think graves are for the dead – rather, I think they are for the living. And something that a dead person can definitely own, and bequeath to us, is a legacy. 

Sarah Dearman (née Chapman) died in 1945 and she is buried in Manor Park Cemetery, Forest Gate, in east London. Her unmarked grave was recently identified. Relatives and campaigners are working to protect the grave, to mark it permanently and to use Sarah’s story to drive progressive social change and a petition calling on the cemetery to save Sarah’s grave has already been signed by more than 8,000 people.

In some ways Sarah was just a regular east London woman working in manufacturing in 1888. She worked very hard, probably had a great social life with her friends and she was tough and courageous. If I call her ‘ballsy’ I think she would have understood and approved.

She worked at the Bryant and May match factory in Mile End. At that time perhaps 2,000 people worked there, including 1500 women and girls, a great many of whom were teenagers.

They worked 6 days a week, up to 14-hour a day, for pitiful pay. This poverty wage was eroded by fines, that were imposed for petty offences such as talking. Those in the factory were exposed to the dangers of white phosphorus that caused osteonecrosis or ‘phossy jaw’, which was a form of bone cancer. First the women’s teeth would fall out and then the jaw-bone would be eaten away.

The matchmakers had been on strike in 1881, 1885, and 1886 over low wages and the punitive fines imposed on them, but had not won change. 

On 5th July 1888 following criticism in the media of conditions at the factory a worker was dismissed and in response 1400 girls and women walked out on strike. The following day the entire factory was halted. And it stayed shut until 16 July, when their employer agreed to their demands, including the abolition of the fine system, to an early form of a grievance procedure, and that ‘all the girls to be taken back’ – no victimisation. It was also agreed that the women would form a union and it would be recognised, and what was to become the Matchworker’s Union was formed.

Sarah was a leader of the 1888 Matchgirls Strike. That strike was an immediate catalyst for trade union organising and activism. It is rightly regarded as being a vital moment in the development of modern trade unionism in Britain.

In workplaces across Britain today trade union activists stand on the shoulders of those who went before us. Every right, term and condition that we have were won through organisation and struggle. And our work is not done. The equal pay gap endures, precarious employment grows, women, especially pregnant woman, are being frequently being discriminated against by employers during the coronavirus pandemic.

But the good news is that trade unions have recruited hundreds of thousands of new members in the last three years, and there are now more women in trade unions than any time dating back to 1995.

And Sarah’s leadership and tactics can be an inspiration to all of us today.

She was humble but had self-respect and dignity, she was determined to be regarded, to be listened to as a person. 

She knew that alone she was weak and isolated but understood the power of a collective voice, expressed alongside the withdrawal of labour.

She understood that legitimate grievances at work are shared experiences, and can be the foundation for unity.

She understood that listening to workmates was important, as was agreeing clear aims.

She knew the power of organising, growing the collective, winning and training new activists, sharing tasks, growing new leaders.

She realised the importance of campaigning messaging and using the media.

She knew the value of winning gains and celebrating those gains.

And she understood that the next struggle is always around the corner and so it is important to build organisation on top of victories.

And in Sarah’s story we can see the importance of leadership and the value of trust between workers.

Those who are confident that trade unionism is a force for good and force for change should defend Sarah Chapman’s grave. Defend it not as a monument, but as an inspiration, a catalyst for organising, and for fighting for a better world for all.

  • Laurie Heselden is Regional Policy and Campaigns Officer for the  TUC London, East and South East


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