Following a break for a couple of weeks, due to holiday commitments etc – it was good to get back ‘on the road’ again this week and return to publishing stuff on the ‘London Shoes’ website.
This week’s topic focused on a building that I have passed by many hundreds of times during my life, and continue to do so to this very day.
In fact, anyone travelling by train between Stratford and Liverpool Street stations, or the DLR from Stratford towards Canary Wharf, will have seen, and probably be aware of this iconic Victorian building – but it wasn’t until I did a bit of research that I discovered what an important part it has played in London’s history and in particular current Industrial Relations rules and regulations.
So – the subject matter I took a look at this week is – the old ‘Bryant & May Match Factory’ in Bow, London E3.
In 1843 a partnership was formed by 2 Quakers ‘Francis May’ and ‘William Bryant’ for the purpose of importing and then selling Swedish matches.
Their business was so successful that by 1853 ‘Bryant & May’ were knocking out 8 million boxes of matches per year -by 1860, sales had risen to 27 million boxes per year.
Because their business was expanding so rapidly, they needed a large factory premises to conduct their operations, and so in 1861 they purchased an old run down candle and rope making factory site in Fairfield Road, Bow, East London, close to the River Lea – and started to manufacture their very own ‘Bryant & May’ matches.
Business was booming and the factory premises expanded – and by 1881 the site covered 6 acres, and had a workforce of over 5000, mainly all locals– who were knocking out roughly 300 million matches per day.
The ‘Bryant & May’ factory was at one stage, the largest factory and employer in London and was looked upon as being the ‘model’ business.
However, in truth, all was not well with the workforce and there was an undercurrent of some serious dissatisfaction.
The workforce was predominantly women and children who were known as ‘Match Girls’ – and at that time, matches were made with the chemical ‘white phosphorus’ which is the stuff that formed the match head, and was highly toxic – but it was much ‘cheaper’ than the safer alternative ‘red phosphorus’.
If you handled white phosphorous or came into contact with it too much, then it caused serious damage to your health and you ended up with a terrible condition known as ‘Phossy Jaw’ – where you would get severe toothache followed by swelling of the gums. Abscesses would then form on the jaw-bone, and the facial bones would glow a greeny white in the dark. If untreated then ‘Phossy Jaw’ would develop into brain damage and ultimately multiple organ failure.
A number of the ‘Match Girls’ at the Bryant & May factory in Bow contracted this condition, but it was all kept very quiet by the management, as they didn’t want anything to damage their glowing public image.
Not only did the Match Girls have this health issue to contend with, they were also working under ridiculous exploitive conditions where they would be doing 14 hour shifts and would be heavily ‘fined’ if they didn’t perform to the required ‘output’ standards set by the management. They were so poorly paid that many of those being ‘fined’ ended up actually working for nothing at times.
In July 1888, following the dismissal of one of the Match Girls – the female workforce had had enough of the treatment they were getting and they all went out on strike, causing the entire factory output to grind to a halt. As a result, the very first all-women’s “Match Makers Trade Union” was formed.
The media soon got hold of the story and the strike became front page news.
Social activists started to get involved and give their support to the striking Match Girls – and one in particular, an Annie Besant, organised a ‘strike fund’ for the ‘girls’ and got on board many prominent and well respected ‘celebrities’ of the day, to help champion the cause and bring the issue to the conscience of the masses.
Through Annie Besant’s constant campaigning, it wasn’t long before the issue was raised by MP’s in Parliament – which really scared the life out of the Bryant & May management.
All this unwanted attention forced Bryant & May to make radical changes to the way in which they treated their workers. Firstly, they introduced a large staff canteen area which allowed the Match Girls to eat their lunch away from the factory floor, and so reduce the potential for contamination – they also introduced a full-time company doctor and dentist who carried out regular checks on the women to ensure that any potential cases of ‘phossy jaw’ were identified and dealt with early – also, the ‘fines’ punishment regime was removed with immediate effect , and as a result of these changes all the Match Girls were allowed to return back to work and without any recriminations.
By the early 1900’s Bryant & May had completely stopped using the ‘white phosphorous’ chemical for the production of its match heads – and by 1908 the use of white phosphorous had been completely banned by the Government.
Bryant & May continued to manufacture and trade from the Bow factory, right up until 1979 – when there was still a workforce of almost 300.
The factory eventually closed down and the entire site fell into a state of disrepair.
However, in 1988 developers and architects started to see a potential in this huge site and as a result it became East London’s very first urban renewal programme.
Today, the old Bryant & May factory building is a gated community known as the ‘Bow Quarter’ – set in 7 acres of landscaped grounds and consisting of 733 one & two bedroomed flats and penthouses, and even the old workers cottages are now classy abodes. Within its gated walls there is a gym, a restaurant, its own pub and even its own convenience store.
Interestingly, the old factory ‘water tower’ was used by the Ministry of Defence as the location of the ‘surface-to-air’ missile defence throughout the 2012 Olympics.
As you can imagine, security at the site is extremely tight, with resident access only – however, upon request, the very kind security officer, allowed me inside for a few minutes only, so that I could take some photos.
So – for such an iconic building steeped in history and with a story or two to tell, particularly throughout Victorian times – I personally think that it’s great that it is still around and in use for future generations to enjoy, and hopefully be aware of its history.
Before heading off back home, I popped into the ‘Little Driver’ pub, in the busy Bow Road, close by to the old Bryant & May factory (now the ‘Bow Quarter’ of course).
There has been a pub on the site since 1820, and the current pub building in its present form, stems right back to 1869.
This interior of this old Victorian pub still has a lot of its original fixtures & fittings, including a massive old ‘Hoare & Co Celebrated Stout’ mirror on one of its walls – It also has, and somewhat surprising for its location, a really good beer garden,– and so with it being such a hot sunny day, I had no choice than to neck down and enjoy a cheeky one in it.
Hope you enjoyed this little story.