Matchstick Memories

The grave is unobtrusive, all patchy grass and wild weeds – nothing to look at, completely ordinary. It is strange to think that Sarah Dearman, née Chapman, one of the main organisers of the 1888 Matchgirl strike in the East End of London, has lain there virtually unknown since 1945. Discovered by chance, the pauper’s grave in Manor Park Cemetery displays no markings of her role in this movement. Sarah herself went on to become one of the first working-class women to represent their Union at the TUC, and yet her grave has not even a headstone. Over a century after the strikes, it is her family, and those that cherish her history, fighting for what they believe in, as they argue against the grave being levelled to make way for more plots.

The Matchgirls went on strike over appalling working conditions for the 1400 women and girls that worked at Bryant and May’s match factory in Bow, East London. A gruelling 14-hour day for low pay which was slashed if you had normal bodily functions also included a bonus of ‘phossy jaw’: a nasty bone cancer created by the cheap type of phosphorus in the matches. 

The strikes lasted two weeks from the 2nd of July 1888 and was a true PR scandal for the match factory, forcing the firm to change procedures. Meals were allowed to be taken in a separate room, away from the deadly white phosphorus, and twelve years after the strikes there was finally a ban on the product completely. The Matchgirls could easily be seen as the predecessors of modern-day trade unionism, and were surely part of the inspiration for the Dockers’ Strike that in 1889 saw 100,000 people taking action and returning victorious. Their story has been told across the globe, commemorated at the 2012 London Olympics, and yet one of the leaders of the strikes may now have her resting place destroyed.

Mayor Park Cemetery has stated that Sarah’s grave will not disappear, and the family will be able to purchase a new lease above the original grave. Only in the last few months has funding been secured for a permanent headstone for Sarah, and now this mounding may delay, or destroy completely, the chance to commemorate her. 

Those against this action argue that mounding is not even a viable method to increase burial space, as skulls and bones have been visible at sites after similar destruction work. Having only just discovered the connection of the unmarked grave to Sarah Dearman and the matchgirls in 2017, this seems like a loss for not only her family, but those who wish to pay their respects. 

The petition started by the Matchgirls Memorial Charity to save Sarah’s grave has reached almost 9000 signatures. At a time where memorials and public figures are being constantly questioned, perhaps we ought to focus more on those that fought for social justice than those who fought to keep oppression and hatred.

The grave is unobtrusive, all patchy grass and wild weeds – nothing to look at, except a small bunch of pastel pink flowers, fresh this morning. A symbol of hope. Sarah Dearman’s role in the hope of a better future will live on, regardless of what happens with her grave, and that is something to cling to. But petitioners want something more, and if Sarah taught us anything… wasn’t it that we need to fight for what we believe is right?

Photo courtesy of  Yaoqi LAI

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