The Point
Last updated: 26 March 2017.

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Strike a Light - Story of the Matchgirls Strike of 1888

One of the most significant and important industrial actions in UK history took place in 1888 in East London. Not only did it represent one of the first successful strike actions by organised Labour, it was significant because it was mainly carried and out and organised by teenage girls.

The practice of using White Phosphorous in the Bryant and May factory in Bow, led to suffering for the workers from a degenerative disease known as 'phossy jaw'. Despite their public reputation as philanthropists and Quakers, the factory owners Francis May and William Bryant subjected their workers to awful conditions.

Sparked by a newspaper article by women's rights activist Annie Besant, Bryant and May tried to get their workers to sign a statement denying Besant's claims. The workers refused, leading to the dismissal of one of them and that sparked the strike, with 1400 workers walking out by the end of the first day.

It's a famous story that has inspired activists and socialists since and became the natural setting for this collaboration between playwright Fatima Uygun and poet Colin Poole. A conversation between the two about their shared love of music hall songs developed into the play, to be premiered at Govanhill Bath's Steamie next month as part of the Southside Fringe.

Poole is a well known poet originally from London who has, through his work that can be found in his book "Verse Versus the Bourgeoisie", often tries to highlight the radical past of London's East End rather than the popular imagery of Pearly Kings and subservience:
"We wanted to create a show that combined the rich history of Music Hall with a political message. Fatima and I were big fans of Harry Champion and other working class song-writers of the time, a chat in a pub about a potential show found it's focus when she brought up the Bryant and May strike, and the idea for the show was born."
Poole and Uygun brought in musician and composer Gavin Livingstone, who had collaborated on several music projects with Uygun's late husband Alistair Hullet, and work began to build what has turned into a traditional music hall musical.

Uygun, who's award-winning play "Three Women" toured working class venues across Scotland last year, explains:
"People love the songs they have come to know through the years associated with music hall and London's East End. We adapted characters and songs from well known shows. We have Burlington Bertie from Bow, songs from My Fair Lady, alongside new music and songs. The story of the matchgirls strike is still one of the most important events in trade union history, but it's important to place that it an entertaining frame. We wanted to create a show that people would enjoy first and foremost, something that wasn't didactic or preachy."

The result is a music hall extravaganza full of surprises. The basic story is of Kathleen and Mary, two matchgirls who get involved in the strike but all of the classic music hall characters turn up. The aforementioned Burlington Bertie, a strongman, sand-dancers and puppets join a cast of 12 on stage.

It's a political story of women's empowerment, of trade union organisation but essentially it's a musical designed, like all musicals, to tug at the heart strings. Colin Poole sums it up:
"We want people to know the story of the matchgirls strike, to celebrate that history but, mostly, we want people to enjoy the show, sing the songs, to laugh and to cry."

Strike a Light is a Pitheid Production written by Fatima Uygun, Colin Poole & Jim Monaghan, original music by Gavin Livingstone and Colin Poole.

May 19th – May 23rd at The Steamie, Govanhill Baths tickets from www.brownpapertickets.com

Further details of Southside Fringe can be found at www.southsidefringe.org.uk and the venue at www.govanhillbaths.com

External links:

Bella Caledonia

Bright Green

George Monbiot

Green Left

Greenpeace

The Jimmy Reid Foundation

Laurie Penny

New Left Project

Newsnet Scotland

Richard Dawkins

Scottish Left Review

Socialist Unity

UK Uncut

Viridis Lumen

Wings Over Scotland

Word Power Books