Talland and the matchgirls of London

Talland, on the south coast of Cornwall next to Looe shared the fishing village of Polperro with its neighbour Lansallos.  Polperro provided the larger number of the Talland children in our database, three boys and four girls. Although none of them emigrated, these Polperro children did not all live their lives out in the village as modern myth might suggest. Or at least the girls didn’t. One of the three boys died young while the other two were still recorded in Polperro in middle age, one a fisherman, the other a builder.

The girls were more adventurous. One of them had also died young but the other three had all married and moved eastwards. In 1850, when these girls were being born, the Morning Chronicle reported that farm labourers, ‘driven out of their cottages in the neighbourhood, or induced to leave from the high rents demanded have made their way to Polperro’ where they exerted ‘a rather baneful influence upon the morals of the community’

Elizabeth Hicks was one who managed to escape this unelaborated ‘baneful influence’. Her father was a fisherman but Elizabeth seems to have made her way, probably working as a domestic servant, to Plymouth in the 1870s. There she married David William Ramsay from East Anglia who, given his birthplace, was possibly a seaman. The couple had made their way to the east end of London by 1881 where David was getting work when he could as a dock labourer. Things may have got easier by 1891 when he was in more secure employment as a gas stoker at West Ham. Their daughter Alice aged 14 was a matchmaker in 1891. That probably means that she began such work after the well-publicised London matchgirls’ strike of 1888.

The combustible ends of the bulk of the matches of the time contained white phosphorus. Those working with the phosphorus were liable to experience tooth-ache, abscesses and swelling of the gums – so-called ‘phossy jaw’ as a result of inhaling the chemical. Safety matches using red phosphorus, which did not have the same effect, had been invented as early as the 1850s but were dearer to produce. As a result, most matchmakers continued to use white phosphorus and their workers continued to breath it in every day.

Some of the matchgirls of 1888 (and a matchboy)

Bryant and May’s factory at Bow in east London was the largest match factory by the 1880s, employing 1,200 to 1,500 women and girls. Some of these worked at home producing matchboxes and paid by piecework, as were the women in the factory. The matchgirls went on strike a few times in the 1880s over low pay and the punitive fines levied by their employers and deducted from their wages. After the dismissal of a woman in 1888 who complained about the fines, 1,400 women and girls walked out. With the help of well-connected activists such as Annie Besant and a handful of Radical MPs the matchgirls gained a lot of sympathetic publicity. Bryant and May quickly caved in and after a fortnight the fines were abolished, a grievance procedure was put in place and a separate room was provided where meals could be taken free from possible contamination from the white phosphorus.

Nonetheless, white phosphorus continued to be used rather than red until government legislation in 1908 eventually banned it.

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