Match Girls
Social deprivation was nothing new in the East End of London in the mid 1800’s, but it would be hard to imagine nowadays the plight of the Match Girls at Bryant and May’s factory in Worship Street, Bow.

William Bryant and Francis May (who were both Quakers) had originally imported red-phosphorus based safety matches from John Edvard Lundström, in Sweden, in 1850. However, as demand increased Bryant and May bought Lundström’s UK patent, building their new safety match factory in Bow.

They continued to use red phosphorus throughout 1855, but the product was much more expensive than the alternative – white phosphorus-based matches. Bryant and May found a ready solution in the East End – and began the use of child labour. At its height, the factory was to employ around 3000 East End children, predominantly girls.

The match girls, some as young as 13, worked from 6.30am until 7pm, with just two breaks, standing all the time, often eating any lunch at their workbenches, breathing fumes as they dined. In the factory, those girls known as “mixers,” “dippers,” and “boxers” were most exposed to the heated fumes containing this compound.

Phossy Jaw

Phosphorus Necrosis or ‘Phossy Jaw’

However, the long hours were often just the start of the match girls’ misery. Many were struck down with a terrible disease – phosphorus necrosis – known by the colloquial term of ‘Phossy Jaw’. Those girls who suffered with phossy jaw would begin experiencing agonising toothaches and a swelling of the gums. Over a period of time, the jaw bone would begin to abscess.

The bones of the jaw would start to glow a greenish-white colour in the dark, and the decaying bone tissue would eventually rot away. The accompanying open wounds would run, giving off a foul-smelling discharge. Finally, in its advanced stages, the disease would lead to serious brain damage and death.

The exploitation of the girls came to the attention of a journalist and social activist called Annie Besant, together with her friend Herbert Burrows, who, following the disclosure that Bryant and May’s shareholders were receiving dividends of 20%, whist the girls were paid around 4 – 8 shillings a week (20 – 40p), published an article in her weekly paper ‘The Link’ on 23rd June 1888.

Annie Besant

Annie Besant

After questioning several of the young girls at the factory, her shocking article likened the Bow factory to a “prison-house” and described the match girls as “white wage slaves” – “undersized”, “helpless” and “oppressed”.

She wrote – “Do you know that girls are used to carrying boxes on their heads until the hair is rubbed off and the young heads are bald at fifteen years of age? Country clergymen with shares in Bryant and May’s, draw down on your knee your fifteen year old daughter; pass your hand tenderly over the silky beauty of the black, shining tresses”.

Bryant and May reacted angrily to the accusations and tried to insist that each member of their workforce sign a prepared declaration contradicting the article. The girls refused and as a result, one of their number was dismissed on what was seen to be a spurious and made up charge.

By the end of that day – around half of the workforce, some 1500 women and girls – refused to work. Whilst the management attempted to backpedal and reinstate the sacked worker, the girls demanded other changes to their working conditions, particularly in relation to the unfair fines which were deducted from their wages.

By the 6th July 1888, the entire factory stopped work and a group of around 200 girls descended on the Fleet Street offices of Annie Besant and her newspaper. Annie Besant’s initial reaction was one of shock and dismay that so many of the women and girls were now effectively out of work with little or no means of support.


A newspaper cutting highlighting the issues

She helped the girls to coordinate a strike fund, and a number of other newspapers collected donations from readers. Prominent members of the Fabian Society including George Bernard Shaw, Sidney Webb and Graham Wallas became involved in the distribution of the cash collected.

The Member of Parliament, Charles Bradlaugh, spoke in the house on behalf of the girls’ plight, and a number of the match-girls travelled to the House of Commons to meet a group of MPs and increase the publicity and pressure on Bryant and May.

Finally, the factory owner William Bryant, concerned about the poor publicity, formulated a meeting on the 16th July 1888 where it was agreed that a number of the girls’ grievances, such as fines, unfair deductions and penalties and the creation of a separate dining area where meals could be taken without the danger of contamination from the phosphorus, would be met.

Besant and others continued to campaign against the use of white phosphorus in matches, and in an effort to try and combat the situation, the Salvation Army opened up its own match factory in the Bow district, using less toxic red phosphorus and paying better wages. However, the continued high cost of red phosphorus compared to white phosphorus caused its downfall and The Salvation Army match factory finally closed, ironically being taken over by Bryant and May, on 26 November 1901.


The Bryant and May factory in Bow

Walk a short distance from Spitalfields Market on a Sunday between 9am and 3pm, and you will stumble upon another world famous East End Market – and one of London’s oldest – Petticoat Lane.  Originally called Peticote Lane, the area around Petticoat Lane was decimated by the Great Plague of 1665, when London lost a fifth of its entire population.

The existing market has been operating in its current location from the mid 1700’s and was named after the Petticoats and Lace that were sold in the area by the Huguenot weavers who had populated Spitalfields after fleeing their native France. Another interpretation of the name is that unscrupulous traders would “steal your petticoat from you at one end of the market and sell it back to you at the other end…”!

Petticoat Lane Market was not formally recognised as a trading area until an Act of Parliament was passed in 1936 but its relationship for being populated by ne’er do wells and fraudsters made it unpopular with the authorities and a popular way of disrupting the market was for emergency vehicles such as police cars and fire engines to be driven from one end of Petticoat Lane to the other with sirens blaring and bells ringing!

Nowadays, the market has a more salubrious reputation, selling items such as leather jackets at the Aldgate East end, whilst the rest of the market is largely given over to bargain clothing. A large selection of fashion items are always on sale with many end of season lines being made available at knock down prices at almost a thousand stalls.

Other items such as bric-a-brac, electrical good and shoes are also readily available, and whilst many visit the market for the items sold on the stalls, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the lane itself is lined with shops selling a huge range of highly coloured African and Asian fabrics.


So, where exactly is ‘Petticoat Lane’? The sign at the top of the article is a bit of a misnomer as due to the prudishness of the Victorians, Petticoat Lane was renamed Middlesex Street in 1846 – the thought of a lane being named after ladies undergarments was deemed far too racy!

Spitalfields Market
Spitalfields Market in the East End first came into being when Charles the First granted a licence for ‘flesh, fowl and roots’ to be sold on the Spittle Fields – a field adjacent to the hospital and priory of St Mary’s Spittel – which then was an area of London that had remained relatively rural until the Great Fire of London.

Traders had begun operating beyond the city gates – on the site where today’s market stands, following the Great Fire in 1666.

The market was re-founded in 1682 by Charles II as a result of the necessity of providing fresh produce to the ever growing population of the new suburb of London.

Spitalfields Market was a huge success and was open for six days a week throughout most of the eighteen century, but the market began to fall into decline after 1876.

A market porter, Robert Horner, decided to do something about the situation. He bought a short lease on the whole market, and began work on developing new market buildings.

These buildings were sited on the rectangular patch of open ground which retained the name Spittle Fields: Nowadays, the area covered is defined by Crispin Street to the west, Lamb Street to the north, Red Lion Street to the east and Paternoster Row which later became known as Brushfield Street to the south.

Spitalfields Market Floor

However, the market’s popularity was instrumental in its downfall – due to its location, deep in the heart of London; the narrow streets made traffic congestion a real problem. Finally, in 1991, the market was moved to Leyton over in East London, and it seemed that Spitalfields Market was destined to be a name consigned to the history books.

Nevertheless, following almost two decades of careful restoration and regeneration, the market now houses a new collection of artisans. Independent retailers now rub shoulders with restaurants and vintage clothing stalls, bringing this part of the East End back to vibrant life…

The Rag Trade
The area of the East End known as Spitalfields has been home to clothing manufacturing businesses (often referred to as ‘The Rag Trade’) for over 250 years.  Started primarily by the Huguenots, religious refugees from Eighteenth century France, the Rag Trade has dominated the area ever since.

Spitalfields represented the most concentrated Huguenot settlement in England and it was said that you were as likely to hear French being spoken in the streets of the East End as the mother tongue of English. In fact, the amount of Huguenot migration from France was so great (estimated at almost twenty five thousand individuals – a huge amount given the population at the time) that it is believed that amongst the current population in the South East of England, more than 90% may have Huguenot ancestors.
Huguenot Wever in the East End

The Huguenots were talented weavers who became very successful and their businesses soon boomed. They invested the money they made to construct the tall, impressive town houses that line the streets of the Brick Lane area (for a chance to glimpse into their world, see the article on Dennis Severs House on this website). With their long windows to let in the maximum amount of light, a factor essential for a weaver, together with their high ceilings, these properties are now highly sought after.

By the nineteenth century the weavers had long gone (primarily due to the joint factors of employment restrictions and mechanisation) and the properties had started to fall into disrepair. The once grand Huguenot homes were then turned into lodging houses where London’s poorest and most desperate could spend the night for a penny. Those who could not even afford the cost of a bed would end up sleeping whilst sitting upright on a bench, their tired and weary bodies held in place by a rope.

The properties became filthy, flea-ridden doss houses where petty crime was rife. Home to gin soaked Whitechapel prostitutes, these sorry individuals would have slept in these common lodging houses whilst Jack the Ripper committed his horrendous murders in the streets outside.

As the French weavers moved out another group of settlers began to move in. Following the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, the persecution of Jews in Russia became even fiercer, and a wave of pogroms swept across Russia and neighbouring countries. Many Jewish families fled Eastern Europe between 1881 and 1914, prompted by economic hardship and increasingly ferocious persecution and moved to the East End for a fresh start.

A large numberJewish Tailors in the East End of Jews who landed in England were actually intending to make their way to America, but about 120,000 stayed in this country. Attracted by the East End’s reputation as a place for cheap living, (and by the fact that it had been home to a Jewish population in previous decades), large numbers of Jews settled in Spitalfields, often finding work in the ‘rag trade’. Indeed, by the end of the Nineteenth century, Jews represented about 95 per cent of the population in the Wentworth Street district of Spitalfields and had also settled around Whitechapel, Aldgate and Mile End.

Eventually, the Jewish community moved further out to the suburbs, such as Golders Green and Hendon, and in their wake, the clothing trade was taken over by another ethnic group, that of Bengali Muslims, who remain to this day. Indeed a visit to Brick Lane nowadays finds the senses assaulted with the sights, sounds and smells of the Indian sub-continent.

Just off the Whitechapel Road in the East End lies a small, fairly insignificant looking doorway. It may not look as imposing as other London tourist attractions, but venture beyond and you will find you have stumbled onto Britain’s oldest manufacturing company. Whitechapel Bell Foundry was established during the reign of the Virgin Queen – Queen Elizabeth I in 1570, and has been in continuous business since.

A long procession of Royal visitors have entered the Whitechapel Bell Foundry – unsurprising really, given its 400 years of manufacture and casting – in fact the foundry’s history spans that of twenty seven crowned heads of England, and when the casting took place for two bells for Westminster Abbey, both King George V and Queen Mary visited the buildings.

The foundry buildings themselves date from four years after the Great Fire of London and it is thought that the original property was burned to the ground in the ensuing firestorm. Some of the current workshops were part of a building that was originally a coaching Inn known as the Artichoke.

One of the most famous bells in the world, Big Ben, which hangs in what is now known as the Elizabeth Tower at the Houses of Parliament, was the biggest bell ever to be cast at Whitechapel. The gauge that was used to make the mould for the bell still hangs on the wall of the foundry moulding shop to this day, and can be seen by visitors on one of the twice monthly tours that the foundry operates.

The London Docks occupied a total area of about 30 acres (120,000 m²). They consisted of the Western and Eastern docks which were linked by the short Tobacco Dock. In turn, the Western Dock was linked to the River Thames by Hermitage Basin (in the south west) and by Wapping Basin (to the south).

The Eastern Dock joined the River Thames via the Shadwell Basin to the east. The principal designers of these docks were the architects and engineers Daniel Asher Alexander and John Rennie, who had done so much sterling work on the English Canal Network.

As a major inland port, situated in the heart of London, the docks were used to land and distribute high-value luxury commodities such as ivory, spices, coffee and cocoa as well as wine, wool and tobacco for which beautiful warehouses and wine cellars were constructed, alongside the wharfs.

In 1864 the London Docks were amalgamated with St Katharine Docks. Strangely the dock system was never connected to the railway network, and therefore the cargos that were handled from all around the world began their journey to the heart of the Empire by road. In common with the rest of the enclosed docks, the London Docks were taken over by the Port of London Authority in 1909.

Slightly further down the River Thames are the site of the West India Docks, a collection of three docks, the Northern most of which was the Import Dock, the middle which was the Export Dock and the lower South Dock . The docks were accessed via Blackwall Reach on the Thames, with boats able to pass through the Isle of Dogs and re-join the Thames at Limehouse Reach.

The Import Dock originally comprised of 30 acres (120,000 m2) of water and was 155 metres long by 152 metres wide, whilst the slightly smaller Export Dock covered 24 acres (97,000 m2) and was 155 metres long by 123 metres wide. By having separate docks for loading and unloading, it was hoped to avoid vessels taking up valuable quay space for long periods of time. Between them, the two docks had a combined capacity to berth over 600 vessels, and locks and basins at either end of the Docks connected them back to the River Thames.
West India Docks

The design of the docks allowed a ship bringing cargo in from the West Indies to unload in the northern dock, sail round to the southern dock and load up with export cargo in a fraction of the time it had previously taken, given the heavily congested and dangerous upper reaches of the Thames.

Initially the docks dealt solely with produce from the West Indies, with the exception of tobacco, and supervised the loading and unloading of vessels as decreed by Parliament.  As a result, West India Docks mainly traded in rum, molasses and sugar. Imported and exported cargoes were wide ranging and included such commodities as Jute, Coir, Oil Spirits & Wine, Shell, Horn, Cork, Indigo, Spices, Baggage, Coffee and Hardwood.

During the 20th century, the docks also handled grain and, as refrigeration became common, meat, fruit and vegetables also became regular commodities.

The docks closed to commercial traffic in 1980 and the Canary Wharf development was built on the site