- October 29, 2020
In 1888, within a small industrial corner of East London, you, the aggrieved workers of the Bryant & May match factory, began to organize to spread awareness of the treatment and death of your fellow labourers. For several years attempts at organizing a labour union to negotiate against the impositions of the factory owners were met with derision and dismissal. And as the bosses began to further exploit the poor teenage workers, Irish immigrants, and working-class mothers protesting the garnishing of wages, debilitating 14-hour workdays, and a workplace laced with cancerous white phosphorus, the calls for a radical change only grew. Therefore, a strike was soon organized as reports and interviews on the wretched industrial confines and abuses were publicized with the support of journalists and political partisans such as Annie Besant and Emmeline Pankhurst.1 And soon nearly 1500 matchgirls, joined by male labourers, began striking to have the new labour union accepted, a safer workplace established, and wages increased. After several weeks of protest, all these concessions were met by the factory owners and the strike ended.2
Looking back on the past, local actions such as this strike have too often been forgotten or omitted from modern memory. For, in the remembrance of things past, it is regularly those moments from the largest scales of conflict and calamity that are deemed the most significant or impactful to our present histories. However, the daily activism of those matchgirls and women served as the first wave of change that soon rippled across all of late 19th-century English society. For the populace spurred on and accelerated by this fervent belief in the possibilities of protest and these everyday activists began to demand for change. Change for themselves, for their children, for their brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers as trade unionists for working rights, as educators for access to education, as journalists for the truth, and as suffragettes for the vote. Subsequently, making the protest of the matchgirls in the Bow Quarter one of the most significant labour events in the history of England.3
The Bryant & May match factory remains to this day, however in the time between us, it has been gutted and transformed into a series of new luxury apartments for the rich. Looking back on our popular histories, the sites and monuments of the working and lower classes are often the first to fall away to the forces of others’ political progress and economic advancement. These forces of gentrification thus act to not just modify the present conditions of structures, but to manipulate past narratives surrounding historical veneration, humanization, and, ultimately, remembrance. People and their legacies are thus reduced to their base usefulness or uselessness to a cycle of commodification that came in the form of those imposing industrial factories of the last century, but are now the forces of commercial heritagization and urban renewal. As a result, local histories are pacified to appease the mindset of an abstracted gentrified populace. Collective landscapes and memories are expunged of the struggles and injustices faced by those that have come before, and of those impoverished and downtrodden still, who continue to suffer in silence and die to this day.
This can even be seen in the years leading up to the matchgirls protests, when the factory owner Theodore H. Bryant sponsored the building of a statue to honour a former Prime Minister of England, William Gladstone, in East London. It is poignant that for an area steeped in generations of poverty and working-class strife, the memorialization of that legacy is reflected by the petrification of figures from the social, political, and economic elite that not only benefited from the exploitation of the poor, but used that extracted capital to deify themselves as liberators. In spite of all this, singular acts of earnest remembrance for those industrial workers continue to manifest throughout the decades. Spurred on by a rumor that withheld wages were used to fund its construction, an unknown individual or individuals have kept painting the hands of Gladstone red to remember the blood and suffering of the matchgirls and women. In the recent run up to the 2012 Olympics, with international eyes on London, the hands were scrubbed clean by the local council one night, and yet the next day as the sun rose, the fingers and palms of Gladstone were red once more.4
Reflecting on the present condition of our own profession, we architects have for too long been complicit in the acceptance of deplorable standards for the treatment of our workers and for the compensation of their labour. From the cult of physical and mental exhaustion, to the dependence on unpaid interns, and the reliance on millions of migrant, child, and imprisoned labourers for the extraction of our materials and the construction of our buildings. In the nearly 130 years between us and the labor movements of the past, what has remained consistent are those that continue to be systematically exploited and erased from our industry at every level. It is those who are poor, those who are women, those who are minorities, and those who are immigrants. We are told to find solace in and look up to the established institutions and icons of our age to guide us in the right direction. But what if it is these idols and institutions that systematically incentivise the perpetual need for our struggle? With this we too often forget that the spinning of great change throughout our histories have begun with the simplest and humblest actions of those unknown and unnamed activists of the everyday. Those who did not seek to change the world, but merely to survive to the next. I shall therefore end this correspondence with the popular activist motto from the time of the matchgirls. To honour their legacy, and as a reminder for us to continue to engage in this struggle to finish the work that is yet to be done, for what is needed now is;
“Deeds not Words”5