Hanbury Hall

Today, Hanbury Hall is a cafe and event space on Hanbury Street in Spitalfields, East London, but this rather unassuming building has a very colourful past.

Built in the 1700s, it started life as a chapel for the French Huguenots in the area. It was turned into a German Lutheran church, and later still a Methodist Hall where John Weasley, the founder of Methodism in the 18th century, preached. Even Charles Dickens, the Victorian novelist came here and gave public readings.

But one of the most fascinating stories to feature in its past is to do with the Matchgirls. It was here in 1888, a group of women held meetings to finalise the details of their imminent strike. These women were employees of the nearby Bryant and May matchstick factory, and were some of the hidden victims of the Industrial Revolution.

The women had been subjected to horrific working conditions in the factory. They had to suffer through extremely long working days (up to 14 hours), poor pay and excessive fines (for mediocre things such as talking, dropping matches, going to the toilet, and being late), but the most serious of all were the severe health complications due to working with white phosphorus, the worst being ‘phossy jaw’.

White phosphorus, which was used to help the tips of the match ignite, was highly toxic and caused symptoms such as the yellowing of the skin, hair loss, and in some instances ‘phossy jaw’. Symptoms would start off with tooth ache, swelling of the gums, tooth loss, rotting in the jaw bone, but could eventually lead to the cancerous-like disease which resulted in deformation of the jaw, brain damage and even loss of life.

The Link, 1888, (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

One of the women involved in the strike was Annie Besant, a well known socialist who went on to expose the conditions in the factory in her newspaper, The Link, and later became the movement’s leader. After finding out how bad the women were treated and about phossy jaw, she decided to get involved. After publishing the article, the Bryant and May factory reacted by attempting to force their workers to sign a statement that they were happy with their working conditions. A group of women refused to sign it and the organisers of that group were instantly sacked. The response was immediate and 1,400 of the women at Bryant & May went on strike.

What to hear more of what the women went on to achieve? Why not join us on our Old East End tour – click here to find out more!

Strike committee of the Matchmaker’s Union with Annie Besant at the centre on the upper level, 1893, (Photo: Wellcome Collection)

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