Conditions were appalling for the 1,400 women and girls who worked at Bryant and May's match factory in Bow, east London. Low pay for a 14-hour day was cut even more if you talked or went to the toilet, and 'phossy jaw' - a horrible bone cancer caused by the cheap type of phosphorus in the matches - was common.
An article by women’s rights campaigner Annie Besant in the weekly paper, The Link, described the terrible conditions of the factory. The management was furious, but the workers refused to deny the truth of the report. When one of the workers was then fired, an immediate full-scale strike among the match girls was sparked. Public sympathy and support was enormous, surprising the management: it was an early example of what we now call a PR disaster. A few weeks later, they caved in and improved pay and conditions. A dozen years later they stopped using the lethal form of phosphorus. This article from Reynolds's Newspaper on 8 July 1888 reports on the start of the strike.