Category: 1800-1899

The Matchworkers’ Strike at Bryant and May (1888)

The Matchworkers’ Strike at Bryant and May (1888)

Late nineteenth century society was still fundamentally patriarchal … husbands and fathers held sway over the women in their familial circle, while employers and politicians were still almost exclusively men … this strike stands out as a watershed event in the evolution of feminism, demonstrating that women too could be successful in bargaining with their employers for improved conditions.
Jacqueline Lane

Black and white photo of several women who worked with match sticks
Matchgirl Strikers via [Public Domain] Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain Mark 1.0 (]
The strike by match-workers at the Bryant and May factory in Bow, East London, in the summer of 1888 was an unprecedented, mass reaction to the appalling working conditions, low wages and illnesses caused by the use of the cheaper white phosphorous in the match-making process. It has been widely chronicled. Much of its notoriety can be attributed to the suffering of its largely women participants, however the strike led to legislative improvements to protect women in the workplace and demonstrated that women could play a key role in gaining important rights through collective workplace bargaining.

Speaking in a House of Commons debate on the strike in October 2013, Diana Johnson MP noted

In 1888, the match women had few rights at work and even weaker rights as citizens—the right to vote was still 30 years away for the first women, and parliamentary democracy as a means of improving the lot of working people was at a far less advanced stage. As women, the match women were frowned on for working at all, even though doing so was a matter of survival. I understand that there was even a sense of shame about working for Bryant & May, which is ironic and poignant, considering how proud of those workers many of us are today.

The match women’s strike has never been given the prominence that it deserves. Their self-organisation has been overlooked and their bravery has never been properly recognised, but if it had not been for them winning their strike in 1888, it is possible that many of us here today, especially the Labour women MPs, would not be Members of Parliament and speaking in the House of Commons.

The full version of this landmark was written by Jacqueline Lane.


Learn More

BBC News, ‘Setting the Workers Alight: the East End Match Girls’ Strike’ (Legacies: UK History Local to You, 13 February 2004) 

British Library, ‘History Timelines: Sources from History, Match Girls Strike 1888’ (Reynolds’s Newspaper, 8 July 1888)

National Archives, ‘White Slavery’ (Power, Politics and Protest: The Growth of Political Rights in Britain in the 19th Century)

Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, section 5(1)

Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, section 5(1)

Prior to the passing of the 1885 Act a number of individuals and groups had been concerned about the need to protect of women and, in particular, girls; there were fears about girls being led into prostitution and about white slavery, worries about innocents robbed of their virginity and anxiety about seduction and the sexually motivated abduction. The Act therefore sought ‘to make further provision for the Protection of Women and Girls, the suppression of brothels, and other purposes’. Section 5(1) was aimed at protecting girls from male sexual exploitation, an area of law, policy and practice which was a matter of particular concern in the last half of the nineteenth century, as it is in the early twenty-first century. It did so by raising the legal age of consent to 16 in the then United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland – at least in respect of unmarried girls, where the activity in question was penile-vaginal penetration (‘carnal knowledge’ in the legal language of the time).

Some things have changed. Conceptions of the child and thinking around sex, sexuality and equality have shifted – and the figure of the teenager has emerged. However, there are also similarities which might be drawn between the background to and context of section 5(1) and the present day. Indeed, debates around Section 5(1) and, more broadly, the issue of male exploitation of girls, take on a different significance and a horrifyingly familiar hue in the light of revelations such as those relating to the sexual abuse of large numbers of girls in Rochdale (see Home Affairs Select Committee, Child Sexual Exploitation and the Response to Localised Grooming (5 June 2013)).  In this context, it seems facile but is nevertheless important to say that, whilst criminal law reforms which attempt to address these issues are important, changes to law alone do not alter attitudes and behaviours; and it is social attitudes which lead to these kinds of offences being committed (then and now), that result in girls (and boys) continuing to be preyed upon by men (and sometimes women) and that lead to the letter of the law being under or unenforced.

Lois Bibbings

The full version of this landmark is written by Lois Bibbings

Helen Taylor

Helen Taylor

Taylor’s campaign stands as a forgotten first for women.
Janet Smith

In 1885, Helen Taylor (1831-1907) was selected by Camberwell Radical Club as the Independent Radical Democrat candidate for the south London constituency of Camberwell North. In so doing, she became the first woman prospective parliamentary candidate. Her selection was a serious challenge by the Radicals to the Representation of the People Act (1832) which had increased the male franchise.

The Act had excluded women from citizenship through statute rather than by custom, by inserting the words ‘male’ and ‘men’ into the wording of the legislation.

Taylor and her supporters, however, believed that women had been enfranchised in the 1832 Act as the male pronoun and ‘persons’ often included women in legal matters. Taylor campaigned vigorously often facing violent hostility and fights at the hustings. On the day of the submission of nomination papers, however, the Presiding Officer refused to accept hers as valid. The official maintained that under Section 4 of the Ballot Act candidates were referred to as ‘his’ and ‘him’, which excluded women. In 1918, Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act finally gave women over 21 the right to sit in the House of Commons and House of Lords.



The full version of this landmark was written by Janet Smith.


Learn More

Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘Reform Bill’

Janet Smith, ‘The Feminism and Political Radicalism of Helen Taylor in Victorian Britain and Ireland’ (London Metropolitan University Repository, 2014)

Parliament, ‘Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act’ (Living Heritage: Women and the Vote

Married Women’s Property Act 1882

Married Women’s Property Act 1882

Sections 1 and 2 of the Married Women's Property Act
Sections 1 and 2 of the Married Women’s Property Act 1882 contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0 (

While the Married Women’s Property Act 1882 is often lauded as a victory for all women … [perhaps its] greatest triumph was not the actual provisions of the Act but the strategizing of women lobbying for reform stretching back to the Langham Place Group [and Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon].
Andy Hayward

The Married Women’s Property Act 1882 provided for a married woman to hold all the property brought by her to the marriage or subsequently acquired thereafter as her ‘separate property’. A married woman possessed for the first time the ability to acquire and dispose of all kinds of property ‘as if she were a feme sole [single woman] without the intervention of any trustee’ (section 1). It removed many (though not all) of the legal disadvantages flowing from coverture (a common law doctrine conceptualised husband and wife as one person; that person, unsurprisingly, being the husband).

It instigated a critical reappraisal of property holding within marriage, precipitating important debates in the 1940s onwards that questioned whether it should be accepted that marriage frequently generated economic disadvantage.

The full version of this landmark was written by Andy Hayward.


Learn More

British Library, ‘Women and Work’

Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act 1857

Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act 1857

The Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 was a landmark step in women’s emancipation.
Penny Russell

The Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 gave women in England and Wales legal standing to use the civil courts to seek a decree of divorce or nullity, enabling them to leave unhappy unions and remarry. It was the first Matrimonial Causes Act, culminating in our current statutory framework for divorce – set out in Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 – over a century later. The Victorian constitutional law scholar Albert Venn Dicey wrote in 1905: “The Divorce Act of 1857 on the face of it did no more than increase the facilities for obtaining divorce. It in reality gave national sanction to the contractual view of marriage… [and has] given strength to the belief that women ought, in the eye of the law, to stand substantially on an equality with men”.

The Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 came into effect on 1 January 1858 at which time all matrimonial litigation was transferred from the Church of England to a new secular Court for Divorce and Matrimonial Causes – the so-called ‘Divorce Court’.

Writing in the collection, Penny Russell notes that

Black and white photo a person removing a ring‘One of the first women to use the Divorce Court was Sarah Isabella Atkinson. She filed a petition for divorce in April 1858 at the age of 31, on the grounds of her husband’s adultery and desertion. She had married Thomas Oliver (barber and itinerant musician) on 22 January 1850 at St Mary’s Parish Church in Lambeth but after only five weeks of marriage she discovered that her husband was having an affair with another woman who had a child by him. The husband returned to live with his mistress but Atkinson was forced to wait eight years until the Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 enabled her to petition for divorce. …  Once Decree Absolute was pronounced, she was able to remarry which she did on 2 January 1860. Her second husband was Alfred Coates, a printer & compositor. They went on to have seven children and their marriage lasted 45 years.’

The full version of this landmark was written by Penny Russell.


Learn More

Parliament, ‘Obtaining a Divorce’ (Living Heritage: Relationships) 

The Slave, Grace (1827)

The Slave, Grace (1827)

Black and white engraving of abolitionist Olaudah Equiano
Olaudah Equiano, abolitionist, engraving by Daniel Orme via [Public Domain] Wikimedia Commons

The judgment in The Slave, Grace by mustering and galvanising women in the anti-slavery movement it gave them experience in organising around political issues, dealing with male opposition, and identifying the ways that privilege and oppression worked, which was to stand them in good stead when, the emancipation of slaves achieved, they turned their attention to the emancipation of women.
Rosemary Auchmuty

In 1822 Mrs Allan of Antigua came to England with her slave, Grace James, who, once she set foot on British soil, became a free woman. In 1823 Grace James returned voluntarily with her mistress to Antigua and lived as a free woman. After a ‘trifling’ incident in which she offended Mrs Allan, she was publicly flogged ‘and told she was still a slave’. Her case attracted sympathy, and in 1825 she was seized by a customs officer ‘as forfeited to the King, on suggestion of having been illegally imported in 1823’ – it being illegal to detain a free person in slavery. Mr Allan claimed for her return, contending that Grace James was his property.

Front page of Mary Prince's book A West Indian Slave, 1831
Mary Prince, abolitionist, First Edition of A West Indian Slave, 1831 via [PD-US] Wikimedia Commons

The judge of the Vice-Admiralty Court of Antigua agreed, and ordered that she should be returned to the claimant. Grace James petitioned for her freedom, and the Crown appealed to the High Court of Admiralty in London to answer the point of principle of whether a slave, once freed in England, would revert to slavery on return to the colonies or would remain free.

The presiding judge, Lord Stowell, ruled that England had no power to alter the laws of other jurisdictions, and thus that Grace James had indeed reverted to slavery on her return to Antigua. When the case returned to court for remedy, however, his successor judge (Sir Christopher Robinson, who as King’s Advocate had argued her case in the hearing before Lord Stowell), refused to grant restitution, but merely awarded damages to Mrs Allan.

Thus Grace James achieved her freedom, in fact if not in law. Five years later, slavery was abolished by Act of Parliament throughout the colonies.

The full version of this landmark was written by Rosemary Auchmuty.


Learn More:

Black Presence, ‘Rights: Abolition of the Slave Trade’ (The National Archives

Black Presence, ‘Rights: Emancipation’ (The National Archives

Black Presence, ‘Rights: Slave or Free?’  (The National Archives 

British Library, ‘Abolitionist Campaigners’

The Independent, ‘Slavery: How Women’s Key Role in Abolition Has Yet to Receive the Attention it Deserves’ (

Karina Weller, ‘245 Years Ago Today An English Judge Changed History’ (Human Rights News, Views and Info, 22 June 2016)

Gaol Act 1823

Gaol Act 1823

The 1823 Act is significant for women in two ways: first, as an explicit identification of the needs of women within the criminal justice system, and secondly as an early example of women’s campaigning and support of other women.
Ruth Lamont

The ‘act for consolidating and amending the laws relating to the building, repairing and regulating of certain gaols and houses of correction in England and Wales’ – or ‘Gaol Act’ for short – attempted to regulate the management of gaols across England and Wales. It provided for regulations applying specifically to the circumstances of women prisoners. As such it is a small, and fascinating, element of the sweeping nineteenth century reforms affecting all aspects of the criminal justice system and marking a shift in developing national penal policy for the punishment of criminals.

Colour painting of Elizabeth Fry
Elizabeth Fry painting by Samuel Drummond from the National Portrait Gallery 118 [CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 (]The regulations for women prisoners were drawn from the rules developed by Elizabeth Fry as part of her work from 1813 onwards with the women held in Newgate gaol in London.
Fry was willing to work with the outcast of nineteenth century society to effect social change.  She sought to ensure better and separate treatment for women prisoners, reflecting her religious and reformatory aim to rehabilitate ‘fallen’ women.

Fry’s humane reforms – while without doubt grounded in, and contributing to, the perception of criminal women as victims in need of moral reform – provided material and practical comfort to women.

The full version of this landmark is written by Ruth Lamont.

Learn More

Bank of England, ‘Elizabeth Fry 1780-1845’

John Howard, The State of the Prisons in England and Wales: With Preliminary Observations, and an Account of Some Foreign Prisons (Warrington: Printed by William Eyres, 1777)

Liza Picard, ‘Victorian Britain: Victorian Prisons and Punishments’ (British Library, 14 October 2009)

Matthew White, ‘Crime and Punishment in Georgian Britain’ (British Library, 14 October 2009) 

Parliament, ‘Towards Central Control’ (Living Heritage: Police, Prisons and Penal Reform 

Parliament, ‘Police, Prisons and Penal Reform’ (Living Heritage: Police, Prisons and Penal Reform

R v Jackson (1891)

R v Jackson (1891)

R v Jackson has long been recognised as a landmark case for women. It began as a private domestic dispute and ended as a landmark for all married women as authority for the proposition that a man cannot abduct and detain a woman simply because she is married to him.

Teresa Sutton

Edmund Jackson was a spurned and desperate man. After his wife, Emily, refused to live with him, he violently abducted her and imprisoned her in his home in order to forcibly persuade her to change her mind. Emily Jackson’s family obtained a writ of habeas corpus as a means of releasing her. Before the Court of Appeal, Edmund Jackson justified his actions claiming that ‘… if a wife refuses to live with her husband, he has the right by law to take possession of her person by force, and keep her, not imprisoned, but confined, till she consents to do so …’. The Court of Appeal held that there was no such right. No English subject had the right to imprison another person regardless of whether or not they were their wife.

Black and white article with sketches of Mr and Mrs Jackson

Despite his most spectacular efforts, Edmund Jackson was unable to force Emily Jackson to return to live with him (although they remained married). Notwithstanding the difficulties of financial provision and practical arrangements for children of a marriage, it is now taken for granted that a married partner may leave the marriage if they wish to do so.

However, of course, domestic violence and abuse continues. According to the Fawcett Society, at least 1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence during their life and between 1 in 8 and 1 in 10 will experience domestic violence annually.

The full version of this landmark was written by Teresa Sutton.


Learn More

Refuge, ‘Domestic Violence – The Facts’

A Brief Summary of the Most Important Laws Concerning Women (1854)

A Brief Summary of the Most Important Laws Concerning Women (1854)

In simple terms, Barbara Bodichon launched the modern women’s movement.

Joanne Conaghan

A Brief Summary in Plain Language of the Most Important Laws Concerning Women Together with a Few Observations Thereon is an 18-page pamphlet published anonymously in 1854 and written by Barbara Leigh Smith [later Bodichon] (1827-1891).

Sketch of Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon
Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon by Samuel Laurence Dolt from the National Portrait Gallery [CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 (]

Bodichon had no legal training, nor was she a high profile author or commentator. Her pamphlet offered a concise, unadulterated account of the main provisions governing the legal status of women. It proved both popular and provocative, running to a second edition in 1856 and a third, expanded edition in 1869.

After publication Bodichon, encouraged by the Law Amendment Society, drew together a group of interested women, forming a committee to campaign for legislative reform of marriage laws leading ultimately to the Married Women’s Property Act 1882.

Without doubt, the Summary was instrumental in bringing the issue of women’s legal status to the forefront in mid-nineteenth century England. Yet, what followed is of equal importance, the campaign for married women’s property reform which Bodichon led, can be seen as the first organised campaign of the nascent women’s movement. Indeed, looking at her life as a whole, and the many and diverse projects she initiated, what strikes Conaghan is her ability to engender collective feminist engagement in the social and political affairs of the day. In simple terms, Barbara Bodichon launched the modern women’s movement.

The full version of this landmark is written by Joanne Conaghan.


Learn More

Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon: British Activist (Encyclopaedia Britannica)

Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, ‘A Brief Summary in Plain Language of the Most Important Laws Concerning Women Together with a Few Observations Thereon’ (Indiana University: Victorian Women Writers Project

Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, ‘A Brief Summary in Plain Language of the Most Important Laws Concerning Women Together with a Few Observations Thereon’ (Internet Archive,  Boston Public Library, 1856)

Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, Women and Work (British Library, Bosworth and Harrison, 1857)

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Project leaders, Rosemary Auchmuty and Erika Rackley, talk to Elizabeth Woodcraft about the aims, methodology and ambitions for the Project for PodAcademy

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