40 ANNIE BESANT
There is a reason why many of the homeless in Britain share the pavements with their dogs. The need for the presence of canines has been understood since the 19th Century. The dogs keep the rats away. In 1888 those in regular employed work could afford to rent an overcrowded room. At the end of the 19th Century the choice for the rest, the distressed, consisted of the streets, lodging houses or the workhouse. George Lansbury described the Poplar Workhouse in the pamphlet Smash Up The Workhouse. ‘The floors were polished but of kindliness and goodness there was none.’ Suffering was not confined to those without work. Employment in Victorian London was dominated by crowded sweatshops and factories paying starvation wages. Each day at the London Docks there were queues of men pleading for a few hours of work.
Annie Besant was born Annie Wood in London in 1847. She married Frank Besant, a clergyman. They had two children but a husband who was a Tory, the kids, political activism and a radical attitude to religion were too much for their marriage. Her activism was rooted in radical secularism and support for the Irish cause of independence. ‘Three quarters of my blood and all my heart are Irish.’ Besant subscribed to and supported the radicalism of the 1880s. It began with talk amongst the disenchanted. The radical talk moved to open spaces. There were pitches at Dod Street at Limehouse, Victoria Park in Bethnal Green, and Mile End Waste where the Stretford Dialectical and Radical Club held its meetings. Later the Radical Club became the Labour Emancipation League. In Dod Street thousands of workers assembled and listened to speakers advocate social and economic revolution. Annie Besant gave legal assistance to arrested socialists. She was influenced or mentored by William Prowting Roberts. He was a former Chartist. Prowting Roberts understood that social justice consisted of more than economic progress. He said the poor were ‘worker bees, the wealth producers with a right to self-rule (and) justice, not to charity’. The National Union of The Working Classes (NUWC) had been established in 1830. The use of the plural is important. The NUWC became The International Workingmens Association (IWMA). The third canonical Ripper victim, Liz Stride, was murdered in Dutfield’s Yard on a night when the IWMA was having a meeting in the adjacent Berner Street. Louis Diemshutz who discovered the dead body of Stride was the steward at the club premises of the IWMA.
When the NUWC was established it had three objectives. These were to secure for every workingman the value of his labour, to protect workingmen against the tyranny of masters and manufacturers and to bring about parliamentary reform. Those who struggle to understand why conflict exists within the modern Labour Party could do worse than think about those three objectives. Those on the right wing of the Labour Party are not so enthused about objectives two and three.
In the mid-1880s, Annie Besant enjoyed affluence and a comfortable home in the West End of London. Unlike most of her neighbours she was willing to visit the East End and talk to the poor. She also spent time in the Reading Room of the British Museum. She discussed politics with Eleanor Marx and George Bernard Shaw. Edith Nesbitt who wrote The Railway Children would sometimes attend. There were others but Besant missed the chap whose library card was issued in the name of Jacob Richter. Worried about being discovered by the authorities Richter concealed his real name, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov Lenin.
Independent of Lenin the radicals of London protested about economic unfairness and how the British were behaving in Ireland. William O’Brien an Irish MP organised a rent strike on the estate of Lady Kingston near Michelstown in County Cork. This was followed by a demonstration of 8000 locals. The demonstration was led by MP John Dillon. At the Courthouse in Michelstown three demonstrators were shot dead by the police and others were wounded. O’Brien was imprisoned under the Coercian Act. In 1887 the Metropolitan Radical Federation, the Irish National League, the Social Democratic Federation, the Socialist League and the Irish National League combined to organise a mass protest in Trafalgar Square. The chants of the crowd challenged the imprisonment of O’Brien and demanded Irish Home Rule, free speech and economic reform. Soon to be a failed Ripper catcher, Sir Charles Warren was the Commissioner Metropolitan Police. His appointment was welcomed by the Press but he was criticised for the provocative way the police treated demonstrators in Trafalgar Square. Some of the 30,000 protestors suffered beatings, and there were hundreds of arrests. A young clerk Alfred Linnel was trampled to death by a police horse. Annie Besant was annoyed because she was not arrested. From a prison cell or inside a court her legal and journalistic skills would have enabled her to add more notoriety to what had happened in Trafalgar Square.
At a Fabian Society lecture in June 1888 Annie Besant heard Clementina Black discuss ‘Female Labour In London’. The next day Besant took three colleagues from her left wing paper The Link and interviewed women as they finished their shift and left the Bryant and May match factory. The owners of Bryant and May were Quakers and Liberals. They believed they were good employers. Besant published a report of the conditions. The women worked for low wages, suffered heavy fines for minor misdemeanours and had to eat in the factory where their food was contaminated with white phosphorous.
Besant sent a copy of her report to the company directors. The report was dismissed as a ‘tissue of lies’. Factory foremen tried to bully the female employees into signing a statement that said the conditions were satisfactory. The workers refused, several women were sacked and the workforce walked out. Lewis Lyons arrived at the factory the next day. Lyons wanted the women and girls to form a union. He was arrested for obstruction but the female pickets demonstrated at the police station until Lyons was released. Lewis Lyons was the leader of the Jewish tailors. Annie Besant had provided bail for Lyons in 1885.
Helped by Besant and SDF member Herbert Burrows the women formed a Union of Women Matchmakers. On 8 July 1888 they held a rally at Mile End Waste before marching through the City into the West End. On the way they collected donations. They stopped and rested at 40 Berner Street. Louis Diemshutz, the man who discovered Ripper victim Liz Stride, may have still been around to serve them tea and biscuits. On 13 July 1888 Bryant and May stated they would not concede to the demands of the workers. The strikers wanted the women who had been sacked to be reinstated, the system of fines to cease and the provision of a separate area where the match girls could eat their food. The directors talked of relocating to Scandinavia and using scab labour but within two weeks they accepted the demands of the strikers.
Annie Besant supported the strike. Both her celebrity and presence at the factory gates were important to the cause but Besant denied ever being the leader. The women who led the strike were Alice France, Kate Slater, Mary Driscoll, Jane Wakeling and Eliza Martin. The women belonged to close knit and politically aware Irish communities. Some of the women knew Besant from her campaigns on behalf of Irish independence.
Annie Besant continued to be a campaigner for political and economic reform until 1890. The Match Girls Strike inspired other workers to form a trade union. The Great Dock Strike in London began in the summer of 1889. On the 25th of August a parade of 50,000 people headed towards the City. Brass bands, banners, horse-drawn boats and street theatre players made it feel like a carnival. Two days later the Evening News estimated that 130,000 workers in London were on strike. In Hyde Park around the end of August, 100,000 people gathered to listen to speakers on 20 platforms. Despite pressure from ship owners the dock owners refused to improve the conditions of the workers. Strikers were suffering, and rent arrears were increasing. A £1500 cheque, though, was paid to the strikers by the Brisbane Wharf Labourers’ Union. More cash followed, thousands of pounds were raised by Australian unions and amateur football clubs. The dock companies were obliged to negotiate and concede sixpence an hour wages. The system of daily hire continued but workers had to be hired for a minimum of four hours.
Before the end of the year Annie Besant had met Helena Blavatsky and been converted to theosophy. The notion of establishing a universal wisdom that would unite all creeds and resist oppressors appealed to Besant. Theosophy promised that human beings through teaching could be improved. After her attempts at reforming Victorian society cleansing the human spirit was the next step. Besant did not lose her radical edge. The cause of theosophy took her to India. She sympathised with the Indian people as much as she had her Irish ancestors. Besant championed home rule for India and in her quieter moments read about what was described in Britain as ‘the new unionism’, the legacy of the Match Girls Strike that she had supported.
Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.