Union legend Sarah Chapman’s grave under threat

The 1888 Matchgirls’ Strike leader’s grave to be mounded over for new plot

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Trade unions have never been more relevant in this time of crisis – and that’s why it’s absolutely vital that, as ever, we pay tribute to those trade unionists who have gone before us, who have built our movement and paved the way to the rights we have today.

That’s why Unite has joined other unions, MPs and campaigners in a fight to save the grave of trade union leader Sarah Chapman, alongside Sarah’s family.

Chapman was one of the leaders of the Matchgirls’ Strike of 1888, an industrial action by women and teenage girls at the Bryant & May match factory in Bow, London. The women demanded better pay and working conditions, which at the time were meagre and gruelling. They also demanded a safer working environment after being forced to handle allotropes of white phosphorus, which caused phosphorus necrosis and other serious health complications.

‘The spark that lit the fuse’

The strike has gone down in the history books as the spark that lit the fuse of a burgeoning trade union movement in the UK. The strike is said to have influenced the Great Dock Strike of 1889, and the Matchgirls’ story has become the stuff of legend, retold in plays and musicals around the world; it was even commemorated during the 2012 Olympics.

But such a vital piece of trade union history could be erased to posterity after it has emerged that Sarah Chapman’s grave is now under threat. The Manor Park Cemetery in Newham, London, home to Sarah’s grave, has confirmed that it will soon brutally level and mound hers and others’ graves with additional soil to make way for new money-making plots.

This mounding process amounts to virtual destruction of the graves, which the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management pointedly does not recommend; the Institute has previously offered advice on alternative methods to increase burial space.

This is not the first time that mounding has destroyed graves at Manor Park Cemetery either – in the past skulls and bones have been made visible after similarly destructive work. And it’s not only Sarah Chapman’s grave now at risk in a matter of weeks. The grounds are also home to the graves of civilians from the Second World War, including some from the 1943 Bethnal Green Tube disaster.

Manor Park Cemetery directors have so far refused to speak to Sarah’s family, while Newham Council has asked to have a discussion with the cemetery. Backed by unions and other campaigners, Sarah’s family has written to the justice secretary to press their case.

The campaign has also set up a petition, which so far has garnered more than 7,000 signatures, including one from actor Anita Dobson, a patron of the Matchgirls’ Memorial, who herself was born and raised in London’s East End where the Matchgirls’ Strike took place.

“Sarah and these women fought for our working rights and to destroy her resting place is abhorrent,” Dobson said. “People want to come here to pay their respects and remember what she and the Matchgirls achieved for us all.”

Unite assistant general secretary Diana Holland, also a patron of the Matchgirls’ Memorial, has spoken out too.

“Sarah Chapman was part of the Matchgirls’ Strike Committee and Trade Union Committee, right at the forefront of challenging horrifying working conditions and exploitation,” she said. “Her grave is a special place for trade unionists and for all who want to pay tribute to the women and girls who paved the way on rights at work and challenging deep injustice.”


You can find out more about the campaign to save Sarah Chapman’s grave, and sign the petition, here.

  • We publish this article on the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act becoming law. The Matchgirls were absolutely instrumental in the fight for better pay for women and it is their efforts, alongside others, that paved the way for the Equal Pay Act decades later. We pay tribute to them on this day especially.

By Hajera Blagg @hajeranblagg

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