The Mersey Matchworks, was a scene of architectural progress and innovation, while being witness to the ruthless treatment of the women and girls of the Garston Bobbin works.
Bryant & May had a reasonably good reputation in Liverpool, mainly because the industry had moved on by the time the Garston factory was built. Mechanisation and changes in chemical composition banning the use of the poisonous white phosphorous in 1908 and ending the death and deformation caused by ‘phossy jaw.’ A crippling and at times deadly disease caused by the fumes used in the match making process. The Liverpool works however was not a part of the famous 1888 match girls strike in the east end of London against appalling pay and conditions in Bryant May.
In fact when the Garston works were first opened it was a separate company of Maguire, Paterson and Palmer, Bryant and May took over in 1923.
The Oriel chambers in Liverpool centre were pioneers in architectural design, using cast iron framing to allow for a much greater window coverage.
The buildings on Speke Road built between 1919 and 1921 were innovative in a similar way, the Matchworks site was the first building in the UK to use reinforced concrete slabs as the basis of construction, again allowing a much greater window surface. This infused the whole structure with a sense of light and space. Allowing much larger manufacturing spaces without the walls, columns, or posts, required by previous techniques. The factory provided employment to generations of families from Garston with production finally ending in 1994. The building is still distinctive today with its conical shaped water tower.
The Matchworks was always connected to the cinder path that ran from banks Road to Speke Road the whole length of the matchworks site, passing the huge piles of logs that would be turned into millions of matches. Logs that came through Garston from Wicklow. Cinder path was the route to Holy Trinity school, Window Lane, and in an earlier period the Wilson brothers Bobbin factory in King St.
A fifteen week strike in the bobbin factory in 1912 was threatened by the action of scabs recruited from around Liverpool who would arrive on the trams in Speke Road. Large crowds gathered to hurl abuse at the strikebreakers, before being dispersed and at times charged by the police.
The Liverpool Echo of 14 August 1912 reported:
‘A sequel to the Garston strike was heard at the Liverpool Crown Court when Michael Wall was fined 40 shillings and costs for assaulting Constable Charsley and in the words of the court “assaulting a loyal worker who went into work.”’
In the same article the Echo said that extra police were drafted into Garston to protect the girls going home from the Bobbin Works. A large crowd made a hostile demonstration and had charged the police batons with their heads.
Two women were also fined 40 shillings for insulting behaviour. Ellen Grimes made a statement in her defence: “It is not right for them to come from Liverpool and work while Garston girls are on strike.” (40 shillings plus costs would have been about three weeks wages at that time.)
Cecilia Philips – the wife of a dock labourer – pleaded guilty to a breach of the peace – she was said to have booed and called a girl a ‘scab’.
This line from the article just about sums up the approach of the police, judiciary and the press towards the strikers;
A large crowd made a hostile demonstration and had charged the police batons with their heads.
The Matchworks is still there, now used as office space, the Bobbin works has long gone and is in ruins. But the attitudes of those in power to working people haven’t changed. Witness the murder of George Floyd.