Sarah Chapman’s story — Her inspiring tale

Sarah Chapman

Netflix’s Enola Holmes 2 tells a fictional tale grounded on a pivotal moment in workers’ rights history: the 1888 Bryant & May Matchgirls’ strike. The watershed moment sparked a period of massive improvement in the pay and working conditions of workers in England. Female workers, in particular, benefited from the boycott as it gave them a platform to voice their concerns.

In Enola Holmes 2, Sarah Chapman is portrayed by Hannah Dodd. While investigating her disappearance Enola and her brother, Sherlock, uncover a plot involving discrimination, greed, corruption, and murder.  

Sarah Chapman’s story in the production is partially fictionalized. This piece tells the story of a pioneer of women workers’ rights. 

Sarah Chapman was an established worker at a match factory in her youth

Sarah Chapman was born on 31st October 1862 to Sarah Ann Mackenzie and Samuel Chapman. The family lived in Mile End in London for at least 17 years. Working-class families often stayed in one location for a long time. 

Samuel and Sarah Ann educated their seven children – they were listed as Scholars during the census and could read and write. By 19, Sarah worked at a match factory with her sister and mother. 

By 1888, Sarah was an established worker, earning a higher wage than most other employees. Chapman likely made more due to her position as a Booker or because she managed to avoid the oppressive fines. 

Chapman was a crucial player in the Matchgirls’ strike of 1888

In the months before the strike, unrest built up in the factory due to low pay, long hours, an unfair fines system, and poor working conditions. The workers were also exposed to dangerous white phosphorus, which caused the development of a disease dubbed Phossy jaw.

In Enola Holmes 2, a foreman denies a worker access to the factory after misdiagnosing her Phossy Jaw as typhus. Sufferers of Phossy jaw, who were primarily poor factory workers, developed painful abscesses in their mouths, leading to facial disfigurement and sometimes death. 

According to reports, the owners failed to report cases of phosphorus poisoning as they swam in the ever-increasing profits. In June 1888, members agreed to a boycott of Bryant & May matches. Reformer Annie Besant chronicled the workers’ grievances in a piece titled White Slavery in London

In an attempt to paralyze the impending strike, the owners tried to coerce employees into signing statements rejecting the claims. The workers refused, and on 5th June 1888, 1,400 women and girls downed their tools and walked out. 

The following day, Chapman and two representatives met with Annie Besant, seeking her support. Besant opposed the strike, but she helped the women form a Strike Committee. Chapman was one of the founding members of the Strike Committee. 

Thanks to favorable press coverage, the strike gained widespread public support. The committee also convinced several MPs to support their cause. Therefore, the directors of Bryant and May had no choice but to accept the workers’ demands. 

The owners agreed to abolish all fines, supply the workers with critical tools, create a meal room separate from the factory floor, and rehire all the women who’d walked out. Furthermore, the women formed a union – the Union of Women Matchmakers – which held its first meeting at Stepney Meeting Hall on 27th July. 

Sarah Chapman was elected to the committee. She was chosen as the union’s first representative to the Trade Union Congress and was among those who graced the 1888 International Trades Union Congress. 

The subsequent rise of trade unionism led to the Labor Party’s formation in 1900. It took over ten years after the strike for Bryant and May to stop using white phosphorus in match production. 

A motion against the mounding of Sarah Chapman’s grave was presented in parliament

Sarah Chapman married Charles Dearman in December 1891. The couple raised their six children in Bethnal Green. 

Charles passed away in 1922 and was buried alongside the couple’s daughter, Elizabeth Rose, at Manor Park Cemetery in Forest Gate. After Charles’ death, she lived on and off with her two youngest sons, William and Fredrick. Chapman, 83, died on 27th November 1945 from lung cancer in Bethnal Green hospital. 

It’s unclear why Sarah was buried in a ‘pauper’s plot’ at Manor Park Cemetery. Due to the lack of burial spaces in London, there were plans to mound over Sarah Chapman’s grave. In July 2020, several representatives tabled a motion in parliament protesting the planned destruction of Chapman’s grave. 

“This House… believes that Sarah Chapman’s grave is of special historic interest and illustrates important aspects of social, economic, and political history,” the motion reads

Sarah’s descendants also started an online petition seeking support against the mounding over. The petition reads:

“The permanent headstone is complete and waiting to be erected for Sarah but it is not possible until this issue is resolved, potentially not for up to 5 years if mounding goes ahead.”

Actor Anita Dobson, a patron of the Matchgirls’ Memorial, is assisting in the effort to maintain Sarah’s grave. “People want to come here to pay their respects and remember what she and the Matchgirls achieved for us all,” she told Unite Live. Diana Patron, another patron of the Matchgirls’ memorial, added:

“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.”

A spokesperson for Manor Park Cemetery told the BBC that Sarah’s grave won’t disappear: “The company has already offered Mrs. Johnson [Sararh’s great-granddaughter] an assurance that, on reclamation, she would be offered first refusal to purchase a lease of the new grave space above Sarah Dearman’s existing grave.”