Heading along Mile End Road towards Stratford, you come to Bow Church, a compact structure that seems to cower from the assault of the traffic that races by on either side, bound to pass over or under the Bow flyover.
Directly in front of the church, there stands a statue of a serious looking gentleman attired in Victorian garb. I would hazard a guess that few of the occupants of the vehicles pay him a second glance as they head past.
WILLIAM EWART GLADSTONE
And yet, this man was one of the 19th century’s most notable political figures – William Ewart Gladstone (1809 – 1898), an inexhaustible politician, whose numerous achievements included four terms as Prime Minster and four terms as Chancellor of the Exchequer.
He looks splendid, albeit a little out of sorts with his surroundings. His Victorian frock coat hangs loosely from his shoulders, he holds a parchment in his left hand; his right hand is extended, as though making some eternal political point, and behind him a pile of books totter precariously on a stand, giving the impression that the vibrations from a passing Juggernaut could, at any moment, send them toppling to the ground.
HIS RED HANDS
However, one of the most notable things about the statue, is the fact that its hands are painted red. This is most noticeable on his outstretched right hand.
Why the red hands?
For the solution you need to make your way around to the back of the statue, where you will see an inscription that informs that the statue was the gift “to the East of London of Theodore H. Bryant.”
And, therein lies the solution to Mr Gladstone’s red hands.
A TAX ON MATCHES
Gladstone had been a fairly successful Chancellor of the Exchequer. He was also a great proponent of Home Rule for Ireland, which made him extremely popular with the East End’s large Irish community.
In 1871, on becoming Prime Minister, he appointed Robert Lowe as his Chancellor.
One of Lowe’s proposals to help raise money for the Exchequer was the introduction of a tax of half a penny on every hundred matches.
This proposed tax proved hugely unpopular, as it would hit the poor in particular, to whom matches were seen as a basic necessity; and, in consequence, the tax came to be seen as a tax on heat and light.
It was also, for obvious reasons, unpopular with the match manufacturers, who were fearful that the increase in price would result in a drop in trade which, in turn, would have a detrimental effect on their substantial profits.
BRYANT AND MAY STRIKE A BLOW
Now, it just so happened that one of the largest employers in the East End of London was the Bryant and May match factory, situated a stone’s throw from Bow church; and, fearing a loss of trade should such an appreciable sum be added to the price of their matches, the company organised a protest march of hundreds of their employees to Westminster in order to make their displeasure at the proposal known to the politicians.
The message hit home, and the proposed match tax was abandoned to universal jubilation, particularly in this corner of the East End of London where a Gothic-style drinking fountain representing justice – situated outside Bow Station – was erected in celebration.
THE STATUE GOES UP
Eleven years later, with the proposal of a match tax successfully snuffed out, Mr Theodore H. Bryant (1843 – 1913), a Quaker with strong Liberal leanings and one of the Bryants of Bryant and May, commissioned prominent sculptor Albert Bruce-Roy (1842 – 1924) to create a statue of William Ewart Gladstone, which was to be erected in front of Bow Church, close to the nearby Bryant and May factory.
It was, so it was announced, to be unveiled on 9th August 1882, and Bryant was insistent that the girls who worked at his factory should attend the unveiling.
A SHILLING PER GIRL
However, the rumour began to circulate that the statue had been funded by the stopping of one shilling from the pay of the ‘match-girls’ who worked at the Bryant and May factory. As it happens, the rumour was actually untrue; but, as is often the case with colourful tales such as this, it lodged in the public consciousness and still gets trotted out as fact!
There is also a tradition that the girls from the factory attended the statue’s unveiling ceremony armed with bricks and stones; whihc they had stuffed into their pockets, and with which they intended to disrupt the ceremony.
According to one account, the girls:-
“…went to the unveiling with stones and bricks in their pockets… later on they surrounded the statue – ‘we paid for it’, they cried savagely – shouting and yelling, and a gruesome story is told that some cut their arms and let their blood trickle on the marble, paid for, in truth, by their blood.”
THE MATCHGIRLS STRIKE
During the Matchgirls strike of 1888, Annie Besant, the prominent Victorian social reformer who was instrumental in helping the girls employed at Bryant and May win ultimate victory over their employers – which in turn led to better working conditions – wanted to link the statue to their cause.
However, she could find no evidence to support the rumour that the girls themselves had been forced to contribute to the cost of the statue.
AND THE RED HANDS?
However, the story that the girls had been forced to contribute to the cost of the statue is now part of local folklore and it absolutely refuses to die.
And it is that rumour, coupled with the dramatic story of the girls cutting themselves so that they could bleed on the statue that “they had paid for with their blood”, which lies behind the statues red hands.
For, try as they might, the local council simply cannot stop people painting the statue’s hands red in commemoration of the long ago struggle of the Matchgirls with Bryant and May.
Every so often – such as in preparation for the Olympics in 2012 – the council will clean the statue and return the hands to their original colour that blends in with the rest of the statue.
But, their efforts always prove futile.
For, within a few days of the clean up having taken place, the phantom hand painters of the old East End will return and, once more. William Ewart Gladstone’s hands will be daubed red, and the affronted girls of Bryant and May, will once more be remembered.
And, long may it continue.
So, if you are ever heading towards Stratford, be it in a car van, or on a bus, and you notice a statue with red hands, standing in front of a tiny church; pause in a moment’s reflection; and remember Mr William Ewart Gladstone and the Matchgirls of Bryant and May.