Spark Catchers


Local poet Lemn Sissay wrote this poem inspired by the former Bryant and May match factory and the first strikes in British industrial history that took place there, led by women's rights activist Annie Besant. The factory women, many of whom were younger than 16, protested against their appalling working conditions which caused them both injury and illness. In 1888 when the factory owners erected a statue of Prime Minister William Gladstone paid for, in part, by the workers' wages, the women took action and refused to work.

Tide twists on the Thames and lifts the Lea to the brim of Bow
Where shoals of sirens work by the way of the waves.
At the first factory the fortress of flames
In tidal shifts East London Lampshades made
Millions of matches that lit candles for the well-to-do
And the ne'er-do-well to do alike. Strike...

From 'The Spark Catchers'

Sissay's poem presents the factory women as 'spark catchers' - people affected by a momentary 'spark' who allow it to grow into something larger. The poem plays with the word 'strike', to mean both igniting a match and going on strike from work. Sissay also calls attention to the nature of fire, which, like the factory workers, can be unpredictable. 'The Spark Catchers' is itself an explosive poem, and the fact that it clads one of the electricity transformers on the Park is particularly appropriate.

Both the statue and the factory still exist today - the factory has been converted into modern apartments on the edge of Bow, and Gladstone's statue can be found by Bow Church.