The Match Girls of Hull Quebec: Working Conditions, Unions and Strikes (Part 1)
On March 15, 1933, five young women were killed in a horrific blast at the Canada Match Factory in Hull, Quebec. On that day, the factory was at half-staff. The women and men were working side-by-side in the building when a truck upended a load of matches. The resulting conflagration raced through the building setting everything ablaze.
Outside a crowd soon gathered. Priests knelt in the snow nearby providing the last rites for the young girls trapped within. The firefighters gathered watching hopelessly. They looked up at the barred windows. Here, they could see several young women screaming soundlessly as they raced from window to window looking for escape. Flames roared around them, singeing their hair, burning their flesh. Still they ran but, one-by-one, each of their frightened faces disappeared from sight until nothing but the flames remained. Only the smell of burning flesh, accompanied by the monotonic droning of the priests, hovered above the horrified crowd gathered in front of the building.
One survivor, Irene Martel, described the scene to a Toronto Star Reporter:
We were panic stricken and didn’t know what to do. The fire seemed to block the doors and we rushed to the corner which was not on fire. Here we found we were trapped as the windows were barred and there was no emergency exit. We crouched in a corner, mad with fear, until the help came.
For many, there was no help. Alice Cyr (17), Germaine Cyr (22), Therese Labelle (19), Laura Lascelle (19) and Marie Laviolette (16) died, trapped by the flames. Twenty-one other employees ended up in hospital, some of the injuries the result of jumping down through raised and stepless doors to escape the flames.
The tragedy could have been prevented. Jeanne Lascelle, who had worked as a packer, stated the front door of the Canada Match Company was firmly locked. So, too, was another door just west of the main door. There was no functioning emergency exit. The Canadian government noted that although the Canada Match Company, had been officially warned that their ignition point was below the acceptable standard, the company had failed to comply. While the government vowed to tighten up the requirements, the grieving families in Hull buried their dead.
Working Conditions in Match Factories
Employers who flaunted the law were but one of the dangers facing employees, mainly women at the match factories in Quebec. From the beginning, women working in the match making companies faced disease, fires and poor working conditions. Many young women suffered from white phosphorus poisoning – Phossy Jaw, a disease of the deterioration of the jawbones. Replacement of the chemical was implemented in Canada in 1913/1914, but not before many had died painfully from it. The victims were generally young French-Canadian women. They started working in the match Factory as young as 12 where they were paid as little as $0.15 an hour. If they worked on applying the combustible material (phosphorous) on matches, they received between $0.50 and $0.75 per day while the males earned $1.50 per day. In the packing room, girls were paid per piece only making between $0.35 to $0.75 per day. Even working a 48-hour week, the match girls made barely enough to survive.
As well as being severely underpaid, the allumettières had to contend with dangerous working conditions. The matches they produced were of the type called “strike-anywhere.” Any type of friction could ignite them. In fact, these early versions were very volatile. At work, the match workers always kept a bucket of water nearby. Some managed to put the fires out without incident. Others suffered scarring to their hands and faces. Unfortunately, this was not an unusual occurrence. On some days, 20 small fires started in the factory.