The Matchgirl By Lynette Rees: Beautifully written and imagined, this is both an entertaining story and a fascinating slice of life-changing history - book review -

The Matchgirl
The Matchgirl

On a July afternoon in 1888, a crowd of two hundred women – many of them only in their teens – arrived outside a newspaper office off Fleet Street in London to begin a protest that became a landmark in Britain’s trade union history.

On a July afternoon in 1888, a crowd of two hundred women – many of them only in their teens – arrived outside a newspaper office off Fleet Street in London to begin a protest that became a landmark in Britain’s trade union history.

The women left their work stations at the notorious Bryant and May match factory at Bow in the East End to plead for the help of Annie Besant, a pioneering and campaigning socialist journalist who was determined to expose the shocking working conditions at the factory.

The subsequent strike by this group of angry young working-class women – who held meetings and parades, and eventually forced the Bryant and May bosses to improve their pay and conditions – was a key moment for trade unionism, and the reverberations continued to ripple down the 20th century.

For author Lynette Rees, the daring actions of these brave women provided the inspiration for a gripping, gritty and eye-opening saga which puts this fierce battle, and the horrific conditions under which they worked, at centre stage.

Extensively researched and full of rich historical detail about the illnesses and privations suffered by the Bryant and May workers, The Matchgirl is an emotion-packed, rollercoaster ride which blends fact and fiction into a glorious tribute to a group of memorable working-class heroines.

Life is tough for sixteen-year-old Lottie Perkins who lives with her recently widowed mother and four younger siblings in the East End of London. She works as a matchstick maker at the Bryant and May factory where the hours are long, the conditions are almost unbearable, and they ‘get treated no better than a pack horse.’

At home, money is running out since her father died and Lottie fears that the family may have to move from their rented home and be forced to split up, and at work, she has attracted the unwanted attention of her lecherous manager, Oliver Steed.

When the girls are approached outside the factory gates by a well-dressed, middle-class woman called Annie Besant, she tells them she is a journalist and wants them to talk to her about their working conditions so that she can help to improve them.

Afraid to speak out in case she loses her job, Lottie is initially reluctant to talk to Mrs Besant but at the same time she recognises that this is ‘a woman on a mission’ and that she is speaking out for ‘the men, women and children who have no voice.’

As the women are drawn into Annie Besant’s battle, they take the courageous step of walking out of the factory and risking all to fight for a better working life for themselves and others. But will it be a gamble too far?

Rees is unflinching in her portrayal of the plight of the Victorian matchgirls whose work with dangerous white phosphorous led to a condition known as ‘phossy jaw,’ which destroyed victims’ jaw bones as well as yellowing their skin, caused chronic coughs, gum infections and severe headaches, and too often proved deadly.

The portrayal of Lottie and her friends is both heartbreaking and heartwarming as they fight back against their ruthless bosses and, with the help of the inspirational Annie Besant, learn that unity, determination and friendship are the key to new-found influence, power and justice.

Beautifully written and imagined, this is both an entertaining story and a fascinating slice of life-changing history…

(Quercus, paperback, £8.99)