The Matchgirls

Some of you know I do a little bit of acting, a little bit of singing. Definitely no dancing, not if I can get away with it. I’m rehearsing a show at the moment, actually – it’s called The Matchgirls and it’s based on a really inspiring true story, one that I think more people should know about. So I’m going to tell you a little bit about it.

To really understand this story, you need to pretend it’s July 1888. Imagine you live in the East End of London, one of the poorest parts of city, and you work in the Bryant and May match factory (don’t think you’re too young – girls as young as twelve used to work there, carrying trays on their heads that were so heavy they caused bald patches to appear). At work, you’re not allowed to talk – there’s a fine if you do. You’re not allowed to drop any matches, either – there’s a fine for that too. You’re not allowed to even look at the boss in a funny way because if you do – you guessed it – there’s a fine. And since your wages are pitifully small to begin with, you can’t afford to get fined. You work for fourteen hours a day, making matches so people can burn them, and the material you have to use is called white phosphorous. Not red phosphorous, like you used to use – that’s too expensive now: white phosphorous is much cheaper. The trouble with white phosphorous is that it makes anyone who handles it too much ill. And you live, breathe and eat phosphorous, because you’re in that room for fourteen hours. It gets in your clothes, your hair, your food. And it gets into your mouth, causing a condition called Phossy Jaw. Believe me, you don’t want to get Phossy Jaw. Things aren’t looking good for you if you do…


Annie Besant and the Matchgirls

The match-cutters protested about their terrible working conditions but nobody listened – they were only poor women and girls, after all, who cared about them? Except a wealthy woman called Annie Besant (that’s me!) who decided she would write a newspaper article about the match factory conditions. The owners of the factory tried to force their workers to sign a letter saying the article was all lies but they refused. Shortly after that, the girls went on strike. They refused to work, even though it meant they had no money. Terrified by all the bad publicity, the directors agreed to improve the conditions and gave their workers a separate room for lunch, so that the risk of Phossy Jaw was lessened. In 1910, the use of white phosphorous was banned entirely.

mg_-_flyer_-tnAlthough the match-cutters’ working conditions were awful, I think their story is so very inspirational. Women weren’t meant to protest and strike – they weren’t supposed to have voices. But they made a stand and changed things for the better. And they were helped by another woman. One of the reasons I wanted to be in The Matchgirls was because I liked the girl power message of the story – these women stood up for themselves and made history. And that’s the kind of thing I like to make a song and dance about.

OK, maybe I won’t dance…

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