Sunday, February 1, 2015

Seth Koven's "The Match Girl and the Heiress"

Seth Koven teaches history at Rutgers University. He is the author of Slumming: Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian London and the coeditor of Mothers of a New World: Maternalist Politics and the Origins of Welfare States.

His new book, The Match Girl and the Heiress, tells the remarkable story of a half-orphaned Cockney match girl, Nellie Dowell, and the pacifist feminist daughter of a great ship builder, Muriel Lester, who believed that in loving one another they would inaugurate a Christian revolution in the slums of early 20th century East London.

Koven applied the “Page 99 Test” to The Match Girl and the Heiress and reported the following:
When Nellie Dowell (aged12), the match “girl” of my book’s title, left the notorious poor law orphanage at Forest Gate in 1888, she immediately entered East London’s Lucifer match industry. A few months earlier, “girls” like Nellie grabbed global headlines when they went on strike against low pay and workplace exposure to “phossy jaw,” a deadly disfiguring disease. The Match Girls’ Strike of 1888 at Bryant and May and Co. was the first triumphant organization of “unskilled” women workers into trade unions. We know a lot about it.

Page 99 tells the inglorious, now forgotten but no less dramatic story of what happened next. It introduces two feisty “match girls,” Margaret McCarthy and Annie Sheehan, involved in the strike at Nellie’s employers in 1893, R. Bell and Co. McCarthy and Sheehan were accused of threatening to toss a strikebreaker, Emily Cakebread, into a nearby canal. Police came to arrest one; the other, unbowed, soon handed herself into custody. The Bell’s strike proved a complete disaster for many Bell’s match girls. Several strikers got draconian prison sentences for their defiance.

And what of Nellie Dowell? She later became a Christian revolutionary pacifist, but during the Bell’s strike of 1893/4 she put job security before solidarity with female trade unionists. Like the silent majority of women workers, Nellie never went on strike. Understanding why helps make sense of the logic governing most poor women’s workplace choices.

Page 99 has already elicited a remarkable response from a Western Australian reader, Annie Sheehan’s great granddaughter. I now know that Sheehan and McCarthy were daughters of an Irish docker and also strikers at Bryant and May in 1888. The sisters form an invisible link between that triumph and the crushing defeat of 1893/4. The mother of a young child at her arrest, Annie Sheehan Yates died a decade later in the Poplar sick asylum – the same Poor Law hospital that Nellie entered in 1890.

This postscript to page 99 has given me a lot to think about. It’s made clear that the past that we try to faithfully narrate is always provisional. What new stories might yet be recovered through the global information and communication networks of our digital world? It brought home to me that Nellie was relatively fortunate. Despite her profound hardships, she had the support of a loving network of kin. Family made all the difference then. It often still does.
Learn more about The Match Girl and the Heiress at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue