Billy and the Match Girl
by Paul Haston
Inspiration for the children’s book, Billy and the Match Girl
Righting a wrong is difficult at the best of times, but nigh on impossible when the clocks have turned for over a century since the wrong was done. When Billy’s Grandpa tells him about his Great Gran Milly getting the dreaded “Phossy Jaw” as a match girl in the old days, he wishes he could do something about it. Particularly when the now derelict Bryant and May match factory is just around the corner from where he lives. The problem is that the past can not be revisited, or so it seems for the young twelve-year-old boy, but then, life is full of surprises!
The book, written for children aged 9 to 12, takes its inspiration from the appalling conditions that the match girls of Bow, East London were expected to endure and the heroism they showed in rising up against them.
As Peter Jackson’s painting depicts (reproduced under licence from Look and Learn), the Match Girls Strike of 1888 goes down in history as an act of courage against almost insurmountable odds. Its success in breaking the resistance of the Bryant and May factory owners led to the formation of the Union of Women Matchmakers, which at the time was the largest union of women and girls in Britain, and inspired a wave of collective protest amongst Victorian industrial workers.
Billy’s journey is a coming of age, a realisation of the importance of decency for the young lad and, as such, the book is a memory of the lives of the match girls who fought for a better life back in those times. The harshness of the factory’s working conditions is explored whilst offering a hope of change. As with all journeys, however, things don’t turn out as expected and the twist in Billy’s story requires a decision that will tax the thinking of all of us.
My hope in writing the book is that the memory of the match girls will pass from one generation to the next, that the young minds of today will become aware of the inequalities of the past so that they may not be repeated. If you have a moment, you can find a sample of the book at the link attached below, or, better still, read it in its entirety.
Let’s strike a light for the plucky match girls of 1888!