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Don’t you know about the Match Girls

by Anne Enith Cooper

Don’t you know about the Match Girls


Aunty Lucy comes into the kitchen, tight blue grey

curls and faded pinny. I’m chewing a match stick.


-Children shouldn’t play with matches, she scolds,

snatching it away -and you never


put them in your mouth!


Don’t you norr ‘bout the match girls?

Lickle girls they wor, no’ much bigga ‘en you,

marched all the way to Fleet Street they did

Y’norr, where they make the papers…


                                    - Why?


To make tuppence into tuppence ‘apney,

in old money mind. See this? 


She holds up a three pence coin


Earnt less than this they did, that’s

when they weren’t dropping down dead,

so think yourself lucky.  


They’re always saying that to me, I think,

I’ll be lucky if she gives me that

thruppenny bit.


Aunty Lucy sees the plea in my eyes, says

-‘Ere you are then. I clasp it in my palm.


As she speaks I see the firefly in The Lady and

The Tramp. I see a pale girl in a black bonnet, another

with a with a burning jaw. I hear words I barely understand;

lockjaw, lockout, phosphorus,


-they did it for us.


In the garden the sky is a clear blue pool, I skip in circles

picking daises, reciting


 - girls’ strike, strike a match, match girls, girls’ strike, strike a match, match girls


Aunty Lucy pulls an apple from the tree, gives it to me,

tells me not to swallow the pips or a tree will grow inside.


 -Eve ate the apple, she says frowning,


and now look!  


I ask mum about that later. - Don’t fret,

 your Aunt Luce can be a bit funny at times.


Mum stares towards the window. She’s trying to light

the fire, holding a newspaper up at the hearth,

- Get me that box of Swan Vesta and bring it ‘ere,

puts the red tipped match between her teeth, purses her lips

lifts the little yellow box with her free hand.


-Mum don’t!



She shoots a looks that says

This better be good! Slowly I begin,

-Don’t you know about the match girls?


As I speak I see the firefly in The Lady and

The Tramp. I see a pale girl in a black bonnet, another

with a with a burning jaw, the words tumble out;

lockjaw, lockout, phosphorus,


-they did it for us, to make tuppence into tuppence ‘apney!


-Ai ‘appen they did, she replies, balling up

the newspaper and flinging it on the fire.

I’m going to af  to ‘ave a word with our Luce

‘bout puttin’  fear of God into you.


-No not God. Just phosfrus. God is Love, she said.


Anne Enith Cooper is a poet, activist and photographer who has worked with council housing residents, homeless people and users of the mental health system for 20 years on creative writing projects in the community. She fervently believes another world is possible. 

Seeds and Fuses

Cressingham Voices

The Way of Words

With thanks to Anne Enith Cooper for authorising reproduction

One of the nineteenth century’s best-loved stereotypes is that shivering waif the match girl. As well as selling matches, girls (as young as nine) and women made the matches in conditions that led to them losing their hair, their health and their lives.

The phosphorus on the white tips of the matches was responsible for a deadly condition known as phossy jaw. In London in 1888, girls and women employed in Bryant and May match factory went on a historic strike to protest against their horrific working conditions. This poem tells their story.  

Reaching The Stars: Poems about Extraordinary Women and Girls

By Liz Brownlee, Jan Dean and Michaela Morgan and published by Macmillan

With thanks to Michaela Morgan for authorising reproduction

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