Updated: Jun 20
Wow, what a day 5th July was in Bow, London – both in 1888 and in 2022!
In my capacity as Chair of The Matchgirls Memorial and Great Grandaughter of one of the Matchgirls Strike leaders, Sarah Chapman, I started with an early morning awakening at 6 AM, much as the workers back in 1888 would have undoubtedly done to get their 12 or 14 hours work in at the Bryant and May factory, only this time for an altogether more pleasing experience, to ensure arrival at BBC Broadcasting House by 8:30 for a Radio 4 interview on the Today programme, with fellow guest, Anna Eavis, Curatorial Director at English Heritage.
A gloriously sunny morning boded well for the day ahead as I sipped coffee in a café in Langham Place with my husband, Graham, before heading into the Beeb to be greeted by runner, Ben, who took us up to the Green Room. The place seemed almost deserted but for a hub of activity in the Radio 4 newsroom – Ben explained this was a result of the pandemic – pre Covid there had been several full time runners but now it was just him and one other working part time. A stark reminder that workers still have challenges to face in the 21st century! After chatting to the CEO of and energy company in the Green Room, who was expecting a grilling from Amol Rajan on his defence of fracking, I was relieved that my topic of discussion would be less contentious.
At last the time came and I was silently ushered into the Today studio and directed to sit across the table from Amol and his co-presenter, Justin Ward. I kept thinking I should be terrified but felt an unexpected sense of calm as Justin announced a time check, 8:48 and introductions to Anna and me, before launching straight into his first question for me. Meanwhile, Graham was still in the Green Room, watching me through the soundproof window while listening to the broadcast on the radio. Curiously, this was delayed by a few seconds; we can only assume this to be some form of profanity delay! You can hear the interview in full HERE. It went well and I almost felt like skipping out of the building as the prospect of my speech at Bow Quarter later in the day suddenly seemed so much less daunting!
So, onward we travelled, back on the tube and over to Mile End Station where we had time to collect our thoughts over another coffee in The Coffee Room at the end of Grove Road before walking up to Bow to meet the folks from English Heritage outside the old factory, now Bow Quarter. As we walked up Mile End Road, a descendant, Sheila Moorcroft, rang me to say she had heard me on the radio and wanted to let us know about her Matchgirl ancestor, Kate Ripsher!
We arrived early at the old factory site, so took the opportunity to chat to Cathy from English Heritage, Fred the Bow Quarter Manager and Liz who had submitted the original Blue Plaque application. We were pleased and relieved to find our friend, singer and actress, Lottie Walker, had arrived. Lottie had agreed to, not only sing the Matchgirls Marching Song wearing full period dress, but to hold the match seller’s tray (lovingly crafted by Graham) that held the Matchgirls Awareness ribbons, kindly funded by Unite the Union in pre-pandemic times. Among other Matchgirl descendants that joined us for this wonderful celebration today, Lottie believes one of her ancestors also one worked at the factory.
People started to arrive thick and fast and one guest I was particularly thrilled to see was Andy Regan, with his Granddaughter, Nikki. I was so pleased to make contact with Andy back in April 2020 and to discover that he is the Grandson of Alice Francis, one of the Strike Leaders. I like to think that Alice and Sarah were friends – it certainly looks like it as they link arms in the Union Committee photograph and we know they worked in the same part of the factory .
I was also pleased to speak to some of Martha Robertson's family, which was lovely. Martha was only 6 years old at the time of the Strike, which highlights the terrible child labour aspect of late nineteenth century Britain. I managed a brief hello to Tamsin Ingle, the 3 x great niece of Matchgirl Annie Potts. Unfortunately her cousin, Betty Worsley, Annie’s Grandaughter of couldn't be with us because she now lives in Australia. Betty also worked at Bryant & May in the early 1960s not realising at the time that her Grandmother had worked in the factory.
Matchgirls descendants really were the order of the day and English Heritage had indicated that it would be nice for the day to focus on them in honour of their courageous ancestors. Aside from my personal link as the Great Grandaughter of Sarah Chapman and those I have already mentioned (Andy Regan and Nikki, Lottie and Martha Robertson’s family), I was very proud to be able to welcome as my guests other descendants including my cousin, Carol Watts, Robin and Alfie Head (Great Grandson and Great Great Grandsons of Mary Atkins), Jean Jenkins and Kevin Morton (Great Grandchildren of Elizabeth Anne Gardner) and Peter Kurton (Sarah Ellen Tresadern). There were others too, that couldn’t make it to the unveiling, such as Brian Chaplin (Great Great Nephew of Julia and Sarah Gilbert) and Fiona Castle (Great Great Grandaughter of Annie Besant). I like to think they were with us in spirit anyway. We were, however, joined by Anita Scorer and her husband. We were fortunate enough to have recently met Anita, daughter of the late Tony Russell who won acclaim for writing the score to Bill Owen’s ‘The Match Girls’ musical that played in the West End in 1966.
Alex Graham from the English Heritage Blue Plaque Panel explained to all of us speakers how things would work and then we lined up in order speech makers. Alex got the show underway with his speech before handing over to Bow Quarter Board Member, Liz Aitken. Liz had been responsible for submitting the blue plaque application to English Heritage, with support from both West Ham MP, Lyn Brown (who had grown up knowing the story of the Matchgirls), and Louise Raw, who went on to give the next speech, explaining how she had done many years of research to produce her book, Strike a Light. Then came my turn. I made sure I mentioned all of the Strike Committee members - Alice Francis, Sarah Chapman, Mary Cummings, Kate Sclater, Mary Driscoll, Mary Naulls, Eliza Martin and Jane Wakeling and the additional members who joined the Union Committee after the Strike was won - Jane Staines, Eliza Price, Ellen Johnson, Louisa Beck and Julia Gambleton. I told everyone how Sarah had been the first member of the Union of Women Matchmakers to represent them at the International TUC in 1888 and again at the TUC in Liverpool in 1890. I also gave thanks to Dr Anna Robinson (sadly not able to make it to the unveiling due to Covid) for her role in my discovering my family connection to the Strike and how, ultimately, that had led to my husband and I setting set up a charitable organisation, The Matchgirls Memorial, in 2019, specifically to raise awareness of the story through any means possible - music, poetry, the arts and memorials. I also felt it important to mention Alan Cock, a former resident of Bow Quarter, who worked tirelessly almost 25 years go to secure the first plaque for the factory, unveiled in 1998. Last by not least, I had to mention my Dad Ken Dearman, who couldn’t be with us but I know is very proud of his Grandma’s role in the Strike.
After my speech , I was really very honoured to pass on to Robin Head. His Great Grandmother and her sister, Priscilla, both worked at the factory at the time and the Strike. Robin’s pride in his Great Grandmother’s involvement in the Strike was plain to see, which was very moving. At last the moment came to unveil the plaque. Special guest, and Patron of The Matchgirls Memorial, Anita Dobson, a famous actress and East End girl herself, said a few words and then drew open the red curtains to reveal the Blue Plaque to honour the Matchgirls, in all its glory.
It was a fabulous moment, all the more poignant as it was looked on by 10 school children from two local schools, St. Agnes Catholic Primary School and Blue Gate Fields Primary School who were there as part of our Schools Poetry Competition (more on that later). It felt like the baton was being passed on to the next generation! The whole proceedings finished with three rousing choruses of Hang old Bryant on a Sour Apple Tree’ led marvellously led by Lottie on a brilliantly sunny Tuesday lunchtime in Fairfield Road! Some of us were asked to stay behind for Press and official photographs
Many of above Image courtesy of ⓒ 2022 English Heritage / Lucy Millson-Watkins
Eventually we all moved inside the Bow Quarter gardens where the Board had arranged a spread of sandwiches, cakes and drinks. I had to briefly break away as I, along with others, was invited to speak to the ITN news reporter, as it was to feature later on that day on the London television news. I then joined Alice Trickey Roberts, English
Heritage Education Officer, and the guests on the lawn to perform my final (very pleasurable) duty of the day, which was to present the certificates and prizes to our Matchgirls Poetry Competition winners. I explained to the audience how our organisation had run the competition to raise awareness of the Blue Plaque and to get young people involved in learning more about the history of the Matchgirls Strike. Our three esteemed judges were Tanya Landman (author of Lightning Strike), Emma Purshouse (Poet plus our adult Flash Fiction Competition Winner and Poetry Runner Up) and Alice from English Heritage. We were honoured to have Alice in person to announce and present the 10 prizes and we were delighted to have the three first prize winners read out their poems. All winning poems can be viewed on the website (links below):
Year 6 St Agnes Primary School
Year 5 Blue Gate Fields Primary School
Year 4 Blue Gate Fields Primary School
There was lots more chat and laughter as local dignitaries and celebrities mingled with descendants and locals, providing a fitting tribute to the Matchgirls. What would they have made of it, to think that we would all be standing on the lawn outside the factory walls 134 years after the Strike, eating sandwiches in their honour. Am so incredibly proud that my Great Grandmother, Sarah Chapman, was one of them and I know that every single descendant that day, plus others that couldn't make it felt the same about their own Matchgirl ancestors. We truly were sitting on the shoulders of giants that afternoon.
Many of above Image courtesy of ⓒ 2022 English Heritage / Lucy Millson-Watkins