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Song of the Match Girl

by Michaela Morgan

Life is no fairy tale

For a little match girl such as I.

Working all day from dawn to dusk,

Under a leaden sky.


‘Course, I’m a big girl now. I’m ten.

So I work a fourteen hour day. 

And if I don’t get fined, 

Five shillings a week is my pay.

But I do get fined. And so do my friends.

One by one we lose our pay.

For any little reason,

They take our cash away. 


For dropping a match. Or a little laugh. 

For any pause in a long long day. 

For any tiny break, 

They take our money away. 


So strike, girls, strike! 

Fewer hours! More pay! 

And no more fines! 

And safer work! 

Listen to what we say! 


We are a band of strong girls.

We keep our spirits high! 

But the work we do is killing us, 

And I’m too young to die. 


My friends have a yellowed skin. 

Some have thinning hair. 

And the unlucky have the phossy jaw, 

Which makes the people stare. 


That phosphorus is killing us. 

It eats at us bit by bit. 

What eats away at our skin and bone 

Is that tiny white matchstick tip.


The tip is as white as a grinning skull. 

As white as a winding sheet. 

As white as the pus on an open sore, 

White as the demon’s claw. 


It’s as white as the ice in the bosses’ hearts. 

As white as the frost on their souls. 

As white as the spirits that howl in the night, 

Who wail to the world their woes. 


So strike, girls, strike! 

Shine a light to the rest of the world. 

Fight the fight, strike a light, 

Show them what we are worth. 


Strike, girls, strike! 

Fewer hours! More pay! 

And no more fines! 

And safer work! 

Listen to what we say! 

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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