Here it is, my fourth book for PanMacmillan, The Allotment Girls, out March 22nd, 2018…
During the Second World War, life in the iconic Bryant & May match factory is grimy and tough. Annie, Rose, Pearl and Millie carry on making matches for the British Army, with bombs raining down around them.
Inspired by the Dig for Victory campaign, Annie persuades the owners to start Bryant & May allotment in the factory grounds. With plenty of sweat and toil, the girls eventually carve out a corner of the yard into a green plot full of life and colour.
In the darkest of times, the girls find their allotment a tranquil, happy escape. Using pierced dustbin lids to sieve through the shrapnel and debris, they bring about a powerful change, not just in the factory, but their own lives.
As the war rages on, the garden becomes a place of community, friendship – and deceit. As the garden thrives and grows, so do the girls’ secrets . . .
The cover might look light and pretty but please don’t be fooled, this is definitely the grittiest book I’ve written so far. Inspired by the Bethnal Green Bombed Sites Producers’ Association, which saw wartime East Enders digging allotments out of the grounds of shrapnel-filled bomb sites, it presents another, lesser-known side to the Dig for Victory scheme. In Bethnal Green, war-weary civilians dug through the ruins of their homes in an attempt to coax life from the fire-scorched debris. Even children, with tools borrowed from the fire service, got involved. Just look at their swagger!
The storyline is also heavily influenced by the infamous Match Girls Strike of 1888, which celebrates it’s 130th anniversary this summer and the appalling conditions of Victorian match workers, forced to work for a pittance in the slums and tenements of East London. My lead character Elsie is a grandmother haunted by her past. Elsie’s entire family were killed in a fire which started when the boxes of matches they stored in a cupboard caught fire and quickly took hold.
The fire sounds like something from a penny dreadful, but tragically, it is based on a true story that devastated the East End 120 years ago. Today, all that remains to mark the high cost of such a painful human tragedy is a solitary gravestone in Plaistow Cemetery, East London.
During the early hours of Boxing Day 1897, a fire broke out in a cupboard of 9 Dixie Street, Bethnal Green, East London. In the two small rooms on the first-floor slum, eleven members of the Jarvis family lived in abject poverty. They scarcely scraped a living by making matchboxes for Bryant & May.
On the night of the fire, Sarah Jarvis and her nine children – Hannah, aged 16; Mary Ann, 14; Thomas, 12; William, 10; Louisa, 8; Alice, 5; George, 3; Caroline, 2; and baby Elizabeth, eight months – were asleep, huddled together for warmth on a freezing, foggy night.
Unlike the plot of The Allotment Girls, there were no survivors. They were all dead by the morning. When the firemen entered the house, they were faced with the unrecognisable remains of the family. In a primal act of pure maternal instinct, Sarah had clasped her eight-month-old daughter close to her, shielding her, so that, while she was badly burnt, her baby’s body was almost untouched by the flames. Sarah could offer her daughter very little in life, but could she protect her in death.
The father, Thomas, who had entered the workhouse infirmary the previous week, died of consumption a few hours after the rest of his family, never knowing of their fate.
And it is here that the heartbreaking story takes an extraordinary turn. East London, in common with so many other working-class communities, was bound by a strong code of honour. It was a community that very much looked after one another through good times and bad. The deaths of so many children would have been felt deeply by all. Rather than having them buried in pauper graves, East Enders, many of whom were probably on little more than starvation wages themselves, donated their farthings, halfpennies and pennies, and made possible one of the saddest ever processions through the streets of the East End.
The funeral caused a sensation. Thousands lined the streets in their Sunday best as the cortège made its way to the cemetery. Over the sea of black, you could have heard a pin drop. Shops shut, shutters were drawn and people stood in perfect silence as the dead passed, only moving to lift their hats as a mark of respect. Thousands more waited at the cemetery and the police were deployed in large numbers to control the crowds.
The gas workers’ band led the four carriages with the coffins pulled by horses with plumes and velvets. These were followed by coaches and omnibuses with family and friends. Other vehicles joined on route, and bringing up the rear were those on foot. Street vendors carried a busy trade in the sale of memorial cards, and three omnibuses shuttled passengers to the burial place and back for a shilling each way.
At the cemetery, a hushed crowd watched in horrified fascination as ten polished elm coffins were gently lowered into the earth. In a final note of pathos, baby Elizabeth was not separated from her mother in death, and they were buried together in the same coffin.
‘This catastrophic event has now been generally forgotten, but their deaths serve to remind us of the poverty and appalling conditions that were part of London’s East End workers’ everyday life,’ says Peter Jarvis, who is related to the family and told me in detail about the horrifying event.
‘The Jarvis family’s world was similar to many of London’s poor – eking out a meagre living as match-box makers. Although the whole family was engaged in assembling matchboxes, their wages were so inadequate, they were left starving. Life would have been a little better if they had entered the workhouse.
‘Sarah and Thomas were children of the Nichol and the workhouse but they were fighters, fighters for survival. It is their struggle that makes their tragic end bearable for me – just. But nothing can make the deaths of all those children bearable.’
I wanted to weave this event through The Allotment Girls as part of Elsie’s story, to illustrate the brutal poverty that working-women of the Victorian era lived through. Elsie might come across as a woman quick to bury bodies and scandal, but she is also a product of her generation. Tough, embittered by experience and forced to endure miserable living and working conditions.
It was these same conditions, forced upon workers at Bryant & May, that instigated the famous match girls’ strike in the summer of 1888, when 1400 women walked out of the Fairfield Works in Bow and into the history books.
The strike has been depicted in countless books, plays and films, with the women always cast as vulnerable victims, living in grimy, soot-encrusted slums, forced to work for a pittance and falling prey to the infamous phossy jaw, the grisly disease caused by white phosphorus that caused the sufferer’s jaws and teeth to crumble and putrify.
The exploitation by greedy factory bosses is true, but the match girls’ role as meek, waif-like victims has been misunderstood. It is a commonly held belief that the women were led out on strike by a middle-class socialist by the name of Annie Besant. But a book written by Louise Raw challenges that. In Striking a Light, The Bryant And May Matchwomen and their Place in History, which I read as part of my research, the author puts together a compelling argument to show that the strikers needed no outside help and were far from downtrodden victims. Using strong bonds of working-class solidarity and female resourcefulness, these courageous women organised themselves and instigated the strike, not Annie Besant.
‘Always hold your head up. Remember you’re as good as anyone,’ urged Mary Driscoll, a key figure in the strike.
With bold swagger, this tough tribe of women marched defiantly from Bow to the Houses of Parliament in their velvet, feathered hats, forcing their bosses into an embarrassing climbdown, in which they ceded to the strikers’ demands.
This strength of character, robust pride in themselves and their communities puts them firmly in the same category of many other East End women I have interviewed over the years.
Former boxer and Billingsgate porter, Ted Lewis, whose grandmother Martha worked at Bryant & May at the time of the strike, recalls a tough woman whose life was a continual fight against poverty.
‘Martha was a child when she started work making matchboxes for Bryant & May. Her day would begin at 5am, when she would clear the grate and light a new fire, before walking to the factory to join the queue with many other children for work,’ he recalls. ‘At the age of 13 she left school to begin work for them full time. By the time the First World War broke out, she was married with five children. Her husband, James, enlisted as a rifleman. By now she was a woman of standing in the community, respected and entrusted to deliver babies and lay out the dead.’
It would have taken all that strength of character to survive what happened next – the notification that her husband was missing, presumed dead. But she carried on, and in 1916, she was asked by the army to help identify local soldiers who had been badly wounded. Walking the wards, she was drawn to a man who was bandaged head to toe. Looking into his eyes, she just knew it. ‘Jim, is that you?’ she gasped, at which he broke down in tears. She promptly fainted as her husband came back to life.
This sounds like something from a film, but the reality of caring for a badly wounded man with no medical or financial assistance, as well as raising their children and making matchboxes to make ends meet, makes this far from a fairy-tale ending.
‘She had enormous strength of character and was devoted to her family,’ says Ted with obvious pride. ‘She kept the whole family fed from a large stew pot permanently simmering. I would be dispatched down to the butcher for “two pen’orth of bones and leave the meat on”.’
Channelling the same esprit de corps as her fellow workers, Martha could always be relied upon to hold her own.
‘In later life, when she had a fractured hip and walked with a stick, I used to take her down the pub. She was fond of a drink or two,’ chuckles Ted. ‘If it ever got rowdy, she’d say: “If it kicks off, prop me in the corner and I’ll take ’em on with my stick!”.’
It’s this ‘take ’em on’ attitude that forced the shareholders at Bryant & May to finally start to think about the welfare of their staff. The match girls’ victory brought about unimagined improvements in the lives of future match workers. To erase the shame of the strike, the bosses set up welfare scheme that was second to none.
By the time of the Second World War, workers enjoyed onsite medical care, a dentist, library, pension fund, a generous savings and hospital fund, and social and sports clubs – including the Match Girls’ Club, which organised pottery, needlecraft, keep fit, dressmaking, debating and singing lessons as well as an annual beano and dance.
‘Oh it was a plum job,’ says 82-year-old Ann Simmons, who worked there in the 1950s. ‘My Nan hated me working there mind, “You’ll get phossy jaw,” she used to say. A lot of the old East End women could never forget, or forgive! But by the time I worked there it was smashing; everyone wanted to work there! There was such camaraderie and friendliness amongst the girls. It taught me to be strong, work hard and to appreciate the value of friendship. I enjoyed the best years of my life at Bryant & May.’
All that organisation placed upon so slight a thing as a match, but history had shown it to be explosive if workers were exploited. I visited the imposing factory, its enormous red brick water towers still looming large over the skyline, hoping to get a sense of the turbulent history of the place. I felt somehow that if I could stand in the place where Sarah Jarvis’s children queued outside for the matches that would ultimately go onto kill them, their stories would resonate more deeply. Perhaps I might feel the reverberation of the strikers’ hobnails boots echoing off the cobbles as they marched, or maybe if I listened hard enough, I’d hear the distant sound of laughter and song drifting down from the top floor of the factory. Surely the robust spirit of the match girls would sing from the ancient walls.
Sadly, the past is dead and buried. No ghosts remain. Today the factory has been developed into a giant luxurious housing complex with incongruous names like Manhattan and Lexington (the East Enders who remain in Bow call it the Yuppie factory).
The top match floor is now a string of split-level loft apartments offering a metropolitan dream, a far cry from when girls packed matches there for twelve hours a day as the Luftwaffe tried to bomb them. The place where the rocket struck in the yard is now a luxury leisure complex and gym, and the site of the old allotments concreted over, proving that you can’t inhabit the past. But I hope you will get a sense of it through reading the Allotment Girls. I also hope you are as moved as I was to learn about the fierce maternal love of doomed Sarah, and matriarch Martha who raised her family with dignity and humour. Women to be admired. Women who were the heartbeat of their communities. Women worth writing about.
Do you have a family member whose story you are proud of? Please do get in touch on firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information on the Dixie Street fire and for a free pamphlet, contact (DixieStreetFire@gmail.com)