Edith Heckstall Smith: The Match Girl, circa 1884–1890

Private Collection/Bridgeman Images

Edith Heckstall Smith: The Match Girl, circa 1884–1890

Toward the start of his fascinating book The Match Girl and the Heiress, Seth Koven states that it “joins efforts by historians to reclaim pre–World War II Britain for Christianity, a salutary historiographical Reconquista.” This may set alarm bells ringing, with its implication that more secular-minded scholars should be driven from the field, like the Moors expelled from Spain. But if the word “Reconquista” is unfortunate, he has a point. Surprisingly little academic attention has been paid to the part played by the Anglican Church, Catholic missions, and, above all, the Nonconformist sects in British reform movements, class awareness, women’s history, and social protest. This is particularly clear in the missions and settlements set up in the slums of British cities following the initiative of F.D. Maurice and the Christian Socialists in the mid-nineteenth century.

The Match Girl and the Heiress reflects Koven’s interest in the Christian revolutionaries who adopted voluntary poverty to counter social inequality and injustice. But he approaches his subject in an unusual and intimate way, by tracing the friendship between Muriel Lester (1883–1968), the charismatic daughter of a wealthy Baptist shipowner, and Nellie Dowell (1876–1923), a working-class girl from Bromley-by-Bow, in East London, and examining their work at Kingsley Hall, a settlement inspired by Muriel’s personal brand of “God is Love” theology and her ambition to build a “New Jerusalem” among the tenements.

In his account of this utopian endeavor, a blend of radical Christian idealism and hard pragmatism, Koven considers wider issues. These range from public and private education to the workings of the Poor Law, labor struggles and capitalism, the “New Woman” and suffrage movements, the plethora of contemporary quests for spiritual guidance, and the subtleties of same-sex friendships. Emotional currents, personal and spiritual, drive the story—the word “love” and the phrase “God’s love” echo through the book—and the author is unusually, and engagingly, open about his own feelings as he follows the different tracks of the women’s lives.

The tone is set in the opening sentence: “I cannot say with certainty how and when they met, but I do know that Muriel Lester and Nellie Dowell loved one another.” Their backgrounds, however, could not have been more different. Muriel’s father Henry had been born in Poplar in the East End, but once he made money he moved his family to leafy Leytonstone, and then to Loughton in Essex, where he was president of the Essex Baptist Union, a magistrate, and school board chairman. While Nellie endured a childhood of poverty and institutionalization, the Lester girls were sent to the progressive Wanstead College, and Muriel then went to St. Leonard’s school in St. Andrews.

The Lester sisters belong to a group that featured in Koven’s previous book, Slumming: Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian London (2004), one type of the “lady slum explorers” determined to help the poor. Indeed Muriel’s initial love affair with Bromley-by-Bow and her avid anthropological fascination are described in both books. Her interest was born, she wrote later, of her

horrified curiosity about the dirty spaces and faces she glimpsed from her first-class train carriage as she sped from her country home through the slums of East London en route to the pleasures of the West End.

Visiting Bow around 1902, she was asked to a party of factory girls and instantly found friends. Her memory of this night, in an unpublished draft of her autobiography It Occurred to Me, conjures up the heady romance of crossing class boundaries, a physical frisson found in middle-class encounters with factory life from Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton and North and South onward:

These girls, who danced with me, entertained me, made conversation to set me at my ease and plied me with refreshments, were just like myself some of them, the same age, nineteen years old. Yet how experienced they seemed! How assured! What natural dignity! They were much more mature and independent than I.

Muriel’s excitement is similar to that described in Slumming by the American journalist Elizabeth Banks, who entered London working life in disguise and also plunged into the world of New York immigrants. Here, she said, she found

Life! Life! Seething life was all about me. The life of a great city, its riches, its poverty, its sin, its virtue, its sorrows, its joyousness—there it was, and I was in it.

Like Banks, Muriel immediately turns her attention from the city-dwellers to herself, with a mix of egoism and altruism. Compared with the factory girls, she writes, “I was a pampered, sheltered, ignorant idler. Why should they go on working, producing pleasure and ease for such as I?”

Fired by a paradoxical desire to be part of this world while transforming its chaos and violence, Muriel and her sister Doris took lodgings in Bow, taking turns going back to Essex to look after their parents. Doris (the unsung heroine of this tale) organized a pioneering kindergarten and Muriel worked with the Factory Girls Club and ran the “Mothers’ Meeting” at the Congregational church, inviting speakers to talk about industrial safety laws, staging concerts and competitions, and joining the church to the Bow suffrage movement.


At the meeting, we are told, the women “used religion and prayer to make sense of their day-to-day lives.” Yet during these years, in which the exhilarated Muriel claimed that life in Bow brought “a serenity and selflessness almost beyond imagination,” she also suffered from exhaustion and “nerves” (a standard Victorian diagnosis). After a collapse in 1906 she left for a long period of rest in Essex, followed by travels to the Continent, expecting Doris to do the work for both of them—a pattern that would be often repeated.

Six years later, the sisters moved to a small terraced house in Bruce Road. Nellie Dowell lived in a first-floor flat next door with her mother and nephew, and two years later the two families pulled down the second-floor wall between the houses. The shared space became the “Kingsley Rooms,” named after Muriel and Doris’s brother Kingsley, who died in September 1914. These rooms led to a greater venture. By the end of that year, Henry Lester had bought an abandoned Baptist chapel nearby, encouraging his daughters to turn the former hellfire chapel into a community center, nursery school, and base for all their activities. This became “‘Kingsley Hall,’ Britain’s first Christian revolutionary ‘People’s House.’” Nellie was the “local friend” breaking down the “prickly barriers,” as Muriel put it, between rich and poor, easing the sisters’ determined program of visits, through which they built up their networks of followers, and helping to run the hall.

Nellie’s route to Kingsley Hall, through childhood poverty, brutal state institutions, and twenty years of work in the match factories, is the most impressive part of Koven’s book. It has a freshness and energy, as if the author was on a personal journey of discovery. Nellie was never Koven’s intended subject, he tells us. He went to look at the papers held at Kingsley Hall’s satellite house in Dagenham looking for Muriel Lester: instead, reading her letters to Muriel, carefully placed in a manila envelope marked “Nell,” he writes, “I found Nellie Dowell.”

The letters reveal Nellie’s dependency and near adoration of “Miss Lester.” Although Koven compares her prose to the impressionistic terseness of Gertrude Stein, Nellie is more old-fashioned, writing a kind of speaking letter common in the nineteenth century, in which the gaps between thoughts or sentences are expressed by a gap rather than a stop. Every letter quoted rings with her assumption of difference and inequality, mixing deference with a strong sense that life in Bow is a great deal livelier and friendlier than the stuffy suburbs. Now the nights are drawing in, she writes,

Kingsley Hall will look like your lovely Hall at Loughton but how can it, that looks to clean only fit for Sunday clothes don’ touch but ours is come in don’t go home & change come & be happy (nice cup of tea a) Dough Nut or a cocanut Bar.

In his hunt to find more about Nellie, Koven acts like a family historian, searching through census data and parish registers, looking up school, hospital, and factory archives, following events in the newspapers, and then analyzes them carefully, relating her life story to current arguments about state intervention, the “loss of childhood,” and the power of capitalism. His insights supplement and correct Muriel’s 1923 obituary of her friend and her essay “From Birth to Death,” which drew largely on the memories of Nellie’s mother Harriet.

Nellie’s comfortable early childhood ended when her father, a merchant seaman, died at sea in 1881, plunging his wife Harriet and their five children into poverty. Muriel’s account of Harriet’s struggles as a single mother forced her, Koven points out, into a “highly contentious and overtly politicized field of representations.” By the end of the century, “mothering” or “mothercraft” was seen by reformers not as a matter of instinct and feeling but as a science, a skill in which slum mothers were grievously lacking. Instead they were seen as pushing their children into work, abusing and neglecting them, even taking out insurance on their short lives. Finding no help, Harriet had to hand her children over to the Poor Law guardians, and as “semi- orphans” Nellie, aged seven, and her older sister Alice entered the vast Forest Gate Industrial School, which housed between six and eight hundred children: its unfeeling, mechanical routine left Nellie and many like her determined never to come within reach of the Poor Law again.


When she left there in 1888, Nellie found work with the match manufacturer R Bell and Company. The popular image of the “match girl”—derived from the street children selling matches, and from Hans Christian Andersen’s story of the girl sent out in the snow by her cruel parents to sell her wares—had by now become a famous image of London labor and exploitation, and the strike at the leading match firm of Bryant & May in July 1888 won widespread sympathy. Appalled by what they learned of working conditions, pay, and the terrible affliction of “fossy jaw” from working with phosphorus, women philanthropists rallied around: Viscountess Clifden founded Clifden House opposite the factory, and Annie Besant started her theosophical club in Bow Lodge. Both places offered meals, reading rooms, entertainment, country excursions.

An acrimonious strike at Bell’s—in which Nellie took no part—won less support. Hoping to escape more trouble, the company set up a new factory in New Zealand, sending Nellie and a group of fellow workers there to train new employees. But once in Wellington the London match girls found themselves targets, entangled in heated union politics and arguments over the Liberal government’s betrayal of the protectionist policies it had promised. After three years Nellie sailed back to London, but was soon abroad again, working in one of the vast Swedish match factories at a time of global re-structuring of the British industry. On her return she finally changed her job, working briefly at Cook’s East London Soap works, until one of her many bouts of rheumatic fever forced her to leave.

A woman selling matches; from ‘Cries of London,’ circa 1840

HIP/Art Resource

A woman selling matches; from ‘Cries of London,’ circa 1840

The great virtue of Koven’s approach is his constant probing of surfaces. He is never content simply to mention a school, a hospital, a factory, without examining the policies or commercial pressures, the attitudes of the public, the actual daily round and the experience of those who lived or worked there, asking what it felt like, emotionally and physically. The most dramatic example of this immersion occurs with Nellie’s traumatic stay in the famous voluntary teaching hospital, the London Hospital, in 1810, where Koven encounters the detailed case notes kept by well-intentioned but blinkered doctors and officials:

With utter detachment, the file preserves her doctors’ evaluation of the condition of her body surfaces and orifices. Her teeth are dirty and she has two stumps in the back of her mouth; her tongue is “pink little furred;” her menstrual cycle (“catamenia”) is “always regular” but she has “slight leucorrhoea” or vaginal discharge “present” during the doctor’s physical examination.

The doctors failed to notice that despite her history of rheumatic fever and her recent illness, Nellie need never have been kept in the hospital—she was soon well enough to go home. Instead, stuffed with drugs, she developed fever and temporary delirium, ending in the ward for pauper lunatics, pressing her face against the bars, with tears streaming down her cheeks. Koven’s exhilaration at finding this “brazenly invasive” file was, he says, “tempered by discomfort at reading it. Had Nellie Dowell, that perpetually obscured object of my historical sleuthing, come too sharply into focus?” In theory, her letters were more private, more intimate, yet these impersonal archives feel like snooping, an assault, a “breaking down of her personhood.”

Yet Nellie did escape, and retained an inner strength. Rather to Koven’s disappointment, in nearly twenty years of working in the match industry, she showed no defiant radicalism. Instead—just as interesting with respect to women’s history and politics—she was simply determined to keep her job, “eager for approbation and respectability.” But in New Zealand Nellie had encountered “a new respect for the dignity of labor and women”: the bill granting women’s suffrage had been passed there in 1893, almost thirty years before Britain.

Later, in Sweden, she began to question her conventional beliefs. In this she was influenced by the writings of her would-be suitor Harry Snell, who helped to formulate the principles of the Ethical Movement and was a founder of the Universal Races Congress in Britain, challenging imperialism and injustice—and sometime between 1903 and 1909, Nellie met Muriel Lester. Although Snell wrote frequently to Nellie, even during her travels in Sweden, there is no evidence that she returned his affections or that they had a romantic relationship. Nellie continued to work in factories until her physical collapse in 1910. From that moment until her death in 1923, she devoted herself to helping Muriel Lester in her philanthropic efforts and was financially supported, Koven thinks, by her wealthier friend.

If Nellie, the exploited worker, failed to become a “revolutionary critic” of capitalism, in what sense was Muriel’s Christian ideology “revolutionary”—a term Koven often employs? It is hard to tell, in part because Muriel herself was so vague and so eclectic. Despite her often-mentioned “charisma,” she remains curiously indistinct—I get a stronger sense of her as a personality from Caroline Moorhead’s description in Troublesome People: Enemies of War, 1916–1986 (1987), quoted by Koven in a footnote: “A tall, stately, cheerful and occasionally scatty woman with wispy fair hair wound in Catherine wheels over her ears and rather long teeth.” As Koven portrays her spiritual development, examining each stage with meticulous care, he risks making her a bundle of “isms” in the reader’s mind. But her commitment is beyond doubt, and moving as she did between two worlds, exhausted and strained, it is understandable that from 1910 her “physical and mental health was so precarious that she often broke down and required Nellie’s care.”

“Being a Christian,” for Muriel, meant “to let everyone want to copy me.” To this end, she moved on from her sturdy Baptist childhood to engage with a variety of different movements: “A broad range of theological ideas and social reform initiatives from the 1880s to World War I that revolved around ‘God is Love’ as the central fact of Christianity.” Once she had rejected sin-based religion, with its threat of punishment, her politics and Christianity were always entwined: her humanitarian impulse was matched by a firm anti-imperialism, beginning with her support of the Congo Reform Association.

Muriel was inspired by Tolstoy’s radical ethics, by the Brotherhood Church with its emphasis on restorative love, and on religious evolution leading to “the light of reconciliation and great peace.” But she was also influenced by the ideas of the much-mocked “Simple Lifers”; and she embraced the feminine and anticolonial aspects of Theosophy as preached by Madame Blavatsky and Annie Besant, although both she and Nellie remained wary of their fusion of Eastern and Western teachings. Her ideas derived most strongly, in the end, from the humanism, faith in reason, and social concern of the New Theology promoted by the flamboyant, electrifying preacher R.J. Campbell, whose ideas “provided a path into pacifism, internationalism, socialism, and religious modernism for the Lesters and many other spiritual seekers.” God, Campbell insisted, was both immanent and transcendent and the teachings of Jesus, in particular the Sermon on the Mount, remained thoroughly compatible with the modern world.

The Lester sisters were brave to found Kingsley Hall in wartime 1915 and to proclaim their pacifist beliefs in the face of intense hostility. The heroic local Labour politician and pacifist George Lansbury gave them warm support, but there was tension over support of the war with both the pro-war Philippa Strachey and the suffragettes of London Society (Muriel was briefly secretary of the Bow branch). Later Muriel and Nellie allied themselves with the pacifist feminists, including Maude Royden and Charlotte Despard, and Sylvia Pankhurst who moved to Bow in 1912. Nellie and Muriel, fighting their own long illnesses, were intensely conscious of suffering bodies as well as souls: on the battlefield, in the treatment of conscientious objectors, in the force-feeding of suffragettes, in the diseases of the slums.

Many of the rules that governed life at Kingsley Hall concerned dirt and health: no “sticky sediment” must be left on a table; it was “positively dangerous to other people’s health” to leave the sugar jar uncovered. In Koven’s view, these rules, echoing the militaristic discipline of the day, were Muriel’s “antidotes to the flabby excesses and illusory freedoms of early-twentieth-century bourgeois liberal individualism,” but they also suggest an almost physical fear of encroaching dirt and chaos.

The ethos Muriel promoted was communal and the daily timetable was hectic: after breakfast, children arrived for Montessori classes. At midday women workers crowded in for lunch; in the afternoon baby clinics were followed by women’s meetings and work groups; after dinner and on weekends, the social club met “for mixed-sex sociability and discussion of pressing industrial and political topics.” Each day was punctuated by prayers, and on Sunday mornings Muriel led religious services, followed by discussions and lectures. Nellie’s role was central, as Muriel wrote when Nellie died in 1923:

She cherished [the idea of the Hall], helped it to grow, made it seem real. Whenever the dream began to grow hazy she would discuss it in terms of flesh and blood and by fitting actual people into its imagined framework, she increased one’s faith. After its birth, it was Nell one turned to in every crisis.

Muriel and Doris Lester both joined the pacifist Fellowship for Reconciliation in late 1915, and for a brief period, in the revulsion from militarism after World War I, their work for peace and social equality “increasingly seemed like a legitimate political and economic strategy, not the contemptible idealism of an eccentric pacifist fringe.”

In 1921, buoyed up by hope, the better-off residents of Kingsley Hall, including Muriel, renounced their wealth in a well-publicized declaration of “Voluntary Poverty.” The mood did not last: as far as local people were concerned, immersion in poverty was the last thing they wanted, while the middle-class workers began increasingly to feel the need for privacy and comfort. As Koven notes:

In coming face-to-face with the psychic and affective impossibility of giving up entirely the “private” and “private life,” Muriel necessarily gestured toward the limits of revolutionary Christianity and her own pursuit of moral “perfectionism.”

Kingsley Hall changed, but endured: it was a soup kitchen during the General Strike of 1926, and in the 1960s took on a different radical life as R.D. Laing’s experimental community for schizophrenics. It is still a thriving community center today. But Muriel changed too, turning to more public work. After a spell as a socialist feminist member of Poplar Borough Council from 1922 to 1926, her belief in reconciliation between races, as well as classes, took her increasingly away from Poplar and Bow. In the mid-1920s she was in India, visiting Rabindranath Tagore and Mohandas Gandhi, who stayed at Kingsley Hall on his visit to Britain in 1931. She became an international emissary for peace, corresponding with viceroys, prime ministers, and peace campaigners: by the time of her death in 1968 she had been twice nominated for the Nobel Prize and was viewed as a “pacifist saint.”

As she traveled and worked, she maintained a series of intense friendships with working women who cared for her as Nellie had once done, but Nellie herself faded from view. Muriel’s 1937 memoir refers only to the “genius” of an unnamed “ex-factory-girl helper” at Bruce Road, a conventional tribute that Koven finds “painful reading.” Even the manila envelope in which he discovered Nellie’s letters has vanished in a restructuring of the archives. Yet Koven’s research brings her back to life, her experiences shedding an unexpected light on the revolutionary Christianity of Kingsley Hall. His imaginative book, at once an immaculate social and religious history and an intriguing exercise in life-writing, gives both the heiress and the match girl their due.