A new history links early New Zealand industrial action and a class-defying relationship. Andrew Stone reports.

Stepping down the gangplank, match girl Nellie Dowell hopped ashore in Wellington full of excitement. At the end of a two month voyage from London, the 23-year-old was ready to resume her job packing matches.

One of a dozen young women lured across the world by the prospect of better pay and conditions than what was on offer in grim London factories, the Cockney migrant had no inkling that she had sailed on the 6200-tonne SS Waiwera into a colonial storm.

Far from embracing the London match girls, politicians and union leaders in Wellington turned the arrival of the skilled factory staff into a fierce row that forced powerful premier Richard "King Dick" Seddon into a humiliating retreat and became a painful lesson in New Zealand's progressive industrial politics for the foreign owners of the capital's match factory.

This little-known episode in New Zealand's political history has been unearthed by American historian Seth Koven. His absorbing narrative of the three years Dowell spent in Wellington, and of her close relationship with British heiress Muriel Lester, sprang from the chance discovery of a cache of letters.

Seth Koven
Seth Koven

Tucked in an old envelope marked with the name "Nell" written by "an unsteady hand of great old age", the letters sent Koven off on a literary detective mission which lasted nearly a decade and took him deep into archives in Britain and New Zealand. The outcome of his penetrating research is a fascinating account of class and empire, poverty and plenty, Christianity and 19th century capitalism - and a tender love story between Dowell and Lester.

In his New Zealand research, Koven found evidence that made him revisit his assumptions. Though he imagined he had the makings of a book he was calling "An Archival Love Story", he discovered records and documents in Wellington that showed Dowell, his working-class heroine, was an unwelcome import.

Far from being radicalised in brutal class warfare, Dowell hankered for security and family. But from the time of her first shift at R Bell and Company's Newtown factory, Dowell and the other London workers were seen by unionists - and Seddon's political rivals - as slummy London girls, shipped downunder by a greedy foreign investor determined to exploit the premier's tariff protection and undermine local organised labour. Shocking accounts of London working conditions were published, detailing how match workers exposed to dangerous gases got "phossy jaw," a disfiguring condition which rotted jawbones.

The Wellington Match Factory Union took a case to the Arbitration Court and won a thumping victory, forcing their employer to treat all workers equally and insisting on preferential hiring of union members.

Dowell, Koven found, might have been an "exploited minuscule cog in the machinery of global capitalism" but she did not feel that way.

Quite the opposite in fact: "My evidence suggested that Nellie had a great time in New Zealand," the author remarked.

Koven's book, The Match Girl and the Heiress, came about by accident. The Rutgers University history professor was in London gathering material for a project about conscience and radical Christianity when he ventured to Kingsley Hall in Dagenham.

This was a satellite branch of a benevolent home set up in the east London suburb of Bow by Muriel and her sister Doris Lester in 1915.


At Dagenham, Koven was shown a cupboard filled with boxes of the sisters' letters, diaries, papers and publications. The "Nell" folder contained nearly a dozen letters to Muriel signed "your loving Mate accept these xxxx".

"I had absolutely no idea," Koven told the Weekend Herald "who this Nell was, when she was born, when she died, what she did to earn her living, why she had written to Muriel and most importantly why Muriel had saved and archived Nellie's letters".

But his gut instinct told him he had stumbled on a treasure trove.

For two years, as he worked on his original subject, "Nellie's letters - their tenderness, wit and insight - kept beckoning me".

Koven struck gold a year after he first read the letters. In Britain's 1881 and 1891 census records he found an "Eleanor Dowell".

From annual death registers he built up a list of suitably-named women who had died in east London early last century.

Then one promising lead came to light. Koven dashed to the Bow registry office just before it closed for the day and requested Eleanor's death certificate.

The historian had found his woman: "I could hardly believe my eyes when the certificate arrived and revealed that Nellie had died in the small two-storey slum house directly next door to Muriel and Doris Lester on Bruce Rd in Bromley-by-Bow. Those two houses had once been the precursor to Kingsley Hall, called Kingsley Rooms. At that moment I knew I had found the right Eleanor Dowell."

Fragments of Dowell's life surfaced in other public records. Details of her brief education came from annual Forest Gate School reports, an imposing Victorian institution where children from poverty-stricken families were forced to conform to industrial rules. Parted from her doting mother, 8-year-old Nellie was shorn of her character, had her hair cropped and was forced to wear blue serge. Each 30-minute block of the young pupils' lives was documented as the school sought, says Koven, to "mould them into a deferential source of labour for the well-to-do".

The detail that turned Koven in the direction of New Zealand came from a manuscript that Muriel Lester wrote about Dowell, From Birth to Death. Lester's account mentioned that Dowell's employer sent several female workers to New Zealand in early 1900. By studying ships' logs on the Ancestry.com site, Koven found Nellie's name among the passengers on the Waiwera.

By this point, Koven found himself musing about "global capitalism in the British empire and what it looked like from New Zealand at the dawn of the new century. I can't tell you how important this was for me."

In Wellington he immersed himself in a "scholar's heaven" - though he encountered one big disappointment. An arbitration hearing file, which should have contained depositions from the London factory women, perhaps even Nellie's words, was a phantom record. The contents had been destroyed in a fire several decades earlier.

But the history detective still turned up traces of Nellie's New Zealand life. Maps and records in Wellington City Council files led him to the Berhampore street where the match worker lived with her friend Kate Newman. As he conceived of Dowell's life in the capital 100 years earlier, Koven was struck by the gulf with London.

"The contrast with the congested slums of east London which I knew so well - and where Nellie had spent her life - was stunning. Being in Wellington helped me begin to imagine the expansion and transformation of Nellie's consciousness as a worker, citizen and human being."

Dowell stayed three years and exercised her right to vote - a privilege denied to women in Britain. She worked for R Bell in Sweden for a time, before going home. Back in London, her health deteriorated. Medical files show she had recurring bouts of rheumatic fever. Hospitalised and dosed with morphine, she became so agitated and confused that she was incarcerated in a lunatic ward for paupers.

Discharged, she was too weak to resume factory work. Instead Dowell threw herself into the Kingsley Hall project, creating with Lester a radical "People's House". Inside it housed a Montessori nursery, activities for women, a men's school and it made lunches for factory workers.

The women worked together until Dowell's death in 1923. Koven thinks they were loving friends, rather than a gay couple. Muriel "was better at loving humanity than coping with the messy and demanding business of deeply loving any one individual".