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A World Turned Upside Down

Can you imagine a world turned upside down where women’s football attracts more spectators than the men’s game? In an age where we hadn’t had a public glimpse of the female knee since biblical times the prospect of watching 22 women engaging in a physical sport must have been tantalising. The Great War changed everything and with the men fighting a gruelling conflict it was down the women to keep the factories open and the munitions rolling towards the front line.

Football was used to boost morale during the First World War. Playing matches kept the troops fit and relaxed. It was also a way of raising money for the ever-increasing hardship funds and as recruiting drives. This era saw the women’s game flourish in unprecedented ways.

It Has Always Been There

Then women’s game had developed alongside the men’s game but in an almost clandestine way as information is hard to find. On 9 May 1881 at Easter Road in Edinburgh, there was an international. Scotland beat England 3-0. It seems that factories did have females playing recreational football in areas like Grimsby and Sunderland and there was a British Ladies Team recorded in London in 1895. I can only imagine the prejudice against these pioneers.

Unlikely Heroes

Wartime meant the very necessary changes in the perception of women as hundreds of thousands were working in factories up and down the country. The well being of the employees was taken seriously and the post-lunch kick about was positively encouraged.

These “Munitionettes” at the Dick, Kerr Factory in Preston were watched by office worker Alfred Frankland and their skills were obvious. Alice Norris, one of the young team members said of this break-time banter:

“We used to play at shooting at the cloakroom windows. They were little square windows and if the boys beat us at putting a window through we had to buy them a packet of Woodbines. But if we beat them, they had to buy us a bar of Five Boys chocolate.”

Grace Sibbert was encouraged by Alfred Frankland to organise games. Their skill was evident and with Frankland managing them they played against other factory girls. He managed to persuade Preston North End to open their gates and allow a charity match to be played on Christmas Day 1917. 10,000 people went to Deepdale that day. Some £500 was raised for charity which amounts to around £45,000 in today’s money. They beat Arundel Foundry 4-0 which was just the start for this successful team.

On that day they were captained by Alice Kell and many other ladies who have been ignored by history joined the team because of their success. Alice Woods, the first woman to win a race according to the rules of the AAA, was one such star player. She scored 43 goals in her first season at Dick, Kerr Ladies. She went on to score over 900 goals in her career that lasted over 30 years. Her strike was so powerful that she actually broke a goalkeepers arm with one of her long-range strikes.

65,000 Fans Can’t Be Wrong

The power of the team meant that they attracted 53,000 to watch Dick, Kerr Ladies beat St Helens Ladies on Boxing Day 1920. There were another 14,000 fans outside Goodison Park that day. That’s more than many Premier League attendances today. It is mindblowing when you think that the attendance at most ladies matches is around 1,125 today.

The North West may be considered the home of football but the North East also has its fair share of stars. Not many teams can say they have never been beaten except the Blyth Spartans Munition Girls. These ladies were working in a munitions factory in Northumberland and would have informal kickabouts on the beach during their breaks. They were adopted by the local team, Blythe Spartans and became an official team in July 1917.

Northern Belles

18-year-old Bella Reay scored 30 goals in 33 matches. That is an impressive strike rate. They, like Dick, Kerr Ladies, attracted huge crowds. Some 15,000 people watched them in The “Munitionettes Cup Final” at St James’ Park. It was a 0-0 draw. Bella Reay hit the bar during that match and a penalty was missed. On May 18th 1918 there was a replay at Ayresome Park. Bella scored a hat-trick and Jennie Morgan bagged a brace. It must have been a team effort as 15-year-old May Lyons was given the title “Woman of the Match”. With 26 wins and four draws, they are the only unbeaten team in history.

I would have liked to have seen these two teams meet but it was not to be. Blyth Spartans disbanded in 1919 and once the Great War ended so did women’s football. With a nation in tatters, it had to try and scrape back a semblance of order. In true British fashion, the people in power used their knowledge to restore the order they enjoyed. It was no longer seen as beneficial for women to work in factories and football could no longer be seen as a health benefit. With that, it was decided that women’s bodies were unsuited to the game. Most women lost their jobs as the men reclaimed what was theirs.

The War To End All Wars

However, the popularity of the ladies game continued. In order to restore order, the FA issued a ban on ladies teams using league grounds in 1921. This wasn’t lifted until 1971 when the sport became firmly entrenched on the world’s psyche. In the spirit of “we shall not be moved” and despite the ban, some ladies teams continued to play even though the crowds dwindled.

Who was the person who scored the most goals in any career? Her name was Lilly Parr. She was the only inaugural female member of the English Football Hall of Fame in 2002. A tough and fearless player she must have been a pleasure to watch. Fellow Dick, Kerr player Joan Whalley said of her:

“She had a kick like a mule. She was the only person I knew who could lift a dead ball, the old heavy leather ball, from the left wing over to me on the right and nearly knock me out with the force of the shot…”

After the War, Lilly trained as a nurse but still continued to play in the renamed Preston Ladies until 1951. She was a trailblazer on the pitch and also in her personal life. She lived openly as a lesbian in an age where homosexuality was illegal. The Camden LGBT Forum organised a “Lilly Parr Exhibition Trophy” to honour her achievements both on and off the pitch in 2007. She was a feature of Camden LGBT History month for three successive years.

With praise and success, these women achieved plaudits from all who came into contact with them. Like all phenomenon, they had to be consigned to history’s secret drawer as they challenged perceived wisdom. They are there on Pathe Newsreels for all to see. You just need to look.