Women's football roars into the Twenties - Part One

To mark International Women’s Day, Peter Bloor tells the story of women’s football from its beginnings in the munitions factories of World War One through to its effective ban in 1921. This is part one of a seven-part feature which will continue until November 2023.

Part One: A Serious Ban on Serious Football

Admitting that “I knew nothing of professional footballers when I took over this Battalion” Colonel Henry Fenwick, commanding the 17th Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment - The Footballers’ Battalion - had become effusive in their praise when speaking to a friend a year later in 1916. “Their esprit de corps was amazing” he said, and ‘was mainly due to football, which has a wonderful grip on these men...’ It also had a grip on the women who began playing it on the Home Front, who were mostly, but not exclusively, employed in munitions and other war-time industries in the north of England.

Known as munitionettes, they played both novelty and serious matches for various charities. One such team was Palmers Munitionettes (pictured above) from the firm of Palmers Shipbuilding of Hebburn-on-Tyne, who in April 1918 played a match against the Theatrical Party from an unnamed naval ship and, unencumbered by the “fancy and grotesque costumes” worn by their opponents, won 4-1, “Charlie Chaplin” scoring for the theatricals. Palmers would beat H.M.S. Theatrical Party again in May, this time with no mention of costumes, as women’s football in the north-east showed itself to be an organised and serious matter with such matches as Northumberland versus Durham at Ashington, Tyneside Internationals versus the North of England (in reality a rest of North East England team) at St. James’ Park and, at Stockton, Teesside versus Tyneside, between whom “considerable rivalry exists.” There was also rivalry at club level, that between North Eastern Marine Works and Wallsend Slipway being so keen that it was given as a good reason to attend their fixture in May 1917, Marine also taking their football very seriously in January 1918 when they left the field and refused to restart a charity match against Blyth Spartans in protest at a goal they believed to be offside – in a match they finally did resume and lost 7-1.

The best-known of all the munitionette teams was Dick, Kerr Ladies of Preston, who became so much better than the rest that in October 1921 they beat Atalanta Ladies of Huddersfield 10-0, Farnworth Ladies 11-0 and, in what was their third game of that week, Horrockses Ladies 16-0; in the circumstances, Hey’s Brewery Ladies of Bradford did well to lose their match 4-1. With such superiority it was extremely unlikely that Dick, Kerr’s would develop any rivalries such as those in the north east – a report of the Farnworth Ladies match admitted that “from a playing standpoint the game was tame” – but some could see past the scorelines and appreciate their football. Ted Vizard of Bolton Wanderers was one, advising “that those people who think ladies can’t play football should see the Dick, Kerr Ladies”, and the Aberdeen Daily Journal reporter at their match against Aberdeen Ladies in September 1921 another, telling his readers that “the exhibition of accurate passing was ahead of anything seen at Pittodrie this season.”

A visit to Scotland in April had however shown that others were not seeing this far, the Kilmarnock Herald reporting that prior to kick-off the Dick, Kerr Ladies and the Best of Scotland teams “looked trim and agile in their neat costumes, their shapely forms bringing forth comments of admiration…”, although some saw further still, “The Democrat” newspaper for example recruiting Dick, Kerr’s captain Alice Kell as one of its contributors alongside cricket administrator and journalist Pelham Warner and double England international Harry Makepeace.

During 1921 Alice’s team attracted an “immense crowd…expectant beyond measure” to Rugby Park Kilmarnock, 16,000 to Pittodrie and perhaps some additional customers to the Palais de Danse in Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent, where their attendance had been advertised with the slogan “Come along Boys, Partners are required.” Might the Football Association have been “not a little jealous of the progress of ladies’ football” mused the Sunderland Daily Echo when, on December 5th 1921, the F.A. requested that its member clubs refuse women’s teams the use of their grounds, stating that football was “quite unsuitable for females” and that “an excessive proportion of the receipts are absorbed in expenses and an inadequate percentage devoted to charitable objects.”

Speaking in support of the decision Doctors Mary Scharlieb and Elizabeth Sloan Chesser stated that the game was “too much for a woman’s physical frame” and that “They may receive injuries from which they may never recover”, but Mabel Benson, captain of the Hey’s Brewery Ladies disproved their medical opinions by, she said, playing since 1914 without injury or ill-effects from either foul play or the weather. The F.A. may have, in effect, banned women’s football, but Mabel and her team-mates wanted to play on, her employer, Arthur Hey, promising that his firm would provide the support and facilities needed to do so for as long as they wished - for as long as football maintained its grip on the women who had brought it out of the war years and into the Roaring Twenties.

Part Two: “The Dick, Kerr Ladies – A Roaring Success” will appear in July 2023 to coincide with the start of the Women’s World Cup.

The quotes and other information in this article are taken from the Lancashire Daily Post, the Jarrow Express, the Kilmarnock Herald, the Aberdeen Daily Journal, the Yorkshire Evening Post and other local newspapers 1917-192.

Photographs from the Imperial War Museum: Palmers Munitionettes © IWM Q 110074 and Nottinghamshire Munitions workers © IWM Q 30040. Cigarette cards: Ted Vizard - photograph, issued with “The Rover” by D.C. Thompson,1922-1923 : caricature by Rip, John Player and Sons, 1926


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