Women's Football Roars Into The Twenties - Part Two

In the first of five articles to coincide with the women’s World Cup, Peter Bloor tells the early story of the most famous and popular women’s football team, the Dick, Kerr Ladies of Preston.

Part Two: The Dick, Kerr Ladies – a roaring success

On Christmas Day 1917 a fund-raising match in aid of Moor Park Military Hospital in Preston was played at Deepdale between the women’s football teams from two local munitions firms, Dick, Kerr and Co. Ltd. and Arundel Coulthard’s. Despite the “orthodox football costume and regulation boots” - “corsets were barred” - and the usual pre-match conventions of shooting-in and tossing for ends, the post-Christmas dinner crowd was initially inclined to regard the match as a novelty and to laugh at it, but once they recognised that the players were taking it seriously “they readily took up the correct attitude and impartially cheered and encouraged each side” as Dick, Kerr’s won 4-0.

Having attracted a crowd of ten thousand and raised £827 – £49,300 in today’s money – at the gate and from a collection, the team, now playing as Dick, Kerr Ladies, carried on into 1918 beating, for example, Barrow Y.W.C.A. 2-0, Bolton Ladies 3-2 and the Aintree Filling Factory 1-0 at the New Brighton Tower Grounds, when Alice Kell showed herself to be “probably the best lady exponent in the land.” Bolton Ladies would have concurred with this assessment - Alice had scored all three goals against them, her first with a powerful shot into the corner of the net after a run from midfield in which she beat four opponents, but not even her presence could prevent a 2-0 home defeat in October 1918 to Whitehaven Ladies, the Champions of Cumberland, in what was advertised as “The Great Football Battle of Two Counties.”

The proceeds from the Aintree Filling Factory match were donated to the Prisoner of War Fund, one of the charities that benefited from the £2372 (worth £116,000 today) the team raised between its first match in 1917 and the Dick, Kerr Annual Meeting of 1919 at which this figure was announced. This was not the only announcement made there, for although the end of the war had also ended the employment of the members of the team it was to continue with the firm’s full approval and assistance, which included the provision of a ground at Ashton Park for home games.

Dick, Kerr Ladies had matched their financial success with playing success, winning 17 of their 22 matches in the 1918/1919 season and scoring 83 goals, but in 1920, “perhaps the best ladies’ team in the country” – according to the Lancashire Evening Post – looked for matches against overseas opposition. They had continued to play against such sides as the Lancashire and Yorkshire Ladies (employees of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway), Mrs. Vizard’s XI from the Bolton Ministry of Munitions and, to finish the 1918/1919 season, a Pick of Lancashire XI, but wishing to test itself further, in March 1920 they invited the French women’s football authorities to send a representative team to tour England.

This invitation was accepted and in April the French team arrived to an enthusiastic welcome at Preston, driving through crowded streets decorated with the Tricolour, the Union Flag and “Welcome” banners. A crowd of 25,000 at Deepdale watched the first match of the tour, which began with the team taking the field to “The Marseillaise” and ended with a 2-0 defeat through no fault of their goalkeeper Louise Ourry, who was presented with bouquets of flowers in appreciation of her splendid performance.

The Dick, Kerr team was noticeably stronger and bigger - “big enough to eat their visitors” was one comment - and “a charge of 10 stone of Lancashire jersey” would send many of the French players to the ground during the match at Stamford Bridge. They were however, faster, “combining better than their English opponents” in their 2-1 win there despite having reportedly practised jazz steps in the dressing room before the match, ignoring the pleas of their Manager, Alice Milliat, to concentrate on the task in hand.

The year 1920 ended with a triumphant reciprocal tour to France and a 4-0 Boxing Day victory over St. Helens Girls at Goodison Park that was reportedly attended by 53,000 (but more likely by between 40 and 45,000), and raised over £3000 (£128,200 in today’s money) for unemployed and disabled ex-servicemen. However, such popularity was not enough to prevent - and some suspected it to be the reason for - the F.A. effectively banning women’s football almost twelve months later. This, supposedly, was on medical grounds, to protect women with the commitment and physical capacity of the Dick, Kerr player who had worked a night shift as a nurse at Whittingham Mental Hospital, cycled seven miles into Preston, travelled by train to the Midlands, played a match and was back on duty that same night. Tellingly, the danger of injury, and from the nature of the work itself, had not been an obstacle to those same women being employed in heavy manual munitions work at Dick, Kerr’s, where their story had begun in December 1917.

The quotes and other information in this article are taken from the Lancashire Daily Post, the Preston Herald and other local newspapers, and from national newspapers including the Daily Mirror, 1917-1921.

Photographs: Imperial War Museum, Malvern fete © IWM Q 108299, Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway employees (gauging shells) © IWM Q 109909 and (men and women) © IWM Q 109907

French women’s team photo Agence Rol/Source gallica.bnf.fr/Bibliothèque nationale de France


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