PETER FROST takes us back 95 years to a disgraceful period in FA history.
Come back with me to Boxing Day 1920. We are at the Everton Ground, Goodison Park, in Liverpool for the traditional post Christmas match. The ground is full to capacity, fifty three thousand fans, indeed there are 14,000 more locked outside unable to get in.
But it isn’t Everton the crowds have come to see. It is two women’s sides, Dick Kerr Ladies from Preston are playing the ladies of St Helen’s, two of the best of the many female teams dominating the sport in the years just after World War One.
The match had been organised to raise money for the Unemployed Ex Servicemen’s Distress Fund in Liverpool. It raised £3,115 (£623,000 in today’s money). For comparison, today Everton men’s team’s best gate in 2014/15 season was 39,000.
Florrie Redford, Dick Kerr Ladies’ star striker, missed her train to Liverpool but captain and right back, Alice Kell, moved up to centre forward and scored a second-half hat trick giving the Preston side a 4-0 victory.
Two weeks later the Dick Kerr Ladies played a game at Old Trafford, the home of Manchester United, this time to raise money for ex-servicemen in Manchester. Over 35,000 people watched the game and £1,962 (£392,000 in today’s money) was collected.
Earlier in 1920 the first ever women’s international game had taken place. Dick Kerr’s Ladies beat a French eleven 2-0. At Herne Hill 25,000 had watched that match.
As 1921 dawned everything seemed set fair for the development of women’s football as a major sport.
However the blazered Colonel Blimps, all men of course, running the Football Association had other ideas. They decided this was the year to ban women’s football from all official FA club grounds.
They pompously declared that football was “quite unsuitable for females”. It would remain their view until the 1970’s. The huge setback their ban caused is still felt in the game today.
Women’s football had started in the 1890s and in north London, for instance 10,000 fans watched a game at Crouch End between teams representing North and South London. North won 7-1.
The biggest growth in the popularity of women’s football came during the First World War when women were called on to do factory jobs left by the men who had gone to fight. As men marched away to the trenches, they were replaced by women.
Millions of women took on jobs that had previously been considered men’s work, from precision engineering to working the land.
The number of women employed increased from three and a quarter million in 1914 to almost five million in January 1918. Nearly 200,000 women worked in government departments. Half a million became clerical workers. Women worked as conductors on trams and buses. A quarter of a million worked on the land.
The greatest increase of women workers was in engineering. Over 700,000 women worked at highly skilled and very dangerous.
Jobs in munitions factories doing all sorts of work that had previously been considered far too difficult for women. Unsurprisingly they did the it just as well, if not better, than any man.
Just like the men before them the women working in factories began to play football during lunch-breaks. Teams were formed and on Christmas Day in 1916, a game took place between Ulverston Munitions Girls – the Munitionettes – and another group of local women. The Munitionettes won 11-5.
Similar games between rival factories took place in South Wales while in London the Hackney Marshes National Projectile Factory team took on all-comers.
The Dick Kerr factory in Preston produced locomotives, trams, cable drums, pontoon bridges, cartridge boxes and munitions. By 1917 it was producing 30,000 shells per week.
The women at the factory decided they should form a football team. On Christmas Day 1917, they organised a charity match in aid of the local hospital for wounded soldiers. The game took place at Preston North End’s ground which had not been used since the FA men’s programme was cancelled after the outbreak of the War.
Over 10,000 people turned up to watch the women’s game. Dick Kerr beat the Arundel Foundry, 4-0. They went on to play and beat other North West factories.
Soon the fans were cheering on new heroes such as captain, Alice Kell, centre-forward, Florrie Redford, and the hard-tackling defender, Lily Jones.
When they played and lost to Lancaster Ladies three of the opposing team, Jennie Harris, Jessie Walmsley and Anne Hastie were persuaded to come and work at the Dick Kerr factory and play football for them. This poaching would become a regular way of building the team.
On Christmas Day in 1917, 10,000 spectators watched Dick Kerr women playing at Preston. Women’s soccer, it seemed was here to stay.
Then at the end of the First World War the men came home. Most women were turned out of their jobs in the munitions factories and elsewhere. However, the interest in football did not die.
Some enlightened employers continued to support women’s teams. The Dick Kerr factory was one of these and its women’s team went on from strength to strength. They became Preston Ladies. Sutton Glass Works women’s football team reformed as St Helens Ladies’ AFC.
And so the scene was set for that Boxing Day match in 1920. Despite the men of the FA’s worst intentions women’s football never died.
However the 1921 FA ban meant that by the 1920’s and 30’s women’s teams found it impossible to find good grounds to play matches.
An attempt to form and sustain a Ladies Football Association ended in failure and the women’s game failed to develop any formal structure.
The women arranged charity matches but there were never enough teams to hold a proper women’s league.
In September, 1937, Preston Ladies beat Edinburgh Ladies 5-1 to win the Championship of Great Britain and the World. A World Championship Victory Dinner was held at Booths Cafe in Preston.
Preston Ladies, the previous Dick Kerr team had played 437 matches, won 424, lost 7 and drawn 6, scored 2,863 goals and had only 207 scored against. They had raised over £100,000 for charity.
WW2 saw women again doing work that had since the end of WW1 been again exclusively for men. Factories, transport, mills, farms, even our canals continued to serve the nation in the safe hands of women.
Preston Ladies played only a few games during the Second World War. Petrol rationing made it almost impossible to get to away games. The FA still refused to lift its ban on women’s football.
In 1947 the Kent County FA suspended a referee because he was working as a manager and trainer with Kent Ladies Football Club. It justified its decision with the comment that “women’s football brings the game into disrepute”.
In 1946 Lily Parr was made captain of Preston Ladies in recognition of over a quarter of a century’s service. She had only missed five games since joining the team in 1920. She had scored 967 goals out of the team’s total score of 3,022.
Today, as the Morning Star’s sports section confirms women’s football is alive and well, although it is still sidelined by the male dominated FA establishment. Despite that it becomes more popular every day – understandable when women’s England team outshines our men in every world competition.
It is time then to remember, and give thanks to, those early women pioneers who kept the flame burning and the ball in the air over the last 95 years of women’s football.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star Christmas Eve Special 2015.