A blog post by Stuart Gibbs.
The aftermath of the 1915 shell scandal saw an extensive push to increase arms production with the conversion of existing industry to war work and new plants created around the country. Vast numbers of women were employed to fill these new centres in the dangerous work of armament manufacture. Many munitions factories operated like mini cities with in house hospitals, shops, libraries and an extensive recreational programme and sports for which football would play a big part.
Football for women was nothing new of course, an Edinburgh born Theatrical agent Alec Gordon organised the first association match played at Hibernian’s Easter Road ground in 1881 and the women’s game would continue to be associated with the theatre throughout the 1880s and 90s. Sides such as Madam Kenney’s Famous Edinburgh Team, the Grimsby Town Ladies, Carl’s Original French Footballers and the Midland Ladies Association were all novelty offshoots designed to generate funds for hard pressed theatres. Even the British Ladies Football Club despite their pretensions of being ‘ladies of the middle classes’ had a theatrical connection with at least six of the side stage performers.
Madam Kenney's Edinburgh Team and Grimsby Town Ladies 1885. Reproduced with permission of Jenny Griffiths.
The early war time women’s matches were also theatrical events such as the fixture held for the Nunhead fete in South London or the Portsmouth Ladies taking on the usherettes of the Hippodrome Cinema at the town’s Recreation Ground. It would be the autumn of 1916 before the first munitionettes would first appear when the workers of William Beardsmore’s factory at Parkhead came together to form a side. Other sides were founded at the Derby National Shell Factory, Drew & Lane Factory in Birmingham and the Vickers Plant in Sheffield.
A small number of matches were played during the autumn of 1916 but the spring of 1917 saw a surge in activity with women’s sides appearing the length and breadth of the country. In Glasgow teams were formed around the Beardmore sites at Parkhead, Mile-end, Cardonald and Mossend while in the north east matches were played at Montrose, Dunfermline and Dundee with many traditional grounds being used such as Celtic Park, Ibrox and Dens Park. In Liverpool Aintree Ladies would play many of their games at Everton’s iconic Goodison venue. The giant plant at Gretna Cumbria would supply several teams but the region’s star sides were Vickers Barrow and Whitehaven, a side made up largely of school teachers. Many players like Bella Reay, Jean Brown from Cardonald and Vera Wilson of Whitehaven would make an impact in the media of the time.
Matches continued in the midlands and sprang up in the London area with sides from the Handley Page aircraft manufacturer based at Cricklewood, the Marconi works of Dulwich Hackney, Marshes National Projectile Factory and the Dagenham based Stirling Ladies. One side operating out of the Dick Kerr works in Preston would go on to be a famous side in the post war era but the Dick Kerr Company also owned the Hackney Marches plant was run by the Dick Kerr Company so technically they were two Dick Kerr Ladies teams during the Great War.
The munitionette era would see a series of firsts for the women’s game such as the beginning of formal competition. The first women’s football tournament would take place at Celtic Park on August 4th 1917 with a similar event taking place at Maryport in Cumbria a few weeks later. More substantial events would follow with the Coventry Cup and the Workington Women’s Football Competition. There was even an attempt at a league in Manchester and district with British Westinghouse plant at Old Trafford and the Brunner Works in Northwich among the six sides taking part. The most famous of the tournaments was the Alfred Wood Munitions Girls Challenge Trophy more commonly known as the Munitionettes Cup. Held in the North East of England the final was contested between Blyth Spartans and Bolckow Vaughan with 22,000 spectators turning out at Ayresome Park on May 14th to see Bella Reay score a hat-trick in Blyth’s 5-0 win.
Cardonald NPF v Mile-end in first women's championship Celtic Park 4 August 1917. Glasgow Life.
Another innovation was to hold international matches, with the first fixture taking place in Belfast during the Christmas of 1917 between Ireland and a North of England select. A Scotland – England match was also arranged between the Vickers works of Barrow and the Beardmore works in Glasgow. One of the organisers was Dorothée Pullinger a draftsperson with the Avro-Johnston car manufacturer in Paisley before being transferred to Barrow during 1916 as the female administrator for the Vickers works. With the factories football side she was involved with arranging a trip to Newcastle’s St James Park to take on Armstrong Whitworth’s representatives for the ‘Championship of the North’.
Pullinger had connections with the Beardmore Company and so a sudo Scotland v England international was organised for March 2nd 1917 at Celtic Park. The Scotland team were selected after trials from the various Beardmore works in Lanarkshire but despite a good start the side would struggle with Madge Dickenson doing much of the damage for Vickers in a 4-0 win. The Beardmore select would do better in Barrow for the return match a few weeks later and were leading 2-1 when a last minute goal saved a draw for the Vickers side.
Beardmore's Scotland select side 1918. Reproduced with permission of Patrick Brennan.
The crowds these matches attracted were on the whole enthusiastic and supportive a far cry from the response the sides of the 1880s and 90s received in which riots were not unknown. But with the end of the war the expectation was for the football sides to break up and for the women to return to their traditional roles, the war years however had led to such social upheaval that the old post war certainties no longer existed. Before long many of the women who played as munitionettes had drifted into new sides formed in many cases to offer relief in the harsh post war climate, such as the coal crisis of 1920-21.
In 1921 the FA sought to curtail the women’s game by prohibiting them use of the association’s affiliated grounds. The popular view is that game would go into hiatus until being revived again in the late 1960s. This however is largely a myth; women’s football did continue on with new stars such as Lily Parr, Linda Clements, Nellie Halstead and Nancy Thomson and during the late 1930s it even had its own World Championships. On June 19th 1939 20,000 people crammed into St Bernards ground in Edinburgh to see the Edinburgh City Girls thrash Dick Kerr’s successor Preston Ladies 5-2 to take the title. Women’s football was just as prevalent during the second war as it was during the first though the big stadiums were out of bounds and the Scottish Football Association’s own attempt at outlawing the women’s game in 1947 didn’t curtail the sport in the way they might have hoped, the genie was out of the bottle and it wasn’t for going back in.
Stuart Gibbs is a Glasgow School of Art graduate with a connection to women's football through voluntary work with Queens Park Ladies. He has been involved with numerous exhibitions on the subject such as 'Moving the Goalposts', 'First Ladies of Football' and recently 'A Game for Girls' which was shown at the Annan Museum, Scottish Parliament and Devil's Porridge Museum. He was also involved with the 'Football and the Great War' exhibition at the Scottish Football Museum.
Sports Minister Aileen Campbell at Scottish Parliament exhibition for women's football.