Charting the rise of women’s football in the region

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LADIES’ football made for a well presented subject by Patrick Brennan at Morpeth Antiquarian Society’s October meeting.

After setting the scene of wider social change in the late 19th Century, Patrick focused on his passion for football in the North East.

There had been international ladies’ football in the 1880s, a British Ladies’ Football Club formed in 1894, with a match played at St James’ Park in 1895.

With the onset of war in 1914, men’s professional football clubs suffered from loss of players and restrictions placed on travel and overnight stays away from home — the North East became isolated from other clubs in their league.

By 1915 there was a shortage of ammunition for the war; Lloyd George as head of munitions took over factories, but with a shortage of skilled male workers, semi-skilled men and women were recruited to work in the factories.

This was the first time that women had been employed in large numbers at single sites, their pay was better then ever before.

By 1918 there were over 1.8 million women munition workers in Britain, not only in munitions factories, but any work supporting the war effort.

The North East thirst for football was soon filled by Munitionettes, ladies’ football teams formed from various factories across the region.

In men versus women games, men had their hands tied behind their back.

Employers would pay wages to the teams and provide transport.

All matches raised money to support war-related charities.

Blyth Spartans Ladies became the superior team; they were possibly coached in practice sessions on the beach by Royal Navy men from the ships bringing in spent shell cases and other scrap for recycling.

Morpeth Post Office Girls were thrashed 8-0 at home, not fairing any better at Blyth.

Morpeth Girls were up against a strong side who won the 1917 cup; Blyth Spartans played 30, won 26, drew four matches.

Bella Reay – Wor Bella – had scored 133 goals for the Spartans that season.

Blyth players were dedicated; Jennie Morgan got married in the morning before a match, played later that day and scored two gaols.

A notable Morpeth lady footballer was Emma Hick, of 33 Oldgate.

Ladies started by wearing skirts when they played.

They soon changed to playing in trousers, then knee-breeches, before turning to shorts, which were called knickers.

They continued to wear mop-caps for most games.

Men were referees at ladies matches.

Teams were often supported by their factory medical staff and chaperoned by ‘Women Police’, who tried to curb drunkenness and immorality with men.

They were not that successful at preventing violence on or off the pitch; some blame the end of the Blaydon Races on violent women connected to football.

The Women Police would check workers for cigarettes and matches as they came to work and for taking materials away from the munitions factories.

During 1918 and 1919 the demand for shells reduced, the ladies were laid off.

They were expected to return to their pre-war jobs, but this was never to happen.

In 1921, ladies’ matches were banned from all Football Association grounds.

But ladies’ football saw a revival during the miners’ strikes of 1921 and 1926, raising funds for striking mine workers.

Ladies’ football has come a long way.

With recent successes in the London Olympics and current enthusiasm for the sport we hope to see more matches televised.

Do come along to the next Morpeth Antiquarian Society meeting tomorrow, in St James’s Community Centre, at 7.15pm.

The speaker will be Rex Clark – Northumberland’s Postal History before the Penny Black.