For Club and Country – Women and Football in the First World WarWoodland Trust
One hundred years ago, professional and amateur footballers chose to swap their boots for battle and become heroes of a different kind by fighting for their country in the trenches of the First World War.
Although the British Government had initially allowed professional football to continue after the start of the war in an attempt to maintain morale at home, it became clear that the war was not going to end quickly and, therefore, this had to end. In 1915, the Football Association prohibited the payment of players. In 1914 and 1915 two pals battalions of footballers were formed – the 17th (Service) and 23rd (Service) Battalions of the Middlesex Regiment. Throughout the conflict, several thousand professional footballers went to the frontline.
These men were supported by women who took up roles in munitions production, farming, forestry and other industries in order to meet growing demands for resources both at home and on the frontline. They also formed their own football teams to assist the war effort and raise funds for charity.
Although women’s football had been played before the First World War, it had not been well received. As the war progressed, however, the women’s game became more popular, with football teams emerging from the munitions factories in particular. Initially, the novelty of women’s football was used to attract spectators to raise money for war charities. As more teams formed, people started to enjoy the matches for the skill and ability demonstrated by the players and the women’s game became increasingly competitive.
By 1917, in the North-East a Munitionettes Cup had been established and was won by Blyth Spartans. Bella Reay scored a hat trick in the final taking her to over 130 goals for the season. Indeed, the player’s love of the game was such that on one occasion Blyth Spartan winger Jennie Morgan is said to have gone straight from her wedding to play in a match (at which she then went on to score twice!)
Dick, Kerr’s Ladies
The most well-known women’s football team of the period was Dick, Kerr’s Ladies, a team of 11 factory workers from Preston in Lancashire. Founded in 1917, their first match was attended by 10,000 people. On Boxing Day in 1920, over 50,000 people went to Goodison Park football ground in Liverpool to watch them play. Thousands more were locked out of the ground. Dick, Kerr’s Ladies were an exceptional team and they remain one of the most successful women’s football teams of all time.
One of the best known players of the Dick, Kerr’s Ladies football team was Lily Parr. At 6ft tall (1.83m), she was remarkable in many ways. She scored more than 1,000 goals during her 31-yearplaying career and, of those, 34 were in her first season when she was aged just 14. She had a shot so hard she once broke the arm of a professional male goalkeeper.
Women’s football after the First World War
But these were also exceptional times and women’s football at this level was not to continue. With the end of the war, the factories closed and women who had been galvanised and liberated during wartime found themselves being expected to quietly return to domestic life and resume their proper ‘place’ in society.
On 5th December 1921, the Football Association cited strong opinions about football’s unsuitability for women and instructed its clubs “to refuse the use of their grounds for such matches”. The ban changed the course of the women’s game forever and was not lifted until 1971. The first official European Championship was held in Sweden in 1984 and the inaugural World Cup took place in 1991. At the 2012 Olympic Final at Wembley Stadium, a record-breaking crowd of over 80,000 was in attendance. In 2002, Lily Parr was inducted into the National Football Museum Hall of Fame.
Almost 100 years later, women’s football is finally attracting the support and attention experienced by their predecessors. “These pioneering women not only managed to achieve phenomenal success and recognition, but they did it at a time when it would have seemed nigh on impossible. They defied society, changed the mind-set of a nation and took women’s football to unprecedented new heights, all within a couple of years.”
Through the For Club and Country project, the Woodland Trust is working in partnership with the National Football Museum to create a woodland memorial to football in the First World War. We are paying tribute to the footballers, fans and officials who fought and died for their country and the women footballers who kept the flame of football burning brightly through the dark days of war. In 2017, to coincide with Centenary of the first deployment of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps and International Women’s Day, the British Army FA Women’s football team created a film to commemorate footballers who went to war.
With special thanks
With thanks to Claire Martin, Centenary Woods (First World War) Programme Manager for sharing this story.
For Club and Country is one of several diverse projects encompassed by the Centenary Woods (First World War) Programme being run by the Woodland Trust. These include the creation of four dedicated Centenary Woods, engaging over 100 individual landowners to plant a First World War wood, providing schools and communities with free trees to tracing the Verdun Oaks. For more information visit the Woodland Trust website.