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An Unsuitable Game For Female Footballers

On 23 March 1895, at Crouch End in London, a group of female footballers came together and played a women’s football match. It took place between North and South England. It had been organized by Nettie Honeyball, who became the first secretary of the English Ladies Football Team.

The score was 7-1 to the North, and a crowd of 10,000 spectators turned up to watch. It was a novelty or a bit of harmless fun for some. Others believed soccer games between female footballers were out of the question. But some observers gave more encouragement, and the game grew in popularity.

Women’s Football In Yorkshire

Soccer matches were organized in the North and Midlands throughout 1895. However, the first-ever soccer match at Bradford City’s ground (Valley Parade) was played on 5 May 1895. It was an exhibition organized by the Bradford Ladies Football Club between the Reds and the Blues in front of around 1,600 spectators. This was four years before the formation of the Bradford and District Football Association and eight years before the birth of Bradford City.

The ‘experiment’ was short-lived as by the end of the century, interest was waning. The cause was not helped by the Council of the Football Association, which instructed its members in 1902 not to play matches against female footballers.

WW1 And Female Footballer Revival

The First World War brought about a revival and acceleration in the number of teams and games being organized. Women filled gaps in industry and agriculture as more men went to war. Many worked in dangerous munition factories. Their working experience led to greater independence and bonding, which led to the organization of team games.

Throughout the country, but especially in the North, female footballers began organizing soccer teams. There was a wide variety of backgrounds among the players. Mrs. Ada Beaumont, who played for a Huddersfield Ladies’ sports club, Atalanta, was concerned that the club might be full of higher-class women. However, these initial fears soon subsided, leading her to comment that the factory workers dominated. Factories encouraged women’s teams by providing pitches and facilities.

It was felt that it would not only help to keep them healthy but would also boost morale at work. So, in September 1917, a match was arranged at Bradford Park Avenue’s ground, between Thwaites Brothers Ltd, an ironworks in Thornton Road, and Phoenix Dynamo Manufacturing Ltd. Charity matches were being played to raise money for wounded service members and the families of those killed in action.

Big Losses

The Bradford Pals had suffered significant losses, especially at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Nine footballers who had played for Bradford City and two Park Avenue players were killed in the war.

Peter O’Rourke, who was the manager of the Bradford City winning team in 1911, was a great supporter of female footballers. Most Bradford works teams seem to have disbanded after the war, but the Manningham (or Lister’s) Ladies was formed in 1921. Most of the players had played for the mill’s hockey team. The mill owners financed the club, and subscriptions were deducted from the workers’ wages.

There was public interest when Manningham was due to play Dick Kerrs Ladies from Preston at Valley Parade. They were the most outstanding team of the period.

Dick Kerr Ladies

Dick Kerr’s was an engineering works which had switched over to making munitions. Like other women’s teams, they had raised substantial amounts of money for charity. Between 1917 and 1923, £70,000 went to veterans, hospitals, and poor children.

In preparation for the match at Valley Parade, a practice match took place on the Manningham Mill’s playing fields. The local press became interested and came down to take photographs. The Manningham team had a female footballer called Holden, described as “the Dickie Bond of the team.” Bond was one of the most popular players ever to play for Bradford City.

The captain was a Miss Derry who, along with a teammate, Bogg, had played for the Yorkshire and Lancashire team, which lost 7-0 to Dick Kerr Ladies the previous week at Leeds. The match was watched by 26,000 and raised £1,700 for the Railway Benevolent Association.

The fixture at Valley Parade took place on 13 April 1921, with City’s captain, George Robinson, refereeing, and other City players, Frank O’Rourke and Dickie Bond, running the lines. In front of a crowd of about 15,000, the Preston team won 6-0. £900 was raised and split between Bradford Hospitals and the Earl Haigh Fund for former service members.

Female Footballers Dining Together

After the game, the female footballers dined together at the Great Northern Victoria Hotel then went to a show at the Alhambra Theatre. The Manningham Ladies team seems to have been disbanded shortly afterward, but it inspired another Bradford team, Hey’s Brewery Ladies on Lumb Lane.

The women’s club had links with Bradford City as members of the brewery’s board were also on the Bradford City board. They played Dick Kerr Ladies at Valley Parade on 19 October 1921 in aid of the Lifeboat Fund. Two linesmen were involved in the game: Bradford City’s goalkeeper and Scottish international Frank O’Rourke. The score was 4-1 to Dick Kerr’s. The attendance was 4,070, and £184 was raised.

Yorkshire Championship

On Boxing Day 1921, Hey’s met the previously unbeaten Doncaster Ladies for ‘the championship of Yorkshire,’ which they won by five goals. Then, on 7 January 1922, they met Dick Kerr Ladies again at Wakefield Workpeoples Hospital Fund’s aid at Wakefield Trinity’s Belle Vue ground.

Before a crowd of about 5,000 spectators, the Dick Kerr Ladies team took the lead after ten minutes. It was a close game, and with five minutes to go, E Jackson, the little center-forward, produced a brilliant shot to equalize. However, Dick Kerr Ladies rode the pressure in the closing minutes to hang on to their unbeaten record.

A rematch was arranged at the Greenfield Stadium athletics ground where the Bradford Northern Rugby League Club had played in 1907-8. It was to be played in aid of the Manningham Soldiers Fund, but it had to be postponed due to heavy snow. Eventually, it was played on 18 February 1922, and the teams drew 4-4.

Hey’s Ladies

Hey’s Brewery Ladies were vast, becoming the female footballing stars of women’s soccer and taking the crown from Dick Kerr Ladies. Bradford was the first city to host the English Ladies Challenge Cup Final, held there in 1922. In 1920-21, there was a Bradford Ladies League with two divisions.

Division One consisted of College Ladies, Old Hansonians, Bradford, Odsal, Undercliffe, Grange, Tartan, Shipley, Frizinghall, and Saltaire. Division Two comprised Sion, Bowling, Cawthorne, Tetley St, Phone Exchange, St Aidan’s, YMCA, Westgate, CM and M Ladies, and Eastbrook.

While most teams in the Bradford League played nine or ten games, Dick Kerr Ladies played almost 60 games that season. There was also more than one cup competition, including the Hospital Tournament. In the North East, teams played in the Munitionettes Cup.

In 1918, Bolckow Vaughan from Middlesbrough was beaten by Blyth Spartans at Ayresome Park in front of a crowd of 22,000. At the heart of its popularity, questions were being asked whether it was a suitable game for female footballers to play.

Female Footballers Health Warning

Some argued it could seriously damage women’s health. Dr. Arabella Kenealy warned football would affect the muscles of the shoulders and chest and the mammary glands. It would produce diseased and degenerate offspring and a “race of pallid and enfeebled babies and children.” It would eventually lead to a fall in the birth rate.

However, Dr. Mary Lowry argued it was no more harmful to women than a heavy day’s washing. Mrs. Barraclough, a female footballer and captain of Huddersfield Atalanta believed: “Soccer is not dangerous. Otherwise, some ill-effects would have been seen by now. It sure feels good to know that all of our girls are healthier than they were last year. Also, because of Saturday’s game and the weeknight training, housework isn’t as troublesome as it used to be.”

Many more accidents occurred there for those who claimed a woman’s place was in the home than on the football pitch. Female footballers played in charity matches to support the miners and their families during the coal dispute of 1921. Several games were played in the North East and South Yorkshire. But the women’s soccer game was coming in for criticism from men and women, even though in 1920 and 1921, the crowds were growing.

Bigger Crowds Than Men

In 1921, female footballers were playing in front of bigger crowds than many male professional teams. However, it was the Football Association’s stance that was to cause a significant setback. It was rumored that charity funds had been misappropriated. An investigation found no evidence of this.

Hey’s Ladies only charged for expenses for long journeys but were paid if they lost wages while playing. Insurance was paid to cover injuries. The team had cost the brewery £60 since its formation eight months earlier.

The FA passed the following resolution at a meeting on 5 December 1921: “Complaints having been made about female footballers. The Council feels compelled to express their strong opinion that the game is not suitable. Some matches have also been held under unfavorable conditions, with receipts and monies being allocated for noncharitable purposes.

The Ban On Female Footballers

For this reason, the Council requests the clubs belonging to the Association refuse the use of their grounds for such matches.” This ban on female footballers playing on Football League grounds was not lifted until May 1971. Whoever made complaints is uncertain, but it was probably part of a male conspiracy. Perhaps they felt threatened by a more independent post-war female generation who were reluctant to return to the traditional gender roles.

What is certain is that the FA’s action was to knock back progress in women’s football for several years. As a result, clubs faced mass desertion from players, and many folded. However, Dick Kerr Ladies, Huddersfield Atalanta, and Bath could continue because they had their grounds.

Around 150 Clubs

In December 1921, there were about 150 ladies’ football clubs in England. Most support came from the North and the Midlands. A meeting was held within a week of the ban in Blackburn when 25 clubs were represented, and the English Ladies Football Association was founded. By 1922, women’s matches were in less demand and tended to be part of festivals. However, competitions did exist for a while, particularly in the North of England.

The Bradford Charity Shield in 1922 attracted two teams from Huddersfield (Atalanta and Alexandra), Keighley, Doncaster, and Hey’s Ladies from Bradford. Matches were played at the Greenfield Stadium, Bradford and Hey’s defeated Doncaster in the final, 4-0. The victorious captain, Mabel Benson, received the shield from the Lord Mayor, Thomas Blythe.

In the same year, the Yorkshire Rugby Union was reluctant to give permission to stage a women’s soccer match at Lidget Green, Bradford, between Hey’s and a visiting French touring side. Mr. J Miller of Leeds opposed the application on the grounds that it was not a suitable game for female footballers and that they made a ridiculous display of themselves when playing it.

Get Back In The Kitchen

Huggard continued: “They respect and love their women, and, therefore, should not encourage them to do anything that would be unseemly or otherwise degrading to their position.” This view is in contrast to Arthur Hey’s. He described the FA’s interference as “amounting to impertinence.” He believed the FA was jealous of the girls encroaching on the male’s “sacred preserves.”

Nevertheless, he vigorously defended female footballers, emphasizing that “the girls enjoy playing football … and worked all the better for it, and were much better in health.” He told the Yorkshire Evening Post that Hey’s Ladies would continue for as long as the girls wanted to play despite the FA ban.

Because of the ban, the Women’s Cup Final scheduled for Bradford had to be relocated. After winning the Whitehead Lifeboat Shield in May 1922, 4-0, Hey’s Brewery Ladies seem to have gone out of existence abruptly. It is not clear why, but perhaps the women didn’t want to play anymore.

In 1925 they appeared to have taken up cricket and played in the Bradford Ladies Evening Cricket League. Nonetheless, the City of Bradford had made a significant contribution to the history of females playing football. Unfortunately, the game generally went into a state of ‘suspended animation’ before its popular revival from the late 1960s onwards.

References: Daily Sketch, The Sporting Man, Bradford Daily Argus, Belles of the Ball, Yorkshire Weekly Record, The Bradford Pals, Bradford Daily Telegraph, A Contemporary History of Women’s Sport, Feminism and Sex Extinction, A History of Women’s Football, A Game for Rough Girls: A History of Women’s Football in Britain, The Role of Ladies During the 1921 Miners’ Strike in Wigan and Leigh, Journal of the History of Sport, Yorkshire Evening Post, Manchester Guardian.

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