The wartime women footballers: Remembering the days when 50,000 fans would turn out to watch

 

It may be hard to believe now, but the beautiful game was dominated by women almost a century ago, after a generation of male footballers was sent to fight, and die, in the First World War.

For women had not only taken on the work done by the hundreds of thousands of men sent to the trenches, but their sporting activities too.

Ladies teams, named after the munitions factories in which they worked, sprang up across the country. They filled a vacuum which had been left by the sheer numbers of men who had left the country. Many never made it back and with men’s football teams decimated by the casualties of war, the Football League suspended all of its matches at the end of the 1914/15 season.

And while women played in skirts, not shorts, and were originally treated as a novelty - their skills and ability soon saw them taken seriously, with huge crowds coming to watch them play.

Around 53,000 fans watched a Boxing Day match in 1920 between St Helens Ladies and Dick, Kerr Ladies at Goodison Park – a crowd bigger than most teams in the premiership can attract today.

The best women’s football team at that time was Dick, Kerr Ladies in Preston, which was founded in 1917. Its star player Lily Parr was the greatest goal scorer in England history – male or female. She scored more than a thousand goals during a 31-year stint at the club between 1920 and 1951. Her achievements were finally recognised in 2002, when she was inducted into the National Football Museum’s Hall of Fame in 2002.

The legacy of the forgotten women’s footballers from the home front will be recognised in a number of special programmes being broadcast tomorrow. Accounts of how women replaced men not only in the workplace, but also on the football pitch, are among a vast collection of 1,400 stories to commemorate the Great War, part of the biggest season of programming ever commissioned by the BBC.

Amanda Mason, a historian at the Imperial War Museum, said: “During the First World War, more than 900,000 women worked in munitions factories. Most factories employed a welfare officer to monitor the health, wellbeing and behaviour of their new female work force. Sport, especially football, was encouraged.”

Patrick Brennan, author of "The Munitionettes: A history of Women’s Football in the North-East during the First World War" said: “For a few short minutes on a Saturday afternoon the girls, and the spectators, could escape from the horrors of war.”

Yet in 1921, the Football Association killed off the rise of women’s football by effectively banning clubs from allowing women’s games to be played at their grounds.

Mr Brennan added: “Because of the FA’s attitude the women’s game gradually disappeared and it wasn’t until the 1960s that the women’s game revived. In 1971 it was recognised by the FA that they could no longer ban women from their grounds and the game has grown from there. If there hadn’t been the ban in 1921 who knows, women’s football may even have come to rival the men’s game.”

The modern women’s game is making up for lost ground, with 30,000 people watching FA Women’s Super League matches last season. More women play football than any other team sport and women’s football is the third largest participation team sport in England, after men’s football and men’s cricket. A million viewers watched the FA Women’s Cup final on TV last year.

And an increasing recognition of the achievements of the wartime women’s football teams is inspiring a new generation of professional women footballers.

England international striker Ellen White, who has more than 40 caps and played in the Great Britain team at London 2012, said: “They are inspirational women, the amount of people who went to the games was just phenomenal and we aspire to have that many people watch us. I’m definitely inspired by them.”

The 25-year-old is confident that the women’s game will continue to grow: “The amount of people we had at the Olympics was amazing, there were about 70,000 people at Wembley. The interest is definitely there.”

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen