Football is a game of two halves but the sport’s male-dominated history only tells half the story. Dick, Kerr Ladies FC – the most successful ever women’s team – formed during the First World War at the Dick, Kerr & Co factory in Preston, Lancashire. They have remained unsung heroines but will finally be honoured this Christmas to mark their centenary.
When men went to fight on the Western Front in 1914-1918, gender roles changed dramatically. An increased number of women worked in factories across the country, which had been temporarily converted into munition works. They too put their lives at risk, spending long hours in dangerous environments to meet the demands of the war effort.
“It was a difficult time for everyone,” says Gail Newsham, author of In a League of Their Own! Dick, Kerr Ladies Football Club 1917-1965, which chronicles the team’s history. “Women were the nation’s hidden army and without them we wouldn’t have won the war.”
“The team thought they’d been banned out of jealousy because they were getting bigger crowds.”
The women played football during their breaks from work, providing a relief from the precarious conditions inside. Before the war, women’s football was already established but hadn’t been well received. With the men’s league temporarily suspended, competitive women’s charity matches were played on league grounds to aid wounded soldiers and their families. Whilst Dick, Kerr Ladies FC weren’t the first team to play, they proved to be the best.
On Christmas Day 1917 they debuted at Deepdale, the home of Preston North End, in front of 10,000 spectators, beating Arundel Coulthard Factory 4-0 in the first of many victories. The team was managed by Alfred Frankland, an office worker at the factory. He strengthened the squad by recruiting players from rival teams, including winger Lilian “Lily” Parr, the first woman inducted into the English Football Hall of Fame.
The matches boosted community spirit during hard times and often held personal significance for the young players. “Some of the girls had lost brothers during the war so it was a double-edged sword for them,” explains Newsham, who began unearthing the team’s story after organising a team reunion during the Preston Guild celebrations in 1992.
Momentum gathered as the talents of the women were given the limelight. They continued to play to large crowds after the war ended, backed by the Football Association (FA). On Boxing Day 1920 their dominance culminated with 53,000 spectators cramming into Goodison Park – the home of Everton FC – for their game against St Helen’s Ladies, with 14,000 more turned away outside.
Earlier that year, they had also paved the way for women’s international football by hosting a Parisian team for a series of matches, followed by a reciprocal tour to France, from which they returned unbeaten. But by now, the post-war patriarchy had remerged.
Newsham, having spoken to former players, feels that the continuing popularity of women’s football resulted in a negative change of opinion from the FA. “They had been very supportive,” she says. “Teams were allowed to play and then all of a sudden women’s football had brought the game into disrepute.”
On 5 December 1921, women’s teams were banned from playing games at all FA-affiliated grounds, effectively changing the course of women’s football forever. The consensus among the players was that its popularity threatened some members of the men’s game. There was no longer room for women on the field.
“The team thought they’d done it out of jealousy because they were getting bigger crowds,” says Newsham, who began playing in defence for Preston Rangers WFC (now Fylde Ladies FC) in the early 1970s before turning football historian. “There was also the opinion that women should be in the kitchen and all of those sorts of attitudes.”
Dick, Kerr Ladies FC continued to play despite the ban, including a successful tour against men’s teams in the US.
“They couldn’t attract a bigger crowd because they didn’t have the stadiums to fill, but still attracted thousands of spectators wherever they went,” says Newsham. “Even the ladies who played after the Second World War said it was a regular thing to get over 5,000 watching them. The crowds were always there.”
The women continued to play despite the ban, including a successful tour against men’s teams
Following a dispute over ownership, the club changed its name to Preston Ladies FC in 1926, continuing under Frankland’s management. After his death in 1957, the role was undertaken by Kath Latham, who had assisted her predecessor with secretarial duties. Sadly, after decades of continued success, the lack of resources and exposure, plus difficulties in attracting new players, led to the club’s demise in 1965.
Shortly afterwards, England won the World Cup in 1966. The Women’s Football Association (WFA) was then formed in 1969 and – with help from the European football authority Uefa – the FA finally lifted its ban in 1971. This period marked the resurgence of women’s football globally, but after 50 years of inequality it had been greatly hindered.
Today, the effects of the ban still prevail and it will never be known how things might’ve been different without it. The men’s game continues to dominate the press despite recent achievements in women’s football, including Team GB’s quarter-final appearance at the London Olympics 2012 and England’s recent semi-final appearance at Euro 2017. Newsham acknowledges that change is an uphill struggle. “I am encouraged, but I think there is still a long way to go with attitudes in this country because people have been spoon-fed this idea that football is not a game for women.”
On 22 December, Dick, Kerr Ladies FC will be commemorated with the unveiling of a permanent tribute at Deepdale – the finale to a series of centenary events celebrating the club. It has been funded by seven founder sponsors including – under a new generation of management – the FA. The exact design of the tribute is a closely guarded secret.
Newsham hopes it will help raise awareness and motivate the next generation of female footballers.
“We wanted to tell the story and honour the women. There will be a roll of honour for everybody that ever played for the team. The goal is to get these women recognised.
“People comment to me that they read my book and Lily Parr is now their hero. How fantastic is that? There’s still a lot to be done, but it’s wonderful that people are now looking up to these women.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for the team to inspire others because when people hear about their playing record, they gasp. I hope that girls would want to emulate them.”
The club played 828 games during its 48-year history, winning 758, drawing 46 and losing just 24. Their story defies the odds and is considered by many to form part of a forgotten golden era of women’s football. But with the FA ban ensuring that this era was short-lived, was it truly forgotten or perhaps ignored instead?
“I think ‘buried’ is probably a better word because the people who played didn’t forget. They passed the story on to their families, although they didn’t talk about it a great deal – they just got on with their lives afterwards.
“It’s been football’s best kept secret, but it’s just wonderful that they’re not forgotten anymore.”
In a League of Their Own! by Gail Newsham is available now.
Behind the ban
On 5 December 1921, women’s football made the headlines for the wrong reasons. The press waited in anticipation for the outcome of the all-male FA council meeting. It unanimously voted to impose a ban on members allowing their grounds to be used for women’s games, sealing the fate of the game for the next 50 years. Alongside all-women’s teams, the FA had made Dick, Kerr Ladies FC the victims of their own success.
The meeting minutes read: “Complaints having been made as to football being played by women, the council feel impelled to express their strong opinion that the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged.
“Complaints have also been made as to the conditions under which some of these matches have been arranged and played, and the appropriation of receipts to other than charitable objects.
“The council are further of the opinion that an excessive proportion of the receipts are absorbed in expenses and an inadequate percentage devoted to charitable objects.
“For these reasons the council request clubs belonging to the association to refuse the use of their grounds for such matches.”
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