Before Sam Kerr There Was Dick Kerr – How the Women’s game was destroyed and is still recovering 100 years on
Five million men. Equivalent to the entire population of Ireland or New Zealand were conscripted, or volunteered, for the wanton slaughter in the bogging, dank and diseased, muddy morass, that was the killing fields of the First World War.
In 1915 Men’s football was suspended as clubs saw their squads depleted by players going off to fight, many of which never returned. It wasn’t until 1919 that the domestic league programme resumed.
Football at Christmas is a very British tradition with Boxing Day one of the key fixtures in the football calendar and not just the festive one.
In Victorian times Christmas Day was an occasion for public events and that included football and remained so right into the 1950s. It was then that Clubs rightly contested that the 25th should be a family day and as a consequence matches have since been played on Boxing Day.
53,000 at Goodison Park
If I told you that on Boxing Day 1920 a crowd of 53,000 attended a game at Goodison Park with a further 10 to 15,000 locked outside you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a Merseyside derby. It was in fact a women’s football match between Dick Kerr Ladies and St Helens.
To put that figure into context their male compeers Everton had entertained Arsenal the day before in front of 50,000 spectators. The FA Cup Final earlier that year at Stamford Bridge between Aston Villa and Huddersfield Town also attracted a crowd of 50,000.
The Women’s game was proving just as popular as the Men’s.
With the men away confronting a war of unprecedented death & destruction, women were needed to step up and plug the gaps in the workforce. They filled roles in Farming, Shipbuilding, the Police Force and the Postal Service to name a few.
However, the majority of vacancies were in the newly formed munitions factories. The women who were employed in them became known as “Munitioneers” or “Canary Girls” a nickname given due to their exposure to the toxin TNT. Whereby repeated contact could turn the skin orange/yellow in colour.
Approximately 900,000 women worked in munitions factories up & down Britain. One, in particular, was Dick Kerr & Co Works on Strand Road, Preston. A locomotive and Tram Car Manufacturer, who like many others, had to adapt their business to support the war effort.
As many as 8,000 people were employed by Dick Kerr, 2,000 of them being women from which the Dick Kerr Ladies football team was assembled and founded. They became the cornerstone of women’s football in England.
In 1917 there was a downturn in the production of munitions which may have been due to Britain being overstocked. In that year the 76 million shells produced was 150 times greater than the quantity made in 1914.
Exercise and particularly sports were greatly encouraged for all during the war to maintain a healthy mind & body – boosting morale. Women who were part of the war effort were cajoled into taking part. “Canary Girls” did so too, as much as anything to escape the humdrum and noise of the factory floor. Together with the men, they would congregate outside for casual kickabouts and matches during their breaks.
It was their seemingly natural ability as players and gradual improvement, that saw them eventually beating their male colleagues. Alfred Frankland an Office Clerk who would spectate from an upstairs window was inspired and decided to form a proper ladies’ team.
Development under Frankland’s tutelage was rapid. After a number of informal games, he arranged a Christmas Day charity match at Deepdale, home of Preston North End, against fellow Munitioneers- Arundel Coulthard.
It was a decision influenced by Dick Kerr’s men’s side’s participation in a charity game they played there themselves on Easter Monday 1917. A game attended by thousands of spectators.
A crowd of 10,000, which was mostly male due no doubt to a dearth of sport, in particular football, saw them run out 4-0 winners against Arundel. Nevertheless, the game produced gate receipts of £600, equating to £120,000 in today’s money.
In a male dominant era that had prejudices towards women (they didn’t get the vote until 1928 despite the efforts of the Suffragettes) the women’s game was very well received and appreciated by men for its quality.
Hazardesque Jennie Harris
Dick Kerr’s players included Florrie Redford the poster girl of the team who became a regular feature in the newspapers and as the team’s centre forward she was prolific in front of goal. Redford could generate tremendous power when shooting, in a time when a regular leather football would have seemed like an atlas stone by today’s standards.
The diminutive and “Hazardesque” Jennie Harris, a skilful dribbler with quick feet at Centre-half there was the towering figure of Jessie Walmsley, a reassuring presence at the back comparable to Tony Adams – best refer to google images for that one.
They played around 35 matches over the next two years including a game against Newcastle United ladies in 1919 that drew a crowd of 35,000. Indeed women’s football was very popular in the North East where teams would compete for the Munitions Cup, won by Blyth Spartans in 1918. Blyth who trained on the beach and would receive coaching from Sailors whose ships were docked nearby.
No Premium Phoneline Charges
Dick Kerr matches were played for Charities. Ex-servicemen’s funds and in particular, for those who came home from the war incapacitated and unable to work. They also collected for the local war hospital. Apart from expenses, all the money went to the various funds they raised for. No premium phoneline charges in those days.
In Alfred Frankland, they had an astute and enterprising manager. On the rare occasion, and they were very rare indeed, that his side were beaten, Frankland would poach the best players from his opponents. He would also secure the services of the top players from any side that ceased playing after the war ended.
From St Helens, he brought in Alice Woods and the quite exceptional 14yr old that was Lily Parr whom he persuaded with an offer of 10 shillings per game (about a hundred quid in today’s money) and a job at the Dick Kerr factory.
Frankland had built a formidable team. A strong physical side who were also well skilled in their craft and their growing reputation would be enhanced when they met ‘La Femina’ the French National side.
He seized upon an offer in the press from the French Federation inviting ladies football clubs to take them on in a tour of England. Surprisingly, Frankland was the only one to take them up on the challenge and a four-game series was scheduled.
N’est ce pas?
“They are big, strong and powerful n’est ce pas?” replied La Femina’s starlet Madelaine Bracquemond when giving her opinion of the Dick Kerr girls upon arriving in England.
Indeed despite being pooled from the creme de la creme in French football they were physically challenged when compared to their English opponents. Plus they were used to smaller pitches and lighter balls.
Smaller in stature and quite petite they also came up short on the technical side and were comprehensively beaten 2-0 & 5-2 in the first two games. However, seemingly getting a foothold thereafter they played out a goalless draw in the penultimate match and won the last match 2-1 at Stamford Bridge.
A defeat that a few of the Dick Kerr side felt was down to complacency. Something they couldn’t be accused of in their next game: a 9-1 thrashing of a Rest of Britain team.
In the autumn of that year Dick Kerr Ladies made the trip to France for a return series and after a 1-1 draw won the remaining three fixtures 2-0 6-0 & 2-0. An emphatic aggregate of eleven goals for, against a solitary goal, conceded.
Both series were played in good spirits and friendships were formed between both sets of players. In fact, team manager Alfred Frankland, true to form, persuaded another starlet to make the move to Dick Kerr Ladies. This time it was Carmen Pomies and the French player moved to Preston taking up employment thanks to Frankland in the offices of Whittingham hospital & Asylum in the town.
Atleti’ vs Barca
The final highlight of 1920 was that Boxing Day match at Goodison. A game that saw a record crowd attend. A record gate for a ladies’ game that stood for almost a century and was only surpassed by Atletico Madrid and Barcelona’s match in 2019 which had 60,739 spectators.
Dick Kerr as was par for the course, ran out 4-0 winners over St Helens despite suffering a prematch setback. Goal machine Florrie Redford had missed her train to Liverpool and as a result the match. Unperturbed they took to the pitch with defender Alice Kell filling in as a makeshift striker. She followed up Jeannie Harris’ first-half strike with a second-half hat trick.
The Daily Post wrote:
‘Dick Kerr were not long in showing that they suffered less than their opponents from stage fright and they had a better all-round understanding of the game. Their forward work indeed was often surprisingly good, one or two of the ladies showing quite admirable ball control.’
In 1921 Frankland organised tours of Ireland & Scotland where they continued to raise money for local war charities.
In that same year, he refused 120 invitations from all over Britain, yet Dick Kerr still played 67 matches in front of 900,000 people. The self-proclaimed World Champions, following their victories over France, were in great demand as well as practically invincible.
However then came a bombshell moment on the 5th of December 1921 that sent shockwaves through Dick Kerr ladies and women’s football alike. This was the day the FA announced its ban on football under their umbrella.
The women’s game had been blown off course and blasted into the wilderness of playing fields and parks.
This was no overnight decision. The FA had done its homework and produced a comprehensive report supported by Politicians and ‘selected’ Harley Street Consultants as to why the game of football was unsuitable for women. Incredibly, they further justified their actions by falsely claiming that those who played the game were all lesbians.
They passed rules barring any male professional club that operated under the FA from hosting ladies’ matches in their stadiums. Nor were any FA officials such as referees and linesmen permitted to officiate women’s football. Domestic football’s governing body had turned out the lights in the time it took to flick the switch.
The FA also claimed concern that all the money raised didn’t go to charity:
“That an excessive proportion of the receipts are absorbed in expenses and an inadequate percentage devoted to charitable objects”
This was far removed from the truth when you consider the vast sums Dick Kerr ladies raised.
As Alice Kell justifiably pointed out.
“It is impossible for the working girls to afford to leave work to play matches all over the country and be the losers. I see no reason why we should not be recompensated for loss of time at work. No one ever receives more than 10 shillings per day.”
“A Heavy Day’s Washing”
In a futile attempt to try and overturn the ban Frankland invited Dr Mary Lowry to a game and her verdict was.
“football is no more likely to cause injury to a woman than a heavy day’s washing.”
The Captain of Huddersfield Atalanta said.
“If football were dangerous some ill effects would have been seen by now. I know that all our girls are healthier and speaking personally, I feel worlds better than I did a year ago. Housework isn’t half the trouble it used to be, because there is always Saturday’s game and the weeknights training to freshen me up.”
Gail Newsham, a former player herself, was born in Preston and has put together an extensive history of Dick Kerr Ladies. She sums up the sheer unfairness of the FA’s decision and how devastating it must have been.
“What drives me mad is the injustice of it. Imagine saying to Kelly Smith or Megan Rapinoe, or any of the players today. ‘That’s it you’re not playing anymore, you’re banned. Nobody’s going to remember it, whatever you’ve done, it doesn’t matter, nobody is going to care or remember!’ Imagine that. You can’t imagine how they would feel, can you? But that’s what happened to them.”
Due to its lack of exposure interest in the women’s game dwindled. Consequently, receipts did too and very little was raised for charities despite Dick Kerr Ladies carrying on.
The Beginning of the End
In 1922 Frankland took his team to America. The core players Jennie Harris, Alice Kell, Lily Parr, Florrie Redford, Jessie Walmsley and the French recruit Carmen Pomies made the tour. Having been barred from touring Canada they were welcomed into the USA but they were pitched against men’s teams. Still, they lost only three of their nine games. Redford again weighed in with the goals finishing as the leading scorer, but it was Lily Parr who won the plaudits for some outstanding performances.
As the years passed Dick Kerr Ladies became Preston Ladies, just as Dick Kerr the company became English Electric. Whilst the new company allowed the club to use Ashton Park they refused to subsidise them and also denied Alfred Frankland time off to manage his team.
Frankland left English Electric to open a Greengrocers shop but continued to manage Preston Ladies right up until ill health forced him to step down in 1955. He sadly died two years later.
He claimed that during his time as team manager his side played 643 games losing just eight whilst raising what would be in today’s money £2.6m.
Players of course came and went over the years as well as leaving their posts at English Electric. However, Whittingham Hospital & Asylum which had benefitted from Dick Kerr’s donations repaid the likes of Lily Parr, Florrie Redford and Jessie Walmsley with employment and accommodation.
FA Lifts Ban
Almost 50 years after imposing the ban, the FA lifted it in 1970 following huge pressure.
However, it was seemingly too late. Sadly, just five years after Preston Ladies ceased to exist.
Another 50 yrs on and we have a Women’s Super League and a National team who recently won the European Championship at Wembley in front of a capacity crowd. While a further 17.5m watched it live on television.
The women’s game is progressing. There is no doubt about that. The standard is very good and continues to improve. Some of Europe’s best talent graces the league. The work to grow the game is tireless and it’s getting greater recognition with TV exposure in particular.
Only two teams in the top division, play in the same stadiums as their male counterparts (Leicester and Reading) and when the Foxes’ games clash, the men are prioritised, forcing the women to play at Burton Albion’s Pirelli Stadium 40 miles away.
100 years on, in the 2019/20 season, average attendance for a WSL fixture was around 3,000, with some clubs only getting between 500 and 1000 spectators per game.
At grassroots more & more young girls are taking up the game and whilst they may be inspired by the likes of Sam Kerr, Vivianne Miedema, Lucy Bronze, and Beth Mead they should also be inspired by the Florrie Redfords’ the Jessie Walmsleys’ and Lily Parrs’ for what they did for the game and people in general.
The travesty for women’s football is in effect the 50 years that were lost and one can only wonder where the ladies’ game would be now if it wasn’t for the misogynistic council that the FA was all those years ago.
Lost generations of players. How many Laura Hemps’, Ella Toones’ and Alice Kells’ have been denied and us denied the chance to watch them?