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Early women’s football films

February 17, 2013
Dick Kerr Ladies football team

The Dick, Kerr women’s football team. They were England’s unofficial team and raised a fortune for charity

British Pathe has pulled together a set of 51 short newsreel films about female football teams as part of the English  FA’s 150th anniversary.

They are intriguing for a number of reasons – not least because of the FA’s ban on women playing which lasted until 1971.

The full collection is available here. The earliest clips show female teams playing in London parks. The changes brought by war in 1914 saw women drafted en masse into factories to do the work  men did before heading off to fight.

Early caricature of female footballers from 1895, courtesy of Spartacus

Early caricature of female footballers from 1895, courtesy of Spartacus

They also took on male sports, often as a morale booster. This  may account for relatively high proportion of pre-1919 clips.

The women’s teams are drawn from workers from munitions factories, the Handley Page aircraft works and other ad-hoc groups.   They played to raise money for forces’ charities, the restoration of Rheims Cathedral and in the north east for the welfare of miners’ children in the 1926 strike.

They tended to wear hats or scarves and matches were kicked off not by teams but by the referee or a celebrity. Training could be unorthodox – boxing and horse riding are shown here.

What is surprising is the large crowds in many of  the films and the international range: France, South Africa, Germany and Australia.

As sound comes in, the tone becomes more patronising or titillating  – bare female knees and thighs on show were something of a rarity then. There is also some second-rate schoolboy sniggering and rather weary references to Eve playing Adam’s game but newsreel commentaries were not noted for their originality nor their aversion to cliché.

One team stands out was based in Preston, Lancashire,  the works outfit of the tram and locomotive manufacturers set up by William Bruce Dick and John Kerr. Both were Scots – not surprising since Scotland then was the world’s leader in taking football around the world (ah, how things have changed….) Kerr was from East Lothian and was elected as Preston’s Conservative MP in 1903. Dick died in Sevenoaks two years later. The team was formed in 1915 by which time the factory had also turned to making munitions.

Some of the Pathe clips are pulled together in this video which tells their story really well:

A key influence was their coach, Alfred Franklin. The team went on tour to Canada but weren’t allowed to play by the Canadian Football Association, following the lead of the English FA in 1921 , backed by the other home associations who viewed women as a threat and effectively banned them from club grounds for the next 50 years.

french women's football 1920s

Women’s’ football in France, which fielded international teams from 1920, Courtesy, Wikipedia

Undaunted, the Dick, Kerr ladies headed south to the USA, playing men’s teams.  And the club itself went on to compete until 1965.  There was never any doubting the quality of their play. Matt Busby rated Val Walsh the best player he had ever seen in his life, and,  had she been a man, he would have immediately signed her up to play for Manchester United.  This might have given a new perspective on the Busby Babes.

In recent years, there has been a wealth of digital history interest in this area.  Gail Newsham blazed the trail with her seminal work on Dick, Kerr. Colin Jose provides a good account of the 1922 tour here.  Spartacus, as ever, is excellent, providing some primary sources  and there are also some evocative images here.

So plenty to explore and watch on the distaff contribution to the Beautiful Game…..

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