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How women’s football emerged from the munitions factories of WWI

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Hannah-Rose Yee
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Read the untold story of the women who stepped into the mens’ shoes in the factories and on the football pitch, too.  

On 18 May 1918, some 22,000 people crowded into the stands at Ayresome Park in North East England, the home of Middlesbrough F.C since its construction in 1903.

But the cheering fans hadn’t turned up to see men play. In fact, there were no local men’s football clubs at the time, since so many of the men in the area had joined the army to fight in World War I. The teams had all been disbanded. In their place was a network of female-only clubs, populated by women who had also stepped into male roles in the munitions factories, otherwise known as munitionettes.

So on 18 May it was two all-female teams who square off against each other in the final of the 1918 Munitionettes Cup. It was two all-female teams that for whom thousands and thousands of people cheered and bought tickets with their hard-earned cash to see. (Proceeds went to funding the war effort). 

On one side were the Bolkclow, Vaughn & Co team from Middlesbrough, so named after the factory in which the players worked. On the other was Blyth Spartans Ladies, formed the year before in July 1917 and led by 18-year-old Bella Reay and Jennie Morgan, who arrived to play at the stadium directly from her wedding ceremony. 

We wouldn’t have women’s football in the UK today without the munitionettes who worked in factories during WWI

Reay was a formidable player. Born in Cowpen, Northumberland, she was the daughter of a coal miner and eagerly accepted a job in a munitions factory during WWI. But she was also a natural with a football. She, along with her teammates, often took a football into the factory to kick around on their lunchbreak. In her first season with Blyth Spartans Ladies, Reay’s team were unbeaten in 33 games and she herself scored 133 times. 

In that Munitionettes Cup final in Ayresome Park, Reay scored a hat trick. Morgan, fresh from her wedding earlier that day, scored two goals, clinching the cup for Blyth Spartans Ladies 5-0. 

Reay’s story is just one of many, but one that is rarely told. Over the course of WWI between the years 1914-1918, more than 900,000 women joined the two million Brits already working in munitions factories making bombs, shells, bullets and cartridges imperative to the British war effort. Before the war, these jobs were considered ill-suited for women, but with the sheer number of men at the front, factories had no choice but to open their doors to female workers.

For many of these women it was the first job they had ever had and they relished the camaraderie, teamwork and occasionally a change in wardrobe. (Some factories allowed their female employees to wear trousers instead of long dresses.) 

Munitionettes worked in factories, making shells, casings and ammunition for the war 

“Working in munitions factories was dark, cold and dangerous, especially as the Munitionettes were handling explosives on a daily basis,” Ancestry’s genealogist Simon Pearce tells Stylist.co.uk. (To find out whether your ancestors worked as Munitionettes, or what their role was in the war, visit Ancestry for free access between 8 November and 12 November). “Munitionettes were often well paid, but worked long hours, seven days a week.”

Factory owners were concerned about the impact of such intense manual labour on their female employees. “Most factories employed a welfare officer to monitor the health, wellbeing and behaviour of their new female work force,” Amanda Mason, a historian at the Imperial War Museum told The Independent. “Sport, especially football, was encouraged.” The idea was that sport would help the women expend all that excitement and excess energy from their newfound employment. 

The women, including Reay, Morgan and also Lily Parr – a fellow munitionette footballer who played for Dick, Kerr’s Ladies and scored more than 900 goals over the course of her career, playing to crowds well into the 53,000 range – took to the sport with brio. (Some women’s football games had been played before WWI, but without much success or popularity.) 

Traditionally, women had been discouraged from over-exertion in sport and were told to avoid the more physically active disciplines. Games like netball and softball, for example, were devised as alternatives to the more intense ‘masculine’ games of basketball and baseball. Women’s tennis was played as a shorter match. 

The work in the munitions factories was back-breakingly hard, but the women took to it with enthusiasm

But the football that the munitionettes played was as full of gusto and rough and tumble as the men’s games, a sign of how prescriptive gender roles were slowly changing in the early 1900s. “They could be quite violent,” historian Patrick Brennan, author of The Munitionettes: A History of Women’s Football in North East England During the Great War, told the BBC in 2014. “Kicking and hacking ones opponent was quite common amongst the girls. And Bella herself commented on the fact that she sometimes came up against some big, hard ladies and she had to give as good as she got.” 

There were some critics who believed that a woman’s place wasn’t on the football field, and certainly wasn’t on the football field in a pair of shorts, as the uniform dictated.

But, more frequently, communities rallied behind their all-female football teams. “I have heard… some very uncharitable and uncalled for criticism of the respectability of the young women playing these matches,” a letter from an anonymous munitioneer to the Blyth News in 1917 read. “They are doing their bit by work; all honour to them… Some of them are a bit boisterous, but they all have hearts as big as a lion.”

In November 1918 as the armistice was signed and WWI came to an end, women were forced to leave the factories and the football games that they so loved. By 5 December, 1921, the Football Association decreed that football grounds should not be used for women’s matches, a ban that was not lifted until 1971. At the time, the captain of Plymouth Ladies said that the ban was “purely sex prejudice” and labelled the FA “a hundred years behind the times.” 

Lily Parr, that stellar forward from Dick, Kerr’s Ladies FC, was inaugurated into the National Football Museum Hall of Fame in 2002. In 2017 more than four million people watched the semifinals of the Women’s European Championships, in which England faced off against the Netherlands, the largest televised audience for a women’s football game in the UK.

None of this would have been possible without the munitionettes. Speaking in a video as part of the Royal British Legion’s campaign giving thanks to those who served in WWI as a celebration of the centenary since the war’s end, Nikita Parris, the current all-time top scorer in the Women’s Super League, highlighted the legacy of the munitionettes in paving the way for footballers like herself.

“You showed us women can strike the ball as well as men,” she says in the video. “You paved the way for women like me, giving us the chance to play the game we love. Thank you.” 

Stylist’s Visible Women campaign is dedicated to raising the profiles of brilliant women past and present. See more Visible Women stories here

Images: Getty, Unsplash, Ancestry

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