The world of modern football is decidedly male-dominated; there’s sadly no doubt that the men’s game is currently more popular than the women’s.
With the average 2016 attendance figure for ladies’ league matches coming in at 1,128, it’s hard to prevent feelings that the women’s game will never be as popular as the men’s (by comparison the average 2017-2018 Premier League match attendance was 38,274).
But it hasn’t always been like this. Last century, Preston was at the centre of a footballing revolution that saw crowds as large as 60,000 drawn to watch the most successful women’s team the world has ever seen play at Deepdale stadium.
While Bill Shankly was inspiring a new generation of footballers at North End, a small group of pioneers were attempting to cement the same future that men’s football would be guaranteed, for the ladies’ game. Against prejudice, sexism and the shadow of two world wars, a team of female workers from the North West of England succeeded in making women’s football headline news.
This is the spectacular story of the greatest women’s football side in the world: Preston’s very own Dick, Kerr Ladies FC.
The Popularisation of Women’s Football in England
The origins of women’s football can be traced back to Britain’s war years.
During the first world war, fighting on the front wasn’t the only way UK citizens could contribute to helping the country. Many women were drafted to work in factories, producing goods to support the army.
Women were exposed to dirty, dangerous conditions which, particularly in munitions factories, involved the use of toxic chemicals and heavy machinery.
Concerns for their welfare grew and the government began to appoint female supervisors to oversee the moral and physical well-being of the women. A conclusion was drawn by these supervisors that developing sporting activities would be beneficial for female worker’s health.
This lead to the creation of football teams at most factories in the UK. From the Blyth Spartans to the Bolckow Vaughan of Middlesborough, factories all over the country set up their own squads and began playing each other in factory leagues. In Preston, a munitions factory by the name of Dick, Kerr & Co Ltd decided to start their own…
The Formation of Dick, Kerr Ladies FC
Dick, Kerr & Co Ltd originally manufactured trams and electrical equipment, but in 1915 the factory was converted into a munitions manufacturer for the war effort.
With their intake of women greatly increased, the factory set up a ladies football team in 1917 – the Dick, Kerr Ladies FC – with an aim to raise money through charity matches for the military hospital in Preston. Little did they know that this football team, just a group of ordinary working girls, would make footballing history.
Dick, Kerr Ladies FC took the country by storm, pulling crowds in their thousands to watch spellbinding matches and putting the city on the map as a footballing might to be reckoned with, even while the FA tried to shut the women’s game down.
The team’s first match was played on Christmas Day in 1917. An astonishing 10,000 spectators turned up at Deepdale, the home of Preston North End’s men’s team, to watch the start of this footballing legacy. The women beat Coulthards Foundry, raising £600 for the hospital (the equivalent cash price of £50,000 in today’s world).
The munitions factory girls found themselves the centre of national attention once their talent became obvious. Rivaling the excitement of men’s matches, with the added intrigue of the women’s game being ‘new’ and different, the Dick, Kerr Ladies became stars of British Pathé newsreels, which were shown before cinema viewings across the country.
Early Success and Incredible Crowds
From there, this group of incredible women went from strength to strength, always playing in their signature bobble hats.
On Boxing Day 1920, the team drew the biggest crowd ever seen at a women’s club match, when they played St Helens Ladies at Goodison Park. Around 53,000 spectators turned up, with 14,000 further fans left standing outside the stadium, unable to gain admission.
By 1921, their popularity was at its height. Dick, Kerr FC were being booked to play an average of two games a week across the country, playing over 60 games of football in that year alone. And despite their busy schedule, they all remained working full time at the munitions plants.
Gail Newsham, a women’s football historian, estimates that the girls ended up being watched by around 900,000 people throughout the country.
Who was on the Dick, Kerr Ladies FC team?
The centre of this incredible yarn is undoubtedly the women workers playing the beautiful game. Preston’s leading ladies were so successful that Sir Matt Busby, manager of Manchester United, allegedly commented he would sign up one of the players for his side if he could, as they were one of the best players he had ever seen.
Dick, Kerr’s greatest player was Lily Parr, a hard-drinking, chain smoking outside-left player, who received a part of her small salary in the form of Woodbine cigarette packs.
Lily joined the team at the tender age of 15, but quickly made her mark. “A 15-year-old with a kick like a Division One back” ran a Daily News article on the legendary left-winger. Parr proved the paper’s point when, playing for Chorley years later, she broke a professional goalkeeper’s arm with a shot struck from considerable distance.
Lily also broke down social barriers during her life with the same powerful kick: openly lesbian, she lived with her partner Mary in Goodnargh, near Preston for most of her life, becoming an LBGT+ icon.
Parr, in later years, would have played alongside Nellie Halstead, the Dick, Kerr Ladies very own Olympian. Halstead was a track and field athlete who competed for Great Britain in the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. The sportswoman won a bronze medal with her teammates in the 4×100 metre relay, but still found time to play as centre forward for the football team.
Another multi-talented team player in the post-second world war years was Val Walsh, who transferred over from Accrington Ladies in the early 1960s. Walsh played hockey alongside football and went on to represent England and Great Britain in over one hundred matches. She was awarded an OBE for services to sport.
The Ultimate Insult from the FA
The heady years of Dick, Kerr Ladies were not to last – claiming that they’d received complaints about women playing football, the FA took the decision on 5th December 1921 to ban women from using league grounds, excluding them to amateur pitches and poorly-developed facilities.
Amid claims that football was a dangerous game for females (some doctors decided that it could affect their fertility), the FA decided upon this course of action, stating that “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”.
Suggestions have been made that part of this decision stemmed from the FA attempting to control flows of money in football, as unlike the profit-making male games, the female leagues were largely charity-based, preventing the association from making a buck on ticket admissions. It’s even been proposed that forces from ‘above’ demanded the shut down of female teams after some sides started collecting money for striking miners.
Whatever their reasoning, the decision taken by the FA fundamentally changed the nature of women’s football, forcing it into the amateur sphere and encouraging an ad hoc, self-regulated system that couldn’t compete with the professionalism of the men’s game.
Women’s football never fully recovered from the blow, despite the ban being lifted in 1969, thanks to lack of funding.
Dick, Kerr Ladies FC continued to play, despite the ban, with the team’s manager, Alfred Frankland, furiously remarking that: “The team will continue to play, if the organisers of charity matches will provide grounds, even if we have to play on ploughed fields.”
Continued Success Despite The Ban
And play they did. The Dick Kerr ladies went on to attend over 800 games of football in the UK and abroad, including a tour of the USA in 1922. By the 1930s they claimed to be the world champions of women’s football, thanks to their impressive record of wins.
In 1922, the team crossed the Atlantic to play a tour of Canada and the USA. Upon their arrival, they found they had been refused permission to play in Canada and that in the United States they would be playing against men’s team. Left with no option, the Dick, Kerrs agreed to play nine games, winning three, drawing three and losing three.
Impressive Firsts from the Dick, Kerr Ladies FC
During their playing years, the team scooped up a number of impressive firsts, including being the first ladies team to play an international match against an overseas team. In 1920, they played a Parisian side in a series of matches in North West England and at Stamford Bridge in London. The opening match, played at Preston’s Deepdale, was watched by a staggering 25,000 spectators – a record for the ground at the time.
They were also the first team to play a match under floodlights, borrowing two anti-aircraft search lights from the Home Office (with the expressed permission of Winston Churchill) to light the first night-time match in 1920. The game played under floodlights saw Dick, Kerr Ladies FC take on a a team made up of the best players from the rest of England, but the Deepdale ladies still came out on top, winning 4-0.
Remembering the Greatest Women’s Team in the World
By 1965, dwindling player numbers led to the team being disbanded. They’d even been renamed Preston ladies by this point, although the name never stuck.
And it wasn’t until 1969 that the Women’s Football Association was formed, providing legitimacy for the ladies’ teams. The FA waited until 1971 (50 years after they’d banned women’s football from league pitches) to formally recognize women’s football and lift the ban.
In 2017, a blue plaque was unveiled at the original factory building where the team was first pulled together, marking 100 years since the revolutionary women first put their names on the team sheet. At Preston North End, a six-metre wide granite plaque was also revealed in 2017, memorialising the team’s spectacular contribution to the game of football.
We hope you’ve enjoyed reading the inspirational story of Dick, Kerr Ladies FC.
Celebrating and preserving the history of football is at the heart of The Shankly Preston Hotel, named after the legendary footballer and manager who helped take Preston North End to the FA Cup final.
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