1921 Census - Dick, Kerr Ladies (Part 1)

1921: A landmark year in the rise and fall of women's football

As we all know, 1921 was the year of a decennial UK census.  But the year was notable for many other things, including the rise and fall of one aspect of women’s sport.  This piece describes the formation in war-mode 1917 of the women’s football team at Dick, Kerr & Co in Preston.  Four years later, this was a highly successful squad, engaged in sport both in England and abroad. But, although the team would continue to play after 1921, the stuffing was knocked out of women’s football for fifty years by a draconian cracking down by the Football Association.

In looking at Dick, Kerr Ladies’ team in those years, I have drawn extensively on a number of sources. Foremost among these is the website of Gail Newsham, former professional footballer and ardent campaigner for women's football, and Dick, Kerr Ladies in particular.  She was behind the centenary celebrations for the club in Preston in 2017, including the placing of a blue plaque in honour of the team.  Gail Newsham also promoted the nomination of Lily Parr to the Football Hall of Fame.  And much more.  Her website is at https://www.dickkerrladies.com/ and her book on the team, updated for the centenary in 2018, is 'In a League of their own. Dick, Kerr Ladies 1917-1965'.  Gail J Newsham. Paragon Publishing; Illustrated edition (9 Feb 2018).

Other works are referenced during and at the end of this piece.  Note also the recent opening of a permanent display about Lily Parr at Manchester's National Football Museum: https://www.nationalfootballmuseum.com/news/new-display-tells-story-of-lily-parr-and-her-trailblazing-teammates/

In addition, I have broadened the focus by a year to try to flesh out something of the circumstances of the players who travelled to Canada and America in 1922, after the events described in this piece.

Dick, Kerr and Co.

According to Grace’s Guide (https://www.gracesguide.co.uk/Dick,_Kerr_and_Co ), Dick, Kerr & Co, manufacturers of locomotives and electrical equipment, were established in 1883 in Kilmarnock, Scotland, with offices in London.  By the start of the 20th century, and after considerable expansion, the company took on most of the capital of the English Electric Manufacturing Company, acquiring a factory in Preston.

The website lancashireatwar.co.uk gives more detail about the firm's wartime activities:

'The First World War munitions production at Dick, Kerr’s factory on Strand Road in Preston saw employment reach 8000, including over 2000 women. Having previously made electrical components, when war came, it manufactured munitions shells. A total of  3,250,000 had been made by the time the war ended. The largest were for battleships and measured 63 inches long. The site also saw the construction of a hundred Felixstowe F3 flying boats. These very early aircraft could carry four men at up to 70 miles an hour.

During the First World War the company produced locomotives, cable drums, pontoon bridges, cartridge boxes and munitions. By 1917 it was producing 30,000 shells per week.

In 1918 the Dick, Kerr factories was amalgamated into the company English Electric. It was still commonly referred to as Dick, Kerr’s though by the local people. 

'Today, the name Dick Kerr's is synonymous with the women's football team - the most successful in the world. They were formed here and their players were munitions workers from this factory.On  Christmas Day 1917, a crowd of 10,000 at Deepdale watched Dick Kerr’s Ladies play against the munitions workers from the Coulthards factory. They went on to play in front of crowds the size of today's Men's Premier League teams.'

The beginnings of women's football

As noted above, the factory (and indeed many factories around the country) had begun to employ women in munitions work.  In their leisure moments, and, presumably to escape the tedium and unhealthy atmosphere of their work, such women took to playing informal kickabouts with their male colleagues or, indeed, forming football teams of their own.

A piece on the British Library website summarises the history of women's football in Britain at:  https://www.bl.uk/womens-rights/articles/the-history-of-womens-football-in-the-uk

Women had played football informally as far back as the 18th century, when there are reports of matches between the fisherwomen of Musselburgh and Inveresk in East Lothian. By the end of the 19th century, men’s association football had been established, and women were keen also to have organised football.  An early attempt in Scotland was the pseudonymous ‘Mrs Graham’s XI’, which played its first recorded match in Edinburgh in May, 1881.  This was met with derision in the press, with comments (all too familiar today) on women’s desire to play a ‘man’s’ sport, and on their looks, bodies and clothes.  Subsequent matches were marred by pitch invasions, and the initiative was eventually abandoned.

In around 1894, the British Ladies Football Club was formed by Alfred Hewitt Smith, with Nettie Honeyball (another pseudonym) as captain and figurehead. Under the patronage of Lady Florence Dixie, the Scottish writer and feminist, the team was joined by Helen Matthews of Mrs Graham’s XI.  In 1894, Honeyball publicly advertised to recruit players, declaring women, rather than being inferior, were as good as men, and if men could play football, so could women. In March 1895, around 10,000 people attended a match near Alexandra Palace in North London between ‘North’ and ‘South’ squads of the British Ladies Football Club .  Press reports of the match were hugely disparaging, and yet again, the initiative floundered, partly under criticism of the unsuitability of women’s bodies for such a sporting endeavour, and of the unseemly dress, alongside the former refrain of football being a man’s sport.  A further insult for the critics, however, was  that the women wanted to charge for tickets to matches.  This was seen as the last straw.  Despite the hard work and training by the women footballers, interest faded and the team disbanded.

The advent of the First World War brought changes.  Women were working in roles formerly held by men.  Women’s football teams emerged right across the country, and in the absence of men’s association football, cancelled by the Football Association in 1915, women’s football grew to fill the gap.  The matter of charging for tickets this time round was not such an issue, as the ticket fees for matches were devoted to war relief and other charitable causes.  The Football Association authorised the use of local grounds by the women, and men supported the women in training.  This seemed to fill a real need - tens of thousands of people attended matches.

Dick, Kerr Ladies

I now draw on the work of Dr. Barbara Jacobs and Gail Newsham.

Alfred Frankland worked in the offices of the Dick, Kerr factory in Preston. Watching the young female factory workers kicking the ball around during their breaks, he suggested to one of them that they might like to form a team to play charity matches.  He would be its manager.  On Christmas Day, 1917, more than 10,000 people turned out to watch a match at the Preston North End Deepdale ground, in aid of the local hospital for wounded soldiers. During the following year, Frankland developed the team by recruiting promising players from other northern factory teams.

At the end of the War, some factory women’s teams were disbanded as the women were replaced by male workers.  They often re-formed into local area teams, such as St Helens Ladies.  However, the Dick, Kerr Ladies continued to be supported by the company, and in early 1919, two future stars were recruited - 14-year old Lily Parr, and Alice Woods. They were even paid expenses, and 10 shillings per game.

Despite ongoing pressure on the women not to play (for instance due to the unseemly exposure of their legs in shorts), the team continued to thrive, for instance attracting a crowd of 35,000 people in a match against Newcastle United Ladies in September 1919.  And in 1920, the team went international, hosting a team from France for four matches, the last of which was played at Chelsea Football ground, and then, in autumn 1920, travelling to France for a return series.

The team’s charitable endeavours continued, culminating in a match on 26 December, 1920, when Dick, Kerr Ladies played the second best women's team in England, St Helens Ladies, at Goodison Park, the home ground of Everton. Over 53,000 people watched the game with an estimated 14,000 disappointed fans locked outside, the largest crowd that had ever watched a woman's game in England.  Two weeks later a game at Old Trafford continued the trend of large crowds and considerable funds raised for charity.

In 1921, the team played 67 matches, including some against another visiting French team, and with many more invitations to play declined, as there was a limit to the availability of team members, most of whom worked full time.

During 1921, though, the fundraising focus changed somewhat, from the distress of ex-servicemen to the distress of local workers, for instance miners. This year MLFHS has shown, among other things, how the conducting of the 1921 census was disrupted by the threat of industrial action around the dispute between industry and the coalminers.  Many of the women on football teams, and those in particular at Dick, Kerr Ladies, were from mining communities.  They used their ability to attract charitable funding to support the causes of the striking mineworkers and other workers suffering hardship.

Such activities were viewed with dismay by the Football Association, and pressure began to grow against women’s football.  There was renewed focus on the supposed adverse health consequences for the women, and criticism of Frankland himself in his handling of charitable funds.  Overall, the popularity of women’s football was an ongoing threat to the men’s game, and to their dominance over the sport.

Football Association Decree

On 5 December 1921, the FA issued the following statement:

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 been made as to the conditions under which some of these matches have been arranged and played, and the appropriation of the 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 requests the clubs belonging to the Association refuse the use of their grounds for such matches.

Women thus lost the ability to raise large charitable sums, as they could no longer play at major football grounds. In addition, the FA banned its members from officiating as referees or linesmen at women’s matches.  In effect, 1921 saw the end of a thriving (and, to some, threatening) scene of women’s football, although one outcome of this move was the formation of the English Ladies Football Association immediately after the FA decree.  Among other things, the ELFA made provisions to ensure women were not exploited by their male managers, and introduced a measure to ban women from playing for a team more than twenty miles from their home, thus reducing the ability of a team like Dick, Kerr Ladies to recruit from far and wide.  The FA restriction would not be removed until 1971, after which it took many years to restore interest in and prosperity for women’s football.

Despite this setback, the Dick, Kerr ladies were determined to continue, and in 1922 Alfred Frankland took them to Canada, where it turned out they were also banned from playing, and then the United States, where they played a mixture of women’s and men’s teams.  Dick, Kerr Ladies became Preston Ladies, and they continued to play through the following decades.  Lily Parr was a longstanding member of the team, and Alfred Frankland continued to manage it into the 1950s.

The team, 1923 

Now read: 1921 Census - Dick, Kerr Ladies (Part 2)

Further reading or viewing:

Gail J Newsham. 'In a League of their own. Dick, Kerr Ladies 1917-1965'.  Paragon Publishing; Illustrated edition (9 Feb 2018).  See also  https://www.dickkerrladies.com/

Barbara Jacobs.  The Dick, Kerr's Ladies.  The Football Team that changed history.  First published in UK by Robinson, 2004.  Preview at: https://books.google.co.uk/books/about/The_Dick_Kerr_s_Ladies.html?id=7vRGBQAAQBAJ&redir_esc=y

National Football Museum Lily Parr permanent display: https://www.nationalfootballmuseum.com/news/new-display-tells-story-of-lily-parr-and-her-trailblazing-teammates/

Carmen Pomies: The Most Important Woman Footballer in History. Part 1/3. Posted by Steve Bolton on 7 June 2021.  British Society of S ports History. Much context, many illustrations.  https://www.playingpasts.co.uk/articles/football/carmen-pomiesthe-most-important-woman-footballer-in-historypart/

Dick, Kerr's Ladies: https://spartacus-educational.com/Fdickkerrs.htm  This piece includes many direct quotes from players and from local press at the time.  It cites Gail Newsham's work as well as  the book 'Belles of the Ball' by David J Williamson, published in 1991 by R & D Associates.