The preliminaries for many European international football matches are for the captains to exchange pennants, shake hands and await the outcome of the toss of a coin for which side kicks off. This match was different. The rival captains greeted each other with a kiss (photo below). But then this game between England and France was no run of the mill international. It was Friday 30th April 1920, and this game in front of a crowd of 25,000 at Deepdale, the home of Preston North End, was between two teams of women football players.
The French side drawn from two Parisian teams, knew all too well the prevailing opinion in their country that women should not play sport. It was an opinion championed by no lesser person than Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the driving force behind holding the first Olympics of the modern era. Coubertin’s influence within the country’s sporting establishment was powerful enough that when the French Football Federation was formed in 1919 women’s teams were specifically banned from joining. In the United Kingdom in 1920 women’s teams were still affiliated to the Football Association and as such could play matches on affiliated club grounds.
England was represented by Dick, Kerr Ladies. The team was a product of popularity for women’s football that arose during World War One. Dick, Kerr & Co of Preston, Lancashire, manufactured tramcars, and light railway equipment, though as the war progressed the firm also became involved in munitions and military equipment. As with other companies, it came more and more to rely on women workers.
During tea and dinner-breaks some of the young women, led by Grace Sibbert, often joined their male colleagues for a bit of a kick about with a football. Manager Alfred Frankland often watched from his office window and it was he who suggested to Grace that perhaps the women could form a team and play charity matches, raising money to help the wounded. This was not a unique idea as many factories already had women’s teams.
In the North East in September 1917, women’s football was considered serious enough for a cup competition. Officially it was called the Alfred Wood Munitions Girls Challenge Cup. However, its unofficial title, the Munitionettes’ Cup found favour with the press and population alike. Fourteen teams registered to participate in the first ever cup competition for women’s football.
On 4 November 1917, Armstrong Whitworth Naval Yard Ladies played Angus Sanderson’s Ladies in a Munitionettes’ Cup round at Bedlington. All proceeds from the game went to the Tyneside Scottish Dependents & Comforts Fund. The kick off at 3.00pm was taken by colonel Sir Thomas Oliver. The Tyneside Scottish pipe band provided the entertainment whilst on a more serious note private Forsyth, Royal Northumberland Fusiliers was presented with the military medal.
The North East produced one of the outstanding female players of the period including Blyth Spartans Ladies centre forward Issabella Reay, who during the 1917-18 season, scored 133 goals in thirty appearances. On 30 March 1918, Blyth Spartans Ladies played Bolckow, Vaughan in the Munitionettes’ Cup Final at St James’s Park. The match ended 0-0. The replay at Southbank on 18 May ended 5-0 to Blyth with Reay netting four. Between them the games raised £671.10s.5d for Teesside medical charities.
J.E.Spence, chairman of Blyth Spartans AFC, once remarked that had the ladies team existed pre-war, he would certainly have done his best to sign Reay.
Over in Lancashire, Dick, Kerr Ladies took to the field for the first time on Christmas Day 1917. Their opponents were from the nearby Arundel Coulthard factory and the proceeds would go to Moor Park Hospital. Frankland negotiated for Preston North End to hire out their ground at Deepdale and a crowd of over 10,000 turned up to watch the game which ended in a 4-0 win for Dick, Kerr.
Frankland was able to improve the training regime, thanks to the assistance of several former professional footballers some, or all of whom, were working at Dick, Kerr. They included the former Preston North End and England left back Bob Holmes. Holmes had played for Preston during the 1888-1889 season when they became the first side to achieve the League and FA Cup double. After retiring from playing, he had spent some time as the trainer of the England amateur international team and had been trainer/manager of Blackburn Rovers when they won the First Division title in 1912. Inside right John Morley who had made 94 appearances for Preston North End before the League was suspended for the duration. Former Preston North End centre half Billy Greer who had been forced to retire from the game following injury during the 1896-1897 season, and left-back Jack Warner, who had started his League career at Preston but was playing for Portsmouth when the League was suspended. After the war he returned to Portsmouth as a trainer and remained with them nearly another three decades.
When the war ended Frankland persuaded Dick, Kerr & Co, not only to keep the ladies team going but cough up the cash to buy them a training ground. He strengthened the side by signing players from other teams, including forward Jennie Harris, midfielder Jessie Walmsley and goalkeeper Annie Hastie from Lancashire Ladies. Frankland also found a soul mate in Alice Milliat, the strong-willed president of Femina Sport, a Parisian multi-sports club.
She was an advocate for women’s football and someone who was not going to go quietly into the night. “In my opinion,” wrote Madame Milliat “football is not wrong for women. Most of these girls are beautiful Grecian dancers. I do not think it is unwomanly to play football as they do not play like men, they play fast, but not vigorous football.”
Frankland wrote to Milliat, suggesting that a French national side play against Dick, Kerr who would represent England. Both worked on tirelessly at maximizing publicity, so much so that the press was out in force to meet the seventeen-strong French team off the ferry and again when they reached Victoria station in London.
The Daily Mirror report of the girls’ arrival in the capital included ‘For most of them it was their first visit to London. They were full of curiosity and wanted to know who lived in every house between Victoria and their Bloomsbury hotel. “We have seen photographs of the team of English women we shall meet, and they are indeed vert strong,” confessed the outside left, a pretty girl with big, dark eyes and a wealth of black hair. “But we are faster,” added another. The girls, aged from eighteen to twenty-two, were mostly employed as typists, costumiers, etc, and the report made no mention of the Laioz sisters. They were the only factory workers in the French squad and had grown up in similar circumstances to many in the Dick, Kerr team. Well-built girls, the Laioz sisters were the French side’s secret weapon. Both were quick-witted defenders, capable of closing down an opposition attack with all the eloquence of Chelsea’s legendary Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris.
The Daily Mirror reported that ‘The French women footballers made a triumphal entry into Preston last night. They were received by Mrs. Connor, wife of the managing director of Dick, Kerr’s, and the works band played “The Marseillaise.” Both teams and officials, headed by the band proceeded through a dense, cheering crown along the principal thoroughfare to a hotel, where dinner was served. On Friday evening the visitors play Dick, Kerr’s women team at Deepdale, Preston’s First Leaguer’s ground. Then follow games at Stockport and Blackpool, before London.’
Before the first match, the French team were taken on a tour of Horrocks’s mill and were said to have caused great hilarity amongst the mill girls by making powder puffs from raw cotton and to dab their cheeks with.
The Daily Mirror match report for the first game opened with ‘A football kiss was the novel start to the French girls’ match against the team of Dick, Kerr and Co, at Preston yesterday. The rival captains greeted each other with a kiss. The French team, which was defeated by two goals to nil, marched to the ground to the strains of the “Marseillaise,” and received a great ovation reception from the 25,000 spectators.’
Dick, Kerr wore what by now was their trademark kit of black and white striped shirts, black knickers (at this time, even men’s shorts were often called knickers) and hooped caps. The French wore light coloured shirts featuring a cockerel emblem over the left breast, black beret, dark shorts, and socks.
The French players, though for the most part of a more delicate build than their opposition, were fast and showed excellent speed. Dick, Kerr were more aggressive and nearly scored in the first half when Alice Woods broke through only to collide with the French goalkeeper, the ball bouncing across the open goal. In the second half, Florrie Redford opened the scoring for Dick, Kerr when she hammered a low drive into the back of the net. A few minutes later inside left Jennie Harris scored the second. Though reduced to ten players when Molly Wlker retired with a knee injury, Dick, Kerr hung on to win two goals to nil. According to the Daily Mirror, the receipts from the match were £1,295.
The following day the teams played at Stockport where Dick, Kerr enjoyed a comfortable 5-2 victory in front of 15,000 spectators. Before travelling to Manchester, the French were treated to a day at Blackpool. Originally conceived as Lancashire’s answer to the spa resort of Scarborough, Blackpool’s aim had been to attract the genteel visitor and to that end had invested heavily in a Winter Gardens, the first fare-paying street tramway in the country, a Tower Ballroom modelled on the Paris Opera House and so on. However, the writing was on the wall as early as 1879 when the star attraction for the Whit Weekend had been the firing of a young lady out of a cannon. By 1920 our sophisticated French guests must have wondered what had hit them. Alfred Frankland, who had been acting as official interpreter was so overworked that his voice failed, and he had to be taken home in a taxicab.
The sea air must have done the girls good as they drew the Manchester Hyde Road game 1-1, one of them celebrating their goal by performing a full somersault and landing on her feet.
At Stamford Bridge the French inflicted one of few defeats ever suffered by Dick, Kerr. Reduced to ten players after Jennie Harris was knocked unconscious in a shoulder charge from one of the Laioz sisters, Dick, Kerr struggled to contain their faster opponents and lost 2-1.
Toward the end of October, the Dick, Kerr team left Preston for a four-match tour of France, each member of the sixteen strong squad now the proud owner of a passport. At that time a passport was a document rarely found in the homes of the working class. It looked nothing like our present-day passports. It was a single A4 size sheet of paper folded into eight and protected by a cardboard cover. It included a description of the holder, though only after the passing of the British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act 1914, was a photograph added.
It took the party two days to reach Paris, where they arrived on the evening of Friday 29th November. The first game, played in front of 22,000 spectators took place at the recently completed Pershing Stadium in the Vincennes district on the eastern side of Paris, on Sunday 31st October. The Minister for Aviation in Alexandre Millerand’s newly elected government was given the honour of kicking off the match.
With ten minutes remaining, Dick, Kerr were awarded a corner. Their chain-smoking teenage star, Lily Parr, moved into the French penalty area. At almost 5 foot 10 inches (1.77 metres) tall, outside left Lily, was a fearless competitor blessed with what is believed to have been one of the most powerful kicks ever known. She was also fast. However, before the corner could be taken, the pitch was invaded by a large number of spectators apparently upset by the French referee’s decision to award the corner. The game was abandoned.
The following day, the team travelled to the small industrial town of Roubaix near the border with Belgium. One of the first French towns to fall to the Germans in 1914, its industry was being rebuilt with the help of British cotton mill workers, many of whom were from Lancashire. When the team arrived, expats and locals alike turned out to line the streets. The gate of 16,000 at the ground of Racing Club de Roubaix was a record, even though the local club had been French Champions in 1902, 1903, 1904, 1906 and 1908. Dick, Kerr’s centre forward Florrie Redford scored both goals in the 2-0 win.
On a more sober note, apart from football and throughout their visit, the team visited battlefields, many of which were still littered with the debris of war, as well as towns such as Armentieres where there was hardly a building standing. They also visited war cemeteries and cenotaphs, taking time to lay wreaths and reflect on the carnage. On a lighter note, the sights of destruction and death were eased with a tour of the opulence that is the Palais de Versailles.
The next game was played at Le Havre, where the French were treated to a 6-0 hammering in front of 10,000 spectators. The final game of the tour was in Rouen which Dick, Kerr won 2-0. When the team arrived back in Preston on 9 November, it is said the crowd lining the town’s streets was of a size usually associated with FA Cup winners. The team’s skipper, Alice Kell made a speech. She said: “If the matches with the French Ladies serve no other purpose. I feel that they will have done more to cement the good feeling between the two nations than anything which has occurred during the last fifty years.”