THE BELLES OF THE BALL: DICK KERR’S LADIES
Ever heard of Dick Kerr’s Ladies? You should have. Eighty-five years ago, at a time when women had barely secured the right vote, this team of Lancashire munitions factory workers were attracting crowds of 53,000, introducing the concept of international competition to the women’s game and even embarking on a tour of the USA, giving as good as they got against America’s finest men’s sides. Florrie Redford, Lily Parr and Jennie Harris were stars, household names across the land, and their success was being viewed as a serious threat to the men’s game.
On Friday April 30, 1920 at Deepdale, home of the Preston’s ‘Old Invincibles’, the undefeated league and FA Cup winners OF 1889,a crowd of 25,000 erupted in celebration as Dick, Kerr's Ladies defeated a French representative side in the first ever women's international. At the final whistle, hundreds swarmed onto the pitch to lift match-winning goal scorer, little Jennie Harris, onto their shoulders in joyous triumph. Fast, efficient and athletic, these Lancashire lasses had put women’s football on the map.
“People say that Dick, Kerr’s were just a demonstration team like the Harlem Globetrotters,” says Barbara Jacobs, author of The Dick, Kerr’s Ladies. “I think that disrespects just how marvelous they were at the game, and also the degree of athleticism that they had.”
“It’s easy to say now that they were hugely important,” adds Gail J Newsham, author of In A League Of Their Own! The Dick, Kerr Ladies Football Club. “But put it in the context of Emily Davidson throwing herself under the King’s horse at the Derby and Emily Pankhurst being arrested at Buckingham Palace – then there were Dick, Kerr Ladies travelling the country with people paying to see them play football! Everybody looked up to them. As one of the players said to me before she died, ‘we were famous you see, and everybody wanted to see us’. It’s an amazing story.”
The first recorded women’s match was a London derby on March 23, 1895, when a team from the north of the city beat their southern counterparts 7-1 at Crouch End Athletic Ground. Organized by educated middle class feminist, Miss Nettie Honeyball, and her British Ladies Football Club, they had advertised in the Daily Graphic for women to play “a manly game and show that it could be womanly as well”. The game proved a qualified success, although reports indicate that the ladies forgot the rules and failed to change ends at half time. “When the novelty has worn off, I do not think that women’s football will attract the crowds,” concluded a ‘Lady Correspondent’ in the Manchester Guardian.
This was football for the middle classes, a game that would die out almost as soon as it had kicked off. It took the Great War to really kick-start women’s football, this time as a sport for the working class.
The leading British manufacturer of light railway equipment, t he firm of Dick, Kerr and Co Ltd was named after its founders WB Dick and John Kerr and originally based in Scotland before relocating to Preston. In 1917, when the needs of a country at war necessitated that the supply of arms be put under the control of the government, the Dick, Kerr factory, along with so many others, was requisitioned for the greater war good. The production lines were converted to the manufacture of munitions and a new workforce of uniformed women was recruited to staff the factories.
In order to encourage this new workforce to focus on munitions production, it was felt that the young women needed some kind of sporting release to run off their excess energy. Workyard football games were ever popular, it was noted, with 15-minute-a-half games being squeezed into factory lunch breaks every day. The women were even playing against men, a practice officially banned by the FA in 1902. Nonetheless, believing such enthusiasm should be actively encouraged, the Welfare Workers employed by the factories organised teams, their long-term ambition to challenge other factories from farther afield. Before long, works teams began to spring up around the country, often with the aim of raising money for charity.
The level of casualties from the war hadn’t been anticipated. Hospitals couldn’t cope with the number of disabled soldiers returning from the Front Line and there was no money to support those unlikely to be able to work again. The need to raise funds for ‘our boys’ was a central driving factor in the organisation of football matches between the women munitions workers.
At the Dick, Kerr factory, the women had already played one match against the men of the plant in a game organised by factory worker Grace Sibbert, whose husband was a prisoner of war. Office administrator Alfred Frankland had watched the women’s yard games from his office window at the factory and joined with Sibbert in a plan to stage a charity match on Christmas Day 1917, the intention being to raise money for the local hospital for wounded soldiers at Moor Park.
“It has been said that my grandfather was a pioneer of women’s football,” says Alfred’s grandson, Tony Frankland. “Other people say he only organized them, that Dick, Kerr’s had already formed a team. It seems the girls had semi-formed a team themselves just for kicking about with other local teams, but on seeing them my grandfather thought it would be an idea for raising money for the war effort. I think the original idea was to have some kind of bazaar, with bands, but he organized them into a football match instead.”
In a moment of pure, ambitious genius, for the princely sum of £20 – £4,000 in today’s money – he hired Deepdale for the match, the home of the legendary Preston North End. “When you think about it,” says Tony Frankland, “it really was a ridiculous step. It’s like thinking ‘we’ll have a charity match, let’s hire Old Trafford’. But it just took off from there and caught the public imagination.”
By staging the game at Deepdale, Alfred Frankland was making an ambitious statement – he was taking women’s football from the factory yards and wastegrounds and putting it on a level playing field with the men’s game. It was a gamble that paid off as 10,000 spectators passed through the turnstiles to watch Dick, Kerr’s beat Arundel Coulthard Foundry 4-0. The Daily Post reported the victory: “Dick, Kerr’s were not long in showing that they suffered less than their opponents from stage fright, and they had a better all round understanding of the game. Their forward work, indeed, was often surprisingly good, one or two of the ladies showing quite admirable ball control.”
The match raised £200 for the hospital – some £40,000 today, and ten times the initial outlay. Frankland immediately booked the stadium for a further three matches in the spring and prepared to build the Dick, Kerr Ladies into a force to be reckoned with.
Frankland worked hard to develop his young team into the game’s most accomplished outfit. Preston North End legend Jack Warner and former ‘Invincibles’ captain Bob Holmes were brought in as expert trainers, combining their coaching with work at the factory.
The girls weren’t complete novices though – many numbered talented sportsmen among their family, others were prominent in other sports. Alice Woods, for instance, was an experienced athlete who had competed in the first ever AAA event for women, making her effectively the British 80m sprint Champion. She had picked up her football skills playing with her brother John, a pro on the books of Halifax Town after the war. “She was quite an accomplished athlete,” remembers Alice’s great nephew, Tony Dawson, “and I would genuinely say that she was more proud of the athletics. But the whole family had been very sporting – her brother was a First Division footballer, and three of her grandchildren swam for Great Britain, one of whom swam in two Olympic finals.”
Florrie Redford was a glamorous blonde centre-forward whose name was regularly featured in the newspapers of the day. Her shot may have lacked the power of her male counterparts (unlike that of outside left Lily Parr, who the Daily News would soon describe as “a 15-year-old with a kick like a Division One Back”), but she had both vision and pace, and her relentless work rate made certain that her name would always appear on the score sheet first.
Inside left Jennie Harris couldn’t have been more different. Signed from Lancaster Ladies, at 4ft 10ins she was an expert dribbler and quick on her feet. But she had a winning charm and the skill to make her, as one newspaper would later have it, “Dick, Kerr’s box of tricks”.
With such a formidable line-up it wasn't long before Dick, Kerr’s were building a reputation as one of the game’s most impressive sides, much to the delight of the factory, who lapped up the free publicity and goodwill that their employees were generating for the company. Charitable causes were benefiting greatly from these games and women’s football was flourishing.
The team might have started as a part-time project for factory workers, but even after the armistice of 1918, Frankland continued to push his team to higher levels of professionalism, casting his net wider for more attractive fixtures. In September 1919 he pitched his team against the ladies of Newcastle United in front of 35,000 at St James’ Park. By this time he had even forsaken the team’s factory roots, introducing the concept of ‘player poaching’ to the women’s game.
“They had a very sophisticated set-up,” explains Barbara Jacobs, author of The Dick, Kerr’s Ladies. “Alfred Frankland worked very much like a present day football manager in that if they played against another team that had good players, he’d poach them. He’d give them incentives to join.”
Incentives might include the promise of a job at the Dick, Kerr factory, paid time-off to play the games and out-of-pocket expenses to cover the costs of taking part. Or if it were someone Frankland really wanted to sign, as with 14-year-old outside left Lily Parr, he would sometimes arrange accommodation if they were from outside Preston.
Six feet tall with jet-black hair, Lily Parr was an outstanding discovery. Recruited from St Helens alongside 14-year-old Alice Woods, both girls were tempted by the offer of employment and ten shillings a game in expenses.
Another 14-year-old, Alice Norris, started working at the Dick, Kerr factory in 1919, remaining there until 1965. She noted the importance of team spirit to the club’s success. “There was a friendly spirit at the club,” she recalled. “You didn’t hear anyone arguing and it was a privilege to play for them. I remember Florrie Redford was very good to me. When we played on First Division grounds she used to look after me.”
In December 1920 Frankland pushed back the boundaries still further by staging one of the first floodlit matches in England. Having obtained special permission from Secretary Of State For War, Winston Churchill, Franklin borrowed two anti aircraft spotlights to illuminate the proceedings and had Bob Holmes whitewash the brown leather footballs to improve visibility.
The game was predictably beset by technical difficulties, but for spectator Charles Newton, this didn’t interfere with his enjoyment of the football on show. “I had never seen lassies play football before and they were quite adept,” he recalled. “They had some very good players. I thought Alice Kell was the player most outstanding.”
Some 10,000 spectators agreed, as did the cameras of Pathé. Dick, Kerr’s were now newsworthy – but this was at the end of the year when they played the French, games that had turned them into stars.
After dominating women’s football in England in the immediate post-war era, the only way that Alfred Frankland could offer his team a fresh challenge was to go international. He would eventually bill the team as “Dick, Kerr’s International Ladies”, dressing them when required in the white shirts and blue shorts of England. But for now, in the first clashes with the French, his team would keep their traditional black and white striped shirts and caps.
Post-war France was a country in need of rebuilding. After hearing of a proposed goodwill visit to the country by an amateur team of men’s footballers, Frankland extended a hand of friendship to the Federation Française Sportive Feminine, and to his surprise the invitation was accepted.
So it was that on April 27, 1920, the federation’s secretary general, Alice Milliat, a woman who had already established herself as a pioneer in French sport, arrived at Dover with her team of middle class accountants, shorthand typists and students of philosophy and dentistry to take on Dick Kerr’s Ladies in a series of exhibition games.
At Dover, the mademoiselles were confronted by the massed British press – their forthcoming arrival had been big news since Milliat had kicked off the advance hype by feeding stories to a Daily News stringer in Paris. In a tremendous publicity coup, the newspaper announced the fixtures on its front page and went on to include those essential fashion details about the stylishness of the French kit.
The visitors were small and athletic, delicate even, but they had been given advance warning of a northern quality called ‘heft’ that was possessed by their opponents in great abundance. “Tell me about the Lancashire girls,” Madelaine Bracquemond asked the reporters. “They are big, strong and powerful, n’est-ce pas?”
When the French eventually arrived in Preston, the town had turned out to greet them. Alfred Frankland may have only had a week to arrange the fixtures – indeed, he had only secured Stamford Bridge for the final game the night before their arrival – nevertheless, when the train carrying the French team pulled into the city, they were met by the Dick, Kerr factory brass band and a tumultuous reception. “The streets were lined five or six deep,” says Gail Newsham. “The arrival of the French team was a huge event and the players were overwhelmed by the welcome. There were thousands of people out to greet them, all the way from the train station to hotel.”
After a couple of days of civic receptions and goodwill factory tours, the formalities and pleasantries that always preceded international events, the four-game series kicked off at Deepdale, with captain Alice Kell leading Dick, Kerr’s to a convincing 2-0 victory in front of a crowd of 25,000. The following day they repeated the feat with a 5-2 result in Stockport, before offering their visitors the culture shock of a day-trip to Blackpool. The strong winds of Blackpool front must have proved invigorating as the French finally hit their stride, securing a 1-1 draw at Manchester’s Hyde Road. One of their players even indulged in the most outlandish of goal celebrations for the time, well ahead of its time – performing a full somersault, landing gracefully on her feet.
All these matches had been played in the North West, but now all attention turned to the final fixture in London. “Dick, Kerr’s were the strongest women’s football team in England,” says Barbara Jacobs, “but it was going down to play at Stamford Bridge that was the important game. This was when the entire national press took them to their hearts – the game that made the Dick, Kerr Ladies into newsreel stars.”
It was the fundamental clash of styles that captured the imagination. “The little French women were completely different from these big Lancastrian women,” says Jacobs. “The French were petite and they walked on to the pitch to ‘Le Marseillaise’ with their arms by their sides and swiveling their hips. They were all small but perfectly formed. This little French team walking on like mannequins, while the big Lancashire women came running out of the tunnel kicking in.”
The game didn’t prove to be the showcase Alfred Frankland had planned. Dick, Kerr’s suffered an early blow when Jennie Harris was knocked unconscious in a shoulder charge by one of the Laloz sisters, the only factory girls in the French side. Down to ten women, Florrie Redford’s sole strike for the English was not enough to prevent a 2-1 defeat. “Losing to the French team was a shock as defeats were very few and far between for Dick, Kerr’s,” says Gail Newsham. “In the whole history of the club, they only had 24 defeats and that averages out at one every two years.”
Losing the game was a disappointment for the girls but not a tragedy. Later that year, just before embarking on the return trip to France, captain Alice Kell put the defeat into perspective. “We shall not allow sentiment to creep in quite as much as we did when the French team played over here earlier in the year,” she explained. “Of course we didn’t underestimate them, or allow them to win, but we didn’t put in the ‘last ounce’ as you might say.”
Nor did the defeat diminish the team’s popularity. In the following weeks they played before some of their biggest crowds: a record 53,000 saw them beat St Helens 4-0 at Goodison Park (with a reported 14,000 turned away); 35,000 spectators watched them take on Bath at Old Trafford; 25,000 people turned out to witness them destroy a Rest Of Britain team 9-1 at Anfield; and 22,000 watched the return fixture in Paris before a pitch invasion ended the game at 1-1 five minutes from time.
“They were massive stars by then,” says Barbara Jacobs. “Not only were they brilliant footballers, but they were doing a week’s work and then turning out to play football in their spare time – and they were giving all the money they earned to wounded and invalid soldiers. The funds of various cities like Liverpool depended totally on it.”
Lynn Fabian, the daughter of Alice Woods, recalls that her mother would rarely talked about her past as a footballer, but when late in life she was confronted with the growing riches of modern players she would sometimes open up. “She’d say: ‘Footballers have got it easy, look at all that money they’ve got. We worked hard, and ours was for charity – we didn’t get any of it’. She did seem to resent that they were getting all the publicity and all the remuneration.”
In the end it was the success of Dick, Kerr’s Ladies that proved their downfall. With the crowds turning out to watch the team in ever increasing numbers, the Football Association decided to intervene. Those within football who felt threatened by the emergence of the women’s game had for some time been perpetuating a myth expounded in newspapers by ‘medical experts’ that football was a dangerous game for women to play. The Football Association finally succumbed, citing unsubstantiated rumours about the legitimacy of the charitable fundraising as the main excuse. In an FA decree of December 5, 1921, they concluded that all women’s games should be banned from the grounds of its member clubs.
Dick, Kerr’s went on the offensive, rescheduling their games at rugby league grounds, but the FA ban was more damaging to their weaker rivals who found they were unable to compete in the new environment.
“It was disgraceful,” says Barbara Jacobs. “These women had always worked, had always been strong and had always done their bit.”
Alice Woods’ daughter says that her mother didn’t dwell of the FA ban later in life, but sometimes her feelings would manifest themselves in everyday events. “I do think she resented the fact that they were treating women differently from men,” Lynn explains. “When my brother used to torment me she’d say ‘now look, I’ve had enough of men trying to be superior’.”
Though they didn’t know it yet, Dick, Kerr’s best days were already behind them, but in September 1922, with a flourish of defiance, the team embarked on their most ambitious challenge yet – a tour of North America. From the outset, however, the trip was beset with problems. Upon arrival the women discovered that, under pressure from the FA, the Canadian leg of their tour had been cancelled. Worse still, their US fixtures were to be played against men, including recent immigrants from England and Scotland who had turned out for teams like Chelsea, Blackpool, Kilmarnock and Morton, plus at least one local who would go on to represent the US at the 1930 World Cup finals.
Even so, Dick, Kerr’s acquitted themselves well, losing just three out of nine games, and even in defeat they proved tough opponents. “I played against them in 1922,” recalled Paterson ’keeper Pete Renzullli. “We were national champions and we had a hell of a job beating them.”
On returning from America, illness forced Alice Woods to retire from the game. Although her football career was known about in the family, she rarely mentioned her time with Dick, Kerr’s and her teenage daughter didn’t realize the extent of the achievements until she chanced upon a box of her mother’s treasures. “Seeing the photographs I began to realize that they had really been to America,” she says, “and that they really had drawn all these crowds.”
In the years after the American tour the climate had changed. Dick, Kerr and Co Ltd became English Electric and were less tolerant of sponsoring the activities of a football team that no longer carried their brand name. In 1926 they parted company with Alfred Frankland and severed all ties with the team. Unperturbed, Frankland persevered, officially rechristening the side Preston Ladies, but they would continue to be known as Dick, Kerr’s for many years.
Although they might have disappeared from the national radar, they remained a well-known local attraction. A young plumbers apprentice named Tom Finney recalls working next door to Alfred Frankland’s greengrocers shop in 1937, and later, when he was a professional footballer, he was often asked to referee for Dick, Kerr’s. “They always had big crowds at their games,” recalls Tom Finney in the Foreword to In A League Of Their Own! “I knew that the Football Association did not look very kindly upon them, and it was thought that we, as professional players, should not encourage the women’s games.”
Lily Parr, possibly the greatest woman footballer of all time, continued playing until 1951, scoring over 900 goals. Not a bad return for a winger. The team outlived the death of Frankland in 1957, but eventually ran out of steam – and fixtures – in 1965.
As women’s football went into decline through the middle of the 20th century, the story first became overlooked, then neglected, and finally forgotten, and it was not until the publication of Gail Newsham’s book in the early ’90s that people once again started talking about these amazing women. “It was down to the FA ban that it got forgotten,” says Newsham. “They believed that women were not fit to play football, and the story was buried – it remained football’s best kept secret.”
With the huge growth of the game in the past 15 years, it seems that history has finally caught up with the pivotal role played by a team of Lancashire factory workers in the history of women’s football. “It is fast becoming a world sport,” concluded Tom Finney in the early ’90s. “Perhaps this is due in some way to the determination of Dick, Kerr’s Ladies, who played on after the FA ban and helped lay the foundations for today’s game.”
© Words copyright Chris Hunt 2007