The stories behind England’s women footballers The Munitionettes

With England's Women beginning their European Championship campaign against Austria this week, family history experts have been delving through records to uncover the stories of the nation's female footballers from more than a century ago. During the First World War, many women stepped into traditionally 'male' roles and jobs, including working within the munitions factories, where they quickly became known as 'munitionettes.' Conditions for these women were treacherous as making shells, bombs and bullets was dangerous work, so many turned to playing football as a way to let off steam, keep fit and form new friendships. Many teams started to form and were encouraged to play by the UK Government as they helped boost morale, with all ticket proceeds going towards supporting war charities or funding the war effort.

More than 30 factory teams took part in the Munitionettes Cup in 1918 which saw Bolckow, Vaughn & Co team from Middlesbrough (named after the factory in which the players worked) take on Blyth Spartans Ladies in the cup final. Laura House, family history expert at Ancestry, said: "The munitionettes were incredibly inspiring, bringing light relief to the nation through football despite working in dangerous conditions, managing explosives daily. The historical records available on Ancestry help us discover more about these women's lives, and it's through resources like these that you may be able to discover more about your own family members - whether they were skilled footballers like the munitionettes, or paved the way for women's sporting achievements in other ways!"

A newspaper article naming the players selected for the Cup Final between Bolckow-Vaughan and Blyth Spartans in 1918A newspaper article naming the players selected for the Cup Final between Bolckow-Vaughan and Blyth Spartans in 1918

Newspaper articles and headlines of the time - including the North Eastern Daily Gazette (May 15, 1918) - detail the names of the players selected for the Cup Final in both teams.

As reported in The Newcastle Daily Chronicle (20 May 1918), The Blyth Spartans were the eventual winners, beating Bolckow-Vaughan of Middlesbrough at Ayresome Park in front of a crowd of 22,000. Star centre-forward, 18-year-old Bella Reay scored a hat-trick for the Spartans. Records on Ancestry reveal the stories behind some of the munitionette players, including:

  • Jane (Jennie) Nuttal Jennie left her wedding reception on October 13, 1917 to play for the Blyth Spartans.

    Records on Ancestry show that her nuptial ceremony with William Morgan took place at St Cuthbert's Church, Blyth. Thankfully, William was a football fan and continued to encourage his new wife to play.

  • Winifred McKenna, from Grangetown, who was registered as 13 in the 1911 England Census was one of the first England Lionesses. She started out playing for the Bolckow Vaughan Ladies team during the First World War and was one of the first women footballers ever to play at international level.

    A newspaper article from 1918 shows that Winnie played in the England team vs Ireland at St James Park, Newcastle and they won the match 5-2.

  • Bella Reay was the daughter of a local coal miner who learnt how to play football from a neighbour. Bella scored 133 goals in one season, going onto play for England. The England & Wales Civil Registration Marriage Index shows that after the war, she went on to marry William Henstock in 1919 who sadly was killed in 1940 during WWII.

    Bella never remarried but her passion for football remained, with her grandchildren recalling how their grandma kept her boots from WWI and even in her fifties would play the annual 'Bebside Good Friday men versus women' football match.

  • Lily Parr, who was born in 1905 in the working-class community of St Helens, Lancashire. By the age of 15, Lily was coming to prominence with the most successful team of the time: the Dick, Kerr Ladies. After working in the Dick, Kerr & Co. factory, Parr trained as a mental health nurse, as reflected in 1939 Register on Ancestry, and continued to play women's football for the Preston Ladies until 1951.

    Parr remained in Goosnargh, near Preston and lived with her partner Mary and since her death has become an LGBTQ+ rights icon across the country.

  • Daisy Bates, a prolific goal scorer for Stoke Ladies, who were unbeatable in the 1921- 1922 season.

    They went the whole season without losing a match and defeated Doncaster Bentleys 3-1 in the cup final, with Daisy also scoring in that match.

    Daisy continued her association with football after hanging up her boots; on 11th January 1925 she married Bob Dixon, the goalkeeper for Stoke City.

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