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Banned by the FA: Unlocking the hidden histories of women’s football

a black and white photo of a team of women footballers in striped kits with their male manager back left

Stoke Ladies FC. circa 1922. Courtesy National Football Museum

The National Football Museum is opening an extension to its permanent gallery dedicated to women’s football in March 2018. Here Collections Officer Belinda Monkhouse talks about Stoke Ladies, the FA ban on women’s football and how they are using the collection to unlock the hidden history of women’s football in the UK

Women’s football was particularly strong in Stoke-on-Trent in the 1920s. Their manager, Len Bridgett, had a sporting background – his brother Arthur played football for England and we have a postcard in our collection of Arthur Bridgett when he was with England in Austria in 1909.

Len had four daughters and at some point they all ended up playing for Stoke Ladies FC. He obviously saw football as a way of encouraging his daughters to play football – they must have shown interest in the game and there wasn’t any way of them playing unless he organised something on their behalf.

So he founded Stoke Ladies FC and later he became particularly important in the English Ladies Football Association, which had a very brief life between 1921 and 1922, in the wake of the Football Association’s ban on women’s football.

The word ‘ban’ is perhaps too strong because the Football Association didn’t say women’s football was banned, they didn’t use that terminology. But they rallied support from doctors and “experts” at the time to try to prove that women’s football was unhealthy for women. They then banned FA clubs from letting women’s teams use their grounds, which effectively stopped them playing because they had nowhere to play.

“The FA ban stayed in place from 1921 to 1971 – effectively 50 years”

So the FA made it very difficult for women’s teams to organise games and find grounds to play on. People who were affiliated to the FA couldn’t assist women’s teams either – that stayed in place from 1921 to 1971 – effectively 50 years.

As a result women’s teams played on terrible pitches, race courses and school pitches and that sort of thing until 1971; obviously they continued playing football and the Women’s Football Association re-emerged in 1969 when a revival in women’s football slowly led to the ban being lifted in 1971.

an old photograph of the England football team on the lawn of house surrounded by men with suits, moustaches and hats

A postcard featuring the England and Austrian men’s football teams during England’s tour of Austria in 1909. Arthur Bridgett (back row, top left) sent the postcard to his brother and founder of Stoke Ladies FC, Len Bridgett. Courtesy National Football Museum

But the Stoke Ladies was one of the most successful women’s football teams of the 1920s – alongside the Dick, Kerr Ladies team, which came out of a factory of the same name in Preston during the First World War. The myth around the Dick, Kerr Ladies is that they challenged the men to play football in one of their breaks, and they were so good one of the men who worked there, helped them to form a team.

A lot of women’s football teams had their origin in the factories when the men were away fighting in the First World War. There was support for women’s football during the war as the games were organised to raise money for war charities.

Dick, Kerr and Stoke Ladies were particularly successful. We have reports of them getting crowds of two to four thousand at the very least and once playing in front of a crowd of 10,000. The highest figure for a crowd in women’s football at the time is about 53,000 for a game at Goodison Park in 1920, which is another reason people cite for the ban; the FA were becoming increasingly concerned the popularity of women’s football would challenge the men’s game.

Although Stoke Ladies were one of the most successful women’s teams, we can’t vouch for all three trophies in our photo of them. The one on the far right is the English Ladies Football Association cup, but we think the others look a bit like men’s trophies.

The one on the left looks a bit like the 1896 FA cup trophy, and the one in the middle looks like many of our very early, late 19th century trophies, with the shields around the bottom. One of the guesses from a colleague was that Len Bridgett was involved in some men’s teams as well so he may well have just borrowed them for the picture, to make them look more successful!

We also don’t have much documentary evidence of exactly what games they played because women’s football didn’t have a proper structure in place like the men’s league. They would organise charitable matches and play various one-off games against different teams including some hard fought duels with the Dick, Kerr Ladies.

a photo of an old football pennant with the words FS Paris

A pennant presented to the Dick, Kerr Ladies football team by the French Women’s team during their tour of England in 1921. They also played against Stoke Ladies. The pennant features the French team Femina Sport Paris as most the French national team played for this club as they were one of the leading women’s teams in France at the time. Courtesy National Football Museum

We have some newspapers in the collection from the 1920s with reports of English women’s football, but strangely enough many of them are newspapers and sporting journals from France. The Dick, Kerr Ladies travelled to France and Stoke Ladies to Barcelona. A French team visited England in 1921 and played both teams. Women’s football was quite big in Europe but in England there wasn’t a great deal of coverage, apart from disparaging articles in the lead up the ban.

The interesting thing about the Ladies’ Football Association is that it came about because of the FA ban. Their first meeting was weeks after the ban came in place and Len Bridgett became the first president, so he’s really important.

But it dwindles very, very quickly, the Ladies’ FA only lasts about a year and it doesn’t really make another appearance until the Women’s Football Association in 1969.

“All we really know is that she’s Len’s daughter…”

As well as the photograph we have some objects relating to Len Bridgett’s daughter Lilian Bridgett. We don’t know much about her life outside of football unfortunately, but that’s something we’re looking into – we would like to uncover more individual stories behind these lady footballers because we don’t know a great deal about these women at all, what their lives were like.

Most of them were working during the war, so they may still have been working by the time of our photograph. All the way through the history of women’s football until very recently, most women would have had a job outside of football.

Often the clubs would try and find jobs for the women who played for them. The Dick, Kerr Ladies are famous for bringing good female football players in and finding them jobs, so it’s likely Lilian also worked in some way but we don’t know for certain. All we really know is that she’s Len’s daughter and that maybe the reason she was picked to play for Stoke Ladies is because she was part of this footballing family.

a photo of a man and his daughter who is in football kit

Lilian Bridgett and her father Len Bridgett. The National Football Museum is trying to find out more about the Bridgett family. Courtesy National Football Museum

a photo of the front and revers of a lady's football association medal awarded to Lily Bridgett

English Ladies Football Association challenge cup winners’ medal, awarded to Lily Bridgett. Courtesy National Football Museum.

We think the sisters are in the photo too, and we know that’s her mother, Amelia Alice, on the left hand side. The sisters definitely all played and often there was more than one Bridgett daughter in the team at any one time so it’s likely there’s more than one Bridgett in that photograph. The reason we’re focussing on Lilian is because we have her medal in the collection.

Len Bridgett organised the challenge cup competition that Stoke Ladies went on to win when Lilian got that medal. I think he even arranged getting the trophy made, so everything about it really was his, it all came from Len Bridgett. You often find that the women’s teams needed that one person to organise it and make it happen, because there wasn’t a lot of formal structure or support around women’s football.

The medal is nice because that’s the only medal that’s ever been awarded for that competition. We don’t know where the cup is. It’s definitely not in our collection, if we could ever find the cup, which is the one that’s on the far right, it would be amazing.

“we need people’s help to find out who was in these teams”

But this is why we’re doing this project – to find out more. We’ve got lots and lots of postcards and photographs in the collection of these women’s teams, but we’ve never really had the opportunity to spend time researching them, finding out who these women are. We’ve just got the photographs, there’s no team line-up, there’s no programme associated with the games they played and often no explanations as to why they’re having the photographs taken. It’s just a massive untapped resource.

We need a lot more research and we really need people’s help to find out who was in these teams, who are in these photographs. That’s one of the reasons we’ve started our Blog – to try and encourage people to identify the women who are in the pictures.

As we uncover more we want to feature some of their stories on our website – from people who have been involved in women’s football over the years. If people have played women’s football or had a family member who played and they have got a story to tell, we would love to hear from them.

Belinda Monkhouse was speaking to Richard Moss

The expanded women’ s football gallery at the National Football Museum is due to open in March 2018. Find out more by visiting the National Football Museum’s blog at unlockingthehiddenhistory.wordpress.com Get in touch with Belinda on belinda.monkhouse@nationalfootballmuseum.com