Dick, Kerr Ladies - the pioneers of women's football despite an FA ban

  • Report by Granada Reports Sports Correspondent Chris Hall

A pioneering team of women have been credited with helping to pave the way for women's football - persevering despite an FA ban on playing.

Dick, Kerr Ladies FC was formed at a munitions factory in Preston during the First World War, as a way to improve both morale and health.

The first game they played, in 1917, was in front of 10,000 spectators at the town's Deepdale stadium, where the team beat Arundel Coulthard Factory 4-0.

Just three years later a Boxing Day match against St Helen’s Ladies was watched by 53,000 spectators at Goodison Park - with around 14,000 left outside the ground trying to get in.

But how did a team formed for morale go on to become one of the most famous women’s football teams of all time - paving the way for the Women's Super League, and international women's tournaments?

Dick, Kerr Ladies' matches acted as charitable fundraisers for soldiers who had been injured in the First World War Credit: British Pathe

How did they form?

Dick, Kerr was a munitions factory during the First World War which employed women to do the jobs normally done by men who had been sent to the front line.

The women who worked in the factory were encouraged to participate in organised sports to help with morale and aid production - and a group formed a football team.

After beating their male factory co-workers in an informal lunch-time match, the group decided to become more serious, forming a team under the management of office worker, Alfred Frankland.

Team founder Grace Sibbert soon realised her side could outplay their male counterparts, her grandson David Coulton says.

How successful were they?

Dick, Kerr Ladies rapidly became one the most popular teams - male or female - of their time, attracting crowds of up to 53,000 and playing the very first women's international against France.

Their matches helped to raise funds for wounded soldiers and families in the town who were bereaved, raising morale across the country.

The team's success encouraged numerous women's clubs to open nationwide - all wanting to emulate the same success.

The Dick, Kerr ladies were forced to play at non-FA grounds after an unofficial ban from the overarching body. Credit: British Pathe

What was the FA's reaction?

Those running the Football Association soon noticed the growing popularity of Dick, Kerr Ladies - and the women's game as a whole.

In 1921, they banned women from playing at FA members' grounds.

Officials claimed it was for health reasons, the game was dangerous to women, and because charitable donations from matches had been too low.

Gail Newsham, the team's biographer, said: "The FA said that the football was not a game for women, that it was 'quite unsuitable for females and should not be encouraged', and they also suggested that not enough of the money raised at the matches was going to charitable causes."

She added the team took a different view.

"They were angry, hurt, upset all of those things," she added.

"The ladies themselves told me that they thought the FA were jealous - that they were drawing a bigger crowd than the men... you don't have to be a brain surgeon to work out that women's football was perhaps a bit of a threat back in those days."

How long was the ban?

The ban lasted for 50 years.

But it did not stop Dick, Kerr Ladies from playing, nor women in general, but it deprived clubs of quality pitches, financing and media attention.

By the time it was lifted in 1971, the Preston side had ceased to exist and many fans believed the myths that football was not a women's game.

Belinda Scarlett, curator of the National Football Museum, explains why the road back was then a long one.

"The more you discover about the women's game in the early period, the more angry you are," she said.

"Although it wasn't a legal ban on women playing football, it effectively marginalised women's football.

"It also just perpetuated the myth that football is not a women's game, which is something women still fight for today.

"They still fight for pitch space, for financial support, for media coverage, and I think that has a lot to do with the fact it was pushed underground for 50 years."

What happened next?

Dick, Kerr Ladies continued to play on non-FA grounds, and in late 1922, they traveled abroad for a tour of Canada and the United States.

In 1926 the team changed its name to Preston Ladies FC after a falling out with Alfred Frankland.

They carried on playing until 1965, and had an average of 5,000 spectators at their matches throughout the 1930s. I

In 1937, the team played against the Edinburgh Ladies - the Scottish women champions - and won 5-1, earning the unofficial title of world champions for the first time.

What now?

The anniversary of the ban, in October 2021, and the continuing myths, prompted one of the most successful women's teams of today - Manchester City - to set matters straight.

A Manchester City staff member penned a poem called "My Place Is On The Pitch", read by star striker, and England forward, Ellen White.