The November meeting of the Alnwick branch of the Northumberland and Durham Family History Society was an opportunity for members to hear about the “Munitionettes” from Patrick Brennan.
Patrick has written a book about this forgotten aspect of the First World War, namely the part women working in munitions played in raising money and morale through football.
During the war up to 900,000 women were needed in the munitions factories while the men were away fighting. They undertook dangerous and strenuous work, loading and recycling shells, hence recreational relief was badly needed.
At the Blyth munitions factory, for example, football games started with women kicking a ball about on the beach. They were then joined by a local navy crew who played with hands tied behind their backs. Football League had been suspended at the end of 1914/1915 so there was a nationwide demand to see any kind of match. Ladies’ teams, named after the munition factories where they worked, sprang up all over the country.
It was a Petty Officer Percy Baker who coached the Blyth Spartans, as they became known, and organised their first game in 1917 at Croft Park against the “Jack Tars”. They were probably inspired by the Wallsend Shipway Company who played the North East Marine in February 1917.
The ladies’ teams in the North East included the Aviation Athletics and Armstrong/Whitworth. Although starting as something of a novelty, they soon went on to show real talent. They produced star players like Blyth Spartans’ 17-year-old Bella Reay, who scored 133 goals in one season. The Munitionettes teams were to blaze a trail, entertaining crowds of up to 22,000 and raising money for the war effort.
Sadly, this all came to an end in October 1918 as the war drew to a close. The need for munitions was over and ladies left the factories. The Football Association in December 1921 banned women’s football from all its grounds, deeming it “unsuitable”, although it had been very popular and made a valuable contribution to the war effort. During the 1921 Miners’ Strike women’s football teams again emerged briefly to raise money for the soup kitchens, but once more were cast aside after the need vanished.
The next drop in help session run by Alnwick Branch for those who want to research their family history will be on Saturday, November 21, at the Bailiffgate Museum, at 10am.