Women's International Matches

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 April 1920: The first international game was held between two women's teams. Dick, Kerr's Ladies (a Preston-based team) invited a women's French representative team to play a series of games for charity. A crowd of 25,000 saw Dick, Kerr's Ladies win 2-0.

The above statement appears on the website of the Football Association, and is repeated in almost every internet reference to women's football. Unfortunately it is incorrect. To understand why, read on.

In December 1917 the Munitionettes' Cup Committee in north east England, which at the time was managing the first major tournament for women's football teams, came up with the notion of staging an international match. The opposition was to be an Irish XI, and the match would take place in Belfast on Boxing Day. The choice of opposition and venue was almost certainly influenced by Bill McCracken, the Newcastle United and Ireland full-back. McCracken had been involved in the staging of men's charity games since the beginning of the war, and had an open-minded attitude to the women's game, refereeing the first such game to be seen on Tyneside in February 1917.

A trial match was staged at Wallsend on 15th December to select a side to represent England. The players were split into two sides - the "Probables" and the "Possibles", comprised as follows:

Probables: May Horn (Slipway), Hilda Weygood (North-Eastern), Maggie Short (Slipway), Mary Mulligan (Slipway), Bella Carrott (North-Eastern), Margaret Hayton (Willington Foundry), Mary Dorrian (West Hartlepool), Nellie Kirk (West Hartlepool), Ethel Jackson (North Eastern), Violet Bryant (Slipway), Lizzie McConnell (Slipway)

Possibles: Maggie Scott (Jarrow), Lepine (Sunderland), Grace Chambers (Slipway), Ettie Catterick (North-Eastern), Bella Reay (Blyth), Bella Turnbull (Slipway), Watson (Hood Haggie), May Grey (Slipway), Sarah Cornforth (Birtley), Connell (Swan and Hunter), Scott (North-Eastern)

Probables XI

The Probables XI

Possibles XI

The Possibles XI

The Probables, with the wind at their backs, attacked from the outset, but after Cornforth had twice tested Horn it was the Possibles who opened the scoring through Turnbull. The Probables continued to have the better of play, with Dorrian, Jackson and Kirk getting in a number of shots without being able to find the net. At half-time the Possibles led by 1-0. In the second half the Possibles had a good run of play, but were driven back. Scott had to come out of her goal to clear from Kirk, but shortly afterwards Kirk centred to Bryant who equalised, and the score remained 1-1 till the final whistle. Following the match the organising committee picked the squad to travel to Belfast; it comprised eight probables, four possibles and one member, Bella Willis, who had not taken part in the trial.

The party left Newcastle Central at the unearthly hour of 00:40 on Monday 24th December, accompanied by their Manager, Mr. David Brooks of Rosehill, and Welfare Officer, Nurse Harrison. The journey was eventful; as team captain Bella Carrott later related to her niece, Lily Dunlavery, the Manager got extremely drunk during the sea crossing, and locked himself in the toilet. (This was possibly the same David Brooks who, according to Gail Newsham 1, in 1922 promoted the Dick, Kerr Ladies' tour of the United States and Canada, and on the outward journey conned his fellow-passengers into collecting £45 for him by pretending to lose his wallet overboard)

One hopes that they managed to get some sleep during the journey, because a busy social programme had been organised for them. On the afternoon of the 24th they attended a football match at Grosvenor Park between two local teams, visited a hospital and the cinema, and in the evening were taken to a show at the Belfast Hippodrome. The following day, Christmas Day, they watched Linfield play Distillery in the morning at Grosvenor Park, and were then taken across the city to Windsor Park for the final of the Steel Cup. A dance in the Victoria Hall followed in the evening.

Belfast Programme page 1  Belfast Programme page 2
Belfast Programme page 3  Belfast Programme page 4

Mary Dorrian's copy of the Tour Programme

(reproduced by courtesy of Peter McNaughton)

Finally, on Boxing Day morning they got to play some football. At 11:00 the following teams lined up at Grosvenor Park:

England: Maggie Scott, Hilda Weygood, Maggie Short, Bella Willis, Bella Carrott (capt.), Bella Turnbull, Mary Dorrian, Nellie Kirk, Sarah Cornforth, Ethel Jackson, Lizzie McConnell; reserves: Violet Bryant, Ettie Catterick

Ireland: Lennox (Belfast Whites), Osborne (Lurgan Blues), E. Walker (Belfast Whites), Riddell (Belfast Whites), G. Morrow (Belfast Whites, capt.), McCune (Belfast Whites), Cox (Belfast Whites), Montgomery (Belfast Whites), Hall (Lurgan Blues), Burrowes (Belfast Whites), Murphy (Lurgan Blues).

20,000 spectators were in attendance, and as few Tynesiders would have been able to make the trip under wartime conditions the support would have been very one-sided in favour of the Irish team. Bill McCracken had Jimmie Lawrence of Newcastle United, a Scot, and Mick Hamill of Manchester United, an Ulsterman, as linesmen. The Lord Mayor of Belfast kicked off formally, and then the real action started. The Irish team were on the attack from the beginning, and there was great excitement when they narrowly failed to score within minutes of the kick-off. England contained the early attack, and for a while the play was confined to midfield. After ten minutes Mary Dorrian put England ahead, receiving the ball on the right wing and scoring with a high shot into the net. The Irish responded to this challenge, and Montgomery, after slipping a couple of opponents, passed to Hall who levelled the scores with a fine shot. The same player missed an easy opportunity minutes later, and Ireland paid the price, Ethel Jackson restoring the English lead shortly before half-time.

Early in the second half England were awarded a penalty, which was expertly converted by Sarah Cornforth. The play was still very much in England's favour, but the Irish team stuck to their task, and contained them until near the end, when Nellie Kirk added a further goal to make the final result England 4, Ireland 1. Bella Carrott, the English captain, was judged the best player on the field by the Daily Chronicle.

Lizzie McConnell, speaking many years later, recalled that on the return journey the team were in a state of nervous anxiety due to the sighting of what was thought to be a German submarine. Whether this caused the manager to resort to the bottle again is not known.

Two further international matches were to take place; on 20th July 1918 the North of England met the West of Scotland at St. James's Park, Newcastle, in aid of the St. Dunstan's home for Blinded Soldiers and Sailors. There were a number of changes in the English side, which comprised the following:

England: Jennie Hodge (Middlesbrough), Hilda Weygood (Wallsend N.E.M.), Nellie Fairless (Blyth Spartans), Bella Willis (60 Shop A.W. & Co. and Prudhoe), Sarah Cornforth (Birtley and Pelton), Minnie Seed (Armstrong's Naval Yard, late Gosforth Aviation and Sunderland), Mary Dorrian (Brown's, West Hartlepool), Winnie McKenna (Bolckow's, South Bank, capt.), Bella Reay (Blyth Spartans), Mary Lyons (Palmer's Jarrow), Lizzie McConnell (Wallsend Slipway)

Scotland's team was also made up of Munitions workers, the line-up being as follows:

Scotland: Jean Brown (Cardonald, Govan), Dolly Cookson (Inchinnan, Paisley, late capt. Vickers FC Barrow), Rosina Clark (Clydesdale), Jean Wilson (Cardonald, Glasgow), Agnes Connell (Mossend, Carfin), Bella Renwick (Mossend, Motherwell), Robina Murdock (Mossend, Motherwell), Nellie McKenzie (Cardonald, Glasgow), Lizzie McWilliams (Clydesdale)

Scottish XI

This photograph, which was among the possessions of Mary Dorrian, is thought to be of the West of Scotland team
(photograph courtesy of Peter McNaughton)

The game was kicked off, as usual, by a celebrity, this time in the person of Miss Hetty King, who was appearing at the Empire Theatre. One wonders if this was an attempt at whimsical humour on the part of the organisers, as Hetty King (real name Winifred Emms), was a famous male impersonator, whose best-known song was "All the nice girls love a sailor."

There was nothing false about the action which followed, however. Women's football had moved on from the days when crowds came to laugh at their efforts, and the game was described as "one of the best of its kind seen at Newcastle... the football was fairly fast and some really clever work was witnessed." The Scottish players in particular approached the game in a robust fashion, and one of their number had to be spoken to by the referee.

Scotland took the lead with a soft goal from Agnes McConnell, but Winnie McKenna, the hotshot from South Bank, equalised with a goal that was described as a beauty. England got two more before the interval, Sarah Cornforth consolidating her reputation as a penalty ace, and then a free-kick let in Mary Lyons of Jarrow, who scored just before the interval. In doing so she established another sadly unrecognised record - she was only 14 years old, and remains to this day the youngest player not only to play for, but to score for England in a senior international.

In the second half both sides were awarded penalties. Bella Willis, rather than Sarah Cornforth, took England's kick, and missed, but Maggie Devlin was on the mark for the Scots, reducing England's lead to a single goal. The Scots piled on the pressure, and England nearly threw the game away in the last few minutes, but there was no further score. The final result remained North of England 3, West of Scotland 2. The best players were judged to be Lyons, Dorrian, McKenna and Cornforth for England, and Brown, Cookson, Murdoch and Devlin for Scotland.

The final international game played by north east munitionettes was a return match against Ireland on 21st September 1918. This time St James's Park was the venue, the charitable cause being the Lord Mayor's War Relief Fund. The organisers decided to include the football match as part of an International Sports Gala, with an 80 yards sprint, a tug-of-war and a penalty kick competition preceding the main event. Only 2,000 spectators turned up compared to the 20,000 who had witnessed the first meeting of these sides, but this may have been due to the serious influenza epidemic which had reached the UK in May and spread to the whole country during the summer.


Newcastle Daily Chronicle - 21st September 1918

Several of the players took part in the penalty kick competition, which was won, somewhat predictably, by Sarah Cornforth. One of the goalkeepers was Newcastle United's Jimmy Lawrence, who acted as referee for the main event, and many years later Sarah Cornforth would still boast of having beaten the United keeper with a penalty at St James's. Before the game the following teams were published:

England: Scott (Jarrow), Weygood (Wallsend), Jackson (Wallsend), Willis (Prudhoe, capt.), Cornforth (West Pelton), Carrot (Gateshead), Dorrian (Hartlepool), Kirk (Hartlepool), McKenna (South Bank), Seed (Sunderland), McConnell (Rose Hill)

Ireland: Fisher (Belfast), Walker (Belfast), Moffat (Belfast), Ridell (Belfast, capt.), Forsyth (Ewart's, Antrim), McEwan (Belfast), Martin (Enniskillen), McLatchie (Portadown), Hall (Lurgan), Knox (Ewarts), Dolan (Belfast).

Two members of the England side failed to turn up, and Mary Lyons of Palmer's was drafted in as one of the substitutes.

The game was kicked off by the Irish team manager, Mrs Walter Scott, in the absence of the Lord Mayor. From the commencement of the game England played with greater skill, Lyons and McKenna in particular giving the Irish defence a hard time. Lyons scored England's first when the Irish goalkeeper failed to come forward and clear the ball, and then McKenna added a second, racing in between the backs to slot home a long drive. The Irish play picked up for a while, but Willis and Cornforth were rock steady in England's defence. Eventually Ruby Hall managed to score for the visitors, but almost immediately Nellie Kirk added a third for England.

England dominated in the second half, and Fisher and her two full backs were kept busy, but could not prevent Lyons and McKenna each scoring again. Shortly before the final whistle Hall got a second for Ireland, to make the final score England 5, Ireland 2.

Because of the poor attendance the takings at the gate amounted to only £60. The organisers were faced with making a loss, but Newcastle United came to the rescue, and agreed to waive their fee for the use of the ground.

Opinions may differ on whether these games should be recognised as the first-ever women's football internationals. As stated at the beginning, the Football Association accords this honour to a game played between the Dick, Kerr Ladies of Preston and a touring French team, which took place at Deepdale in April 1920. One would not wish to diminish the achievements of the Dick, Kerr team, to whom women's football owes such a legacy. But in my view the games played by the north east munitionettes have a greater claim to be regarded as true internationals, as in each case both teams were representative of their regions, whereas the Dick, Kerr team and their opponents were simply club sides.

Similarly, a match played at Celtic Park, Glasgow, on 2nd March 1918 which was billed as "Scotland v England" was actually between the works teams of Vickers-Maxim at Barrow-in-Furness and Beardmore's at Parkhead. The Vickers team won 4-0 with goals from Dickinson (2), Bradley and an own goal.


1. "In A League Of Their Own"' - history of the Dick, Kerr Ladies' Football Team by Gail J. Newsham; published by Scarlet Press 1997, ISBN 1857270290

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