WOR BELLA WRITER ED WAUGH
Writer & Producer
A special thanks to Blyth historian Gordon Smith who, in 2019, re-invigorated my enthusiasm for the subject. I was initially approached by North East actress Viktoria Kay in 2017 to work with her on a play about Mary Lyons (1902-79), a WWI football superstar from Jarrow, South Tyneside, who played for Blyth Spartans Ladies in the 1918 Munitionettes' Cup final and led Jarrow to victory in the 1919 Munitionettes' Cup, with Blyth-born (Cowpen) Bella Reay (1900-79) in the team.
Sadly, my enthusiasm for a play about Mary waned because, despite us doing several talks, there was a lack of detailed information about her and BBC Radio 4 had already produced an excellent Tynemouth-based fictional series on WWI women's football called Home Front.
In addition, there were several stage plays already out there about women's football, including Not A Game For Girls (Benjamin Peel), but, above all, my time was curtailed because of a commitment to Carrying David, a play I wrote, produced and toured in May/June 2019.
Perhaps I wasn't interested enough in Mary Lyons to dedicate three years of my life to her life. Mary's story is still to be told though, and the overlap with Bella Reay from Mary's perspective would make it interesting.
Just to backtrack; in May 2018, I had initiated and spoken at Blyth to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the famous Munitionettes' Cup victory. Around 80 people turned up to the two talks. The response was tremendous. Family members of the players attended, giving anecdotes about their relatives.
For me, at that meeting, Bella Reay changed from being merely a name with exceptional football statistics to a real person the moment we were told about an ignorant bloke giving Bella's husband 'stick' because he "allowed" Bella to play football. According to the storyteller, despite being a mild-mannered and affable woman, Bella took matters into her own hands; she marched into the bloke's house and chinned him!
It was from this commemorative meeting that a blue plaque was soon after, in 2018, dedicated to Bella at Blyth Spartans AFC.
Anyway, a year later (just before the premiere of Carrying David in May 2019), I undertook a long-standing commitment to speak at Blyth Local History Society (BLHS) about munitionette footballers during WWI. At the meeting, I met Gordon Smith, who stayed behind for an hour or so to chat.
Gordon's enthusiasm re-invigorated my interest in the subject of WWI women's football, and he sent me his extensive research on Blyth Spartans Ladies: every game, every team selection and every match report. The story of them winning the cup in 1918 was brilliant and, of course, the spirited Bella Reay would make a wonderful lead character.
Fast forward six months or so - after Carrying David's North East and Irish tours - to November 2019 when Dirty Dusting (a play I co-wrote with Trevor Wood) was being performed at Blyth's Phoenix Theatre. There, I mentioned the idea of Wor Bella to the venue's executive director David Garret.
David was really enthusiastic about what could become a project with educational outreach, culminating in a play. Soon afterwards he introduced me to Blyth Spartans chairman Tony Platten who gave his backing.
More than a year later, in January 2021, we were delighted to get Arts Council England on board as well as the hugely supportive Blyth Town Council. The project was gaining momentum!
Unfortunately, the pandemic struck. Thankfully, that didn't stop our team from organising the outreach work and we still managed to have brilliant telephone and Zoom/Skype discussions with a host of long-standing and new supporters whom we are delighted to be associated with.
In my research, I'm delighted to have met and spoken to Yvonne Crawford, Bella Reay's granddaughter, as well as Sandra Kelly and Christina Watson, the granddaughters of Blyth's star winger Jennie Morgan. Oh, to have had an hour's chat with Bella and Jennie!
Like every other munitionette who put on a strip and boots, Bella and Jennie only saw themselves as lasses playing football for a good cause. They never felt they were making history. We are taught in schools and universities that history is only made by kings and queens, not working-class people who actually do the work and create wealth!
We have a proud history, one to celebrate but it's been largely forgotten. That sad and inexcusable situation won't change until real history is taught in schools and colleges.
Hopefully, our project will make a small contribution to preserving real historical memories.
One stark lesson of this project and in general is that we're all making history now. Talk to your older relatives about their working lives and leisure activities before it's too late. Seize the time.
Wor Bella will rock in 2024!
Writer & Producer
Wor Bella stage play 2022 and 2024 tours.