Footballer, cup winner, munitionette... "wor" grandma
Despite Blyth Spartans Ladies being a team effort, Bella Reay was the undoubted star of the show. With 133 goals in 30 matches, she was a prolific goalscorer and catapulted the team to the enviable record of never being beaten - and cup glory!
Born in August 1900, "Wor Bella" was one of six siblings: five girls and one boy. Her father was a miner and her mother was a housewife.
The family lived in Cowpen Square, Blyth, Northumberland, and she started playing football (at that point a "man's game") at the age of five on the grass outside the family home. Surprisingly, it was neither her father nor brother who taught her the finer points of the beautiful game - her older brother wasn't sport-minded; it was a neighbour who kicked a ball around with her.
Yvonne Crawford and William (Bill) Henstock Hamilton are Bella's grandchildren. Despite not being interested in football, Bill is extremely proud of his grandmother's achievements, as is Yvonne, who, until relatively recently, was a Newcastle United season ticket holder. Both live in Blyth, and a Newcastle United emblem greets you as you enter Yvonne's spotless house - a trait she inherited from her grandmother.
The Alan Shearer of her day
(Image: Evening Chronicle (2021))
"Bella was our grandma, so we never really got to know her until we were older and she was in her 50s," said Yvonne, whose mother Ann was one of two daughters to Bella and husband William Henstock. The second being Joyce, who had one son.
"She was a lovely person," continued Yvonne, "well liked and very kind. While she did speak about her time as a munitionette footballer it wasn't very often. She was a modest person - although she did tell us she was a good player, which she obviously was."
"You don't score that many goals if you aren't," added Bill. "She was very proud of her two cup-winning medals; one for Blyth Spartans Ladies in 1918 and the other for Palmers of Jarrow in 1919."
Both Yvonne and Bill said Bella mentioned she played at Wembley but frustratingly there is no written record of that, likewise what Bella did immediately after leaving school as a 14-year-old in 1914.
It is highly possible she took up work in the Port of Blyth as a stevedore in the January 1917 intake, which would have made her 16 years old when she became a munitionette, but her previous two years of employment remain a mystery.
While 47% of unmarried working-class women went into service around this period, Yvonne is adamant Bella didn't enter domestic servitude.
Her job as a munitionette on Blyth docks would have been 12-hour shifts unloading spent cartridges; a physical, back-aching and tiring job.
After the war, the munitions industries were disbanded and factory owners who converted from wartime to peacetime production kicked women out in favour of men who returned from fighting the war in Europe. A terrible time for working-class women, but Britain hardly became "the land for heroes to live in" as promised by Lloyd George (1863-1945), who led the Conservative/Liberal coalition government. Depression and mass unemployment followed: WWII (1939-45) was the continuation of WWI.
After a rapid "demob" when hostilities were halted in November 1918, Bella managed to secure employment at the Blyth shipyard. Again, there are no records of her actual work (her occupation is recorded as a "labourer" on her 1919 marriage certificate) but it's likely she was initially a cleaner who probably became a tack welder.
"She told us she ate her bait on the wall of the shipyard with the rest of the workers, who were mostly men," said Yvonne.
Just over a year after winning her first Munitionettes' Cup Final in 1918 and six weeks after scoring the only goal at St. James', Newcastle, in the 1919 final for Jarrow Palmers, Bella married William Henstock, a miner aged 23, on May 6 at St Mary's Church, Blyth.
William was a resident at 16 Kitty Brewster Square at the time and Bella was registered as living with her family at 88 Disraeli Street in the town centre. The wedding certificate said Bella was 18, although she was most likely 19 years old.
"Some men didn't like their wives playing football; it wasn't what women were "supposed to do", said Yvonne, "but our grandfather was a football fan and obviously very supportive because grandma continued to play after she got married.
"When Blyth Spartans went under she was invited to play for other teams, including Palmers of Jarrow. She told us she became the "best-paid player in the region". By that I don't mean like today's players but she got expenses and a bit extra to cover her costs."
As the British shipbuilding industry declined (Blyth closed in 1966), so Bella's employment would have been terminated. It may have been she faced unemployment when women workers "weren't needed" after WWII. Again, there is no known record.
Sadly, William was killed in 1940. His boat was bombed off the Thames. By then, Bella was a widow with two grown-up daughters: Ann was expecting Yvonne, who was born in 1940. Bella never re-married.
When Bella left Blyth shipyard is unknown, but she found full-time employment at Tommy Morrison's farm at Bebside. It was just up the road from her home at 535 Cowpen Road, a council house three doors down from the former Kitty Brewster pub (previously called The Forresters Arms). Bella's old house still exists but the farm fields are long gone, although the farmhouse still stands.
Bella was at Morrison's farm until her retirement in 1965, when she was 65.
"It was tiring, physical employment on the farm but hard work never bothered her," explained Yvonne. "She'd been used to manual labour all her life and was physically strong and fit.
"William and I used to visit her there with our Mam. We saw her driving the thresher, picking tatties and turnips and plucking chickens. She never complained."
"Grandma always made sure we were well looked after," said William. "She'd slip extra money to our Mam and Aunty Joyce to help them out. Family meant a lot to her."
"Grandma" Bella Reay
Bella kept her money in a biscuit tin that stayed on the top shelf of a cupboard by the side of the fireplace.
"Once there was a small fire in the front room. The only thing she was concerned about was rescuing her tin!" laughed William.
An unpretentious woman, at home Bella always wore a pinny.
"The house was spotless," explained Yvonne. "There was even a day every week for the brass to be polished."
Bella was called upon by neighbours to lay out the dead and she, apparently, never lost her competitive edge, even as she got older.
"Oh, grandma always had to win," giggled Yvonne. "She wasn't a pushy woman, mind, and was very quiet by nature but she played to win, and woe betide anyone who upset her or her family!"
Yvonne and William attended the annual Bebside Good Friday, men versus women football match.
"It was in the 50s and 60s," recalled Yvonne, "and there would be a festival atmosphere. Hundreds of people marched in a parade - sometimes behind a piper - to the school football ground.
"Even in her 50s, grandma would be running around scoring goals, she was a physical player and still a fast runner," said William. "She kept her boots from WWI, probably as a reminder of those glory days and always gave 100%."
Sadly, Bella in later years was diagnosed with dementia and died in Preston Hospital, North Shields, in 1979.
"She was never a passionate supporter of any football team," said Yvonne. " She never even filled in the football pools although she did like a game of bingo. Perhaps nothing could beat the thrill of scoring in front of 22,000 fans and claiming two cups as well as England appearances."
Back row: “Easy” Baker, Hannah Malone, Lizzie James, Nellie Fairless, Steve (surname unknown)
Third row: W. Fairless, G. Bird, Julia Stevens, Mrs Fawcett, M. Carr, Jim McNally, W. Campbell
Second row: R. Thompson, Agnes Sample, Martha O’Brien, Bella Metcalfe, Ted Ellis
Front row: Dollie Summers, Annie Allen, Bella Reay, Dolly Allen, Jennie Morgan
Blyth Spartans Munitionettes' Cup Winners 1918
Back row: Hannah Weir, Lizzie James, Nellie Fairless.
Centre row: Aggie Sample, Martha O'Brien, Bella Metcalfe
Front row: Dollie Summers, Annie Allan, Bella Reay, Dollie Allan, Jennie Morgan