BLYTH SPARTANs LADIES
When women made football history
Blyth Spartans Ladies in 1918
Blyth Spartans, an amateur team from south Northumberland, may have stunned the world of professional football in 1978 when they reached the 5th round of the FA Cup, but a lesser documented success happened 60 years earlier when Blyth Spartans Ladies won The Munitionettes' Cup in 1918.
That prestigious victory took place on May 18, 1918, at Ayresome Park, the then home of Middlesbrough FC, when 22,000 spectators watched the plucky lasses from Northumberland run out 5-0 winners against the Middlesbrough-based munitions factory team of Bolckow, Vaughan & Co., Ltd.
When men were called up to go to the front after the bloodbaths of Somme and Ypres in 1916, women filled the gaps at home by entering workplaces. At the former Royal Arsenal, Woolwich, London, for example, it is reported only 10 women were employed before 1914; by 1918 there were over 24,000 (at its height during WWI, the works employed an estimated 80,000 people!). Munition factories were all over the North East, especially in the industrial areas, and by 1917, 80% of munitions workers were female.
Hundreds of women's football teams were created nationally. This included dozens in the North East, based on munitions and war industries along the rivers Tyne, Wear and Tees, as well as in Darlington and the county of Northumberland. The teams played to raise money for charitable causes. There were no leagues, just matches arranged between individual sides for an agreed "good cause".
However, North East England was unique in that a tournament was launched called the Tyne, Wear & Tees Alfred Wood Munition Girls Cup, possibly named after Sunderland businessman Alfred Wood (glass manufacturing) who had died in 1916. The Munitionettes' Cup, as it became to be commonly known, would be played for by sides in the region.
To keep travel to a minimum and save cost and time, teams from north of the region - Northumberland, Tyneside and Wearside - played each other to find their "champion" while teams from south of the region - Middlesbrough, Hartlepool and Darlington - played a knock-out competition to find their top dog. The two best teams would play each other in the final.
Blyth Spartans Ladies was started by the young munitionettes working on Blyth's South Harbour loading ships with fresh ammunition for the front. During breaks from their dangerous and back-breaking toil, the munitionettes kicked a football around on the beach. Sailors from a Royal Navy ship stationed in the harbour gave them coaching hints and, from informal kickabouts on the sands, the Blyth lasses progressed.
On July 28, 1917, they officially formed a regular team, supported by Blyth Spartans AFC, who gave them their famous green and white strip shirts. Within nine months, on March 30, 1918, Blyth Spartans Ladies were playing at Newcastle's St. James' Park in the final of The Munitionettes' Cup.
Spartans had Bella Reay (born 1900) at centre-forward, and in the 1917/18 season, the 18-year-old from Cowpen, Blyth, bagged an incredible 133 goals in 30 matches!
Attended by 15,000, the cup final ended in a 0-0 draw, despite Bella hitting the bar and Middlesbrough's 'Bolckow, Vaughan' missing a penalty.
The replay on May 18, 1918, saw Blyth Spartans Ladies go in 1-0 at half time. Bella Reay eventually hit a hat-trick, and Jennie Morgan and 15-year-old Mary Lyons, from Jarrow, then in County Durham, scored the other two goals. A phenomenal 5-0 win for Blyth.
On May 31, the whole town gave the team a hero's welcome when the cup was presented at Blyth's Theatre Royal, on the corner of Jefferson Street and Trotter Street (demolished in 1983).
Following the armistice on November 11, 1918 (The Treaty of Versailles, officially ending the war, was signed in June 1919), the munitions factories rapidly closed and women were forced back into domestic servitude.
Blyth Spartans Ladies folded in 1919 but retained the honour of being one of the best women's football teams ever from the region and were unbeaten with 26 wins and 4 draws.
Sadly, the brilliant story of the football women of WWI has been largely forgotten. We have to make sure they will be forever remembered!
This excellent film (3 min 55 sec) - about Bella Reay - was produced by the BBC in 2014. The reporter is Gerry Jackson, with research by Jo Lonsdale.
Bella's granddaughter, Yvonne Crawford, recalls how crowds of 10,000 would watch the ladies - some as young as 17 - play.
Informal kickabouts on the beach
A post-WWI postcard of Blyth South Beach.
Wisecrack Productions would like to thank Patrick Brennan for his tremendous research on women's football in the North East. He has kept the flame burning.
Without Patrick's dedication, this important subject would still be little known and our exciting project would not be happening.
Patrick's book, The Munitionettes: A History of Women's Football in North East England During the Great War, is a must for anyone who wants to read further. This book is currently out of stock, but please get in touch with Patrick here if you'd like to register your interest.
Ladies Doing it for Themselves
Blyth Spartans Ladies 1917-1918
By Patrick Brennan, with an introduction by Graham Usher
Chris Lloyd, a former North East Journalist of the Year, is the chief feature writer of The Northern Echo.
Chris has produced many important articles about local history, not least his brilliant work on munitionettes' football on Teesside during WWI.
Fighting in the factory and on the football field
The Northern Echo, February 7, 2015
Without Blyth historian Gordon Smith, this project would not be happening.
Gordon, who lives near Blyth town centre, is chairman of the Blyth Local History Society (BLHS) and the author of three books about his beloved home manor. In 2002, he co-wrote Images of England: Blyth Volume II with fellow historian Bob Balmer, who in 2011, received an OBE services to maritime heritage in the North East.
His next book was Blyth Through Time (2012). In 2016, he produced Blyth – History Tour.
Thanks to Gordon's meticulous research - scouring all the local newspapers from 1913 to 1921 - he was able to collate the fixtures, team line-ups and reports of every Blyth Spartans Ladies match.
Gordon said: "I'm intrigued by the history of Blyth, and the women's football during WWI is an incredible time in Blyth's story. It must have been exciting following such a successful team. The research took four and ongoing years and I'm delighted it can be put to such good use."
Gordon added: "I'm really excited about seeing Wor Bella and I hope as many people as possible get involved in the project, even if it's just coming to the talk. With the planned talks, the exhibition and the play itself, there are plenty of activities for people with an interest in the subject."
A Love Supreme
Thanks to A Love Supreme, the excellent Sunderland fanzine, for putting this appeal out.
"At the weekend, immediately after hammering Reading 5-0 to win the Woman's league title back to back, Chelsea's manager Emma Hayes asked her players whether they liked winning. The response was an enthusiastic affirmative. "Well, do it again next week!” she enthused as her side prepares to take on the mighty Barcelona in the Champions League final.
It's this same winning mentality that must have seeped into the very marrow of Blyth Spartans Ladies who, during WW1, were the region's champion munitionettes' team, with an enviable record of 26 wins and four draws in their 30 games."