When Blyth Spartans Ladies made football history
Blyth Spartans, 1918
Blyth Spartans, an amateur team from south Northumberland, may have stunned the world of professional football in 1978 when the 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 18th May 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, Vaughn & Co.
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. 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 Tyne, Wear and Tees, as well as Darlington and 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, the North East was unique in that Sunderland businessman Alfred Wood initiated a knock-out competition and provided the Munition Girls Challenge Cup (The Munitionettes Cup) that 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 the South Docks loading ships with fresh ammunition for the front. During breaks from their dangerous and back-breaking toil they kicked a football around on the beach. Sailors from a Royal Navy ship stationed in the harbour gave them coaching hints and, from informal kick-abouts on the sands, the Blyth lasses progressed.
On July 28, 1917, they officially formed a regular team, supported by Blyth Spartans FC, who gave them their famous green and white strip shirts. Within nine months, on 28th April 1918, Blyth Spartans Ladies were playing at 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 bagged an incredible 133 goals in 30 matches!
Attended by 15,000, the 1918 final at St James' Park ended in a 0-0 draw, despite Bella hitting the bar and Bolckow missing a penalty.
The replay on 18th May at Ayresome Park saw Spartans go in 1-0 at half time. Bella Reay eventually hit a hat-trick, the other two goals were scored by Jennie Morgan and 15-year-old Mary Lyons from Jarrow.
On 31st May, the whole town gave the team a heroes welcome when the cup was presented at Blyth's Theatre Royal.
When the war officially ended on 11th November 1918, the munitions factories rapidly closed and women were forced back into domestic servitude.
Blyth Spartans Ladies folded in 1919 but retain 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 World War I has been largely forgotten. We have to make sure they will be forever remembered!
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 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.
Without Blyth historian Gordon Smith, this project would not be happening.
Gordon, 79, 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) and 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."
A talk about the Blyth Munitionettes will be organised as part of the Wor Bella project. Details will be announced once Covid restrictions are lifted. If you would like to come to the talk and want more information nearer the time, sign up to our newsletter at the bottom of this page.
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 there.
"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."
How the Bella Reay project started
by Ed Waugh
Special thanks to Blyth historian Gordon Smith who in 2019 re-invigorated my enthusiasm in the subject. I was initially approached by actress Vik Kay in 2017 to work with her on a play about Mary Lyons, a WWI football superstar from Jarrow, who played for Blyth in the 1918 Munitionettes Cup final and led Jarrow to victory in the 1919 Munitionettes Cup, with Bella Reay in the team.
Sadly, my enthusiasm for a play about Mary waned because, despite us doing a number of talks, there was a lack of detailed information about her and the BBC had already produced an excellent Tynemouth based fictional series on WWI women's football called Home Front.
In addition, there were a number of stage plays already out there about women's football including Not A Game For Girls 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 really 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 dedicated to Bella at Blyth Spartans Football Club.
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 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 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 hasn't stopped our team organising the outreach work and we've still managed to have brilliant telephone and Zoom discussions with a host of long-standing and new supporters who we are delighted to be associated with.
Starting to write the play soon, I'm aiming to have a first draft of Wor Bella finished by the end of June. I can't wait to be totally immersed in that world for the next two months.
In my research, I'm delighted to have met and spoken to Yvonne Crawford, Bella'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're 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 the 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!
World War One At Home: Football Playing Munitions Women
This excellent film (3min 55sec) 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.
Lauren Waine, who stars as Bella Reay in Wor Bella, pictured outside what was the Wallaw Cinema (now a Wetherspoon pub) in Blyth.
The cinema opened on November 16, 1937, with seating for 1,441 people. However, before that, it was the site of the Blyth Hippodrome, built in 1902 by William Tudour. The circus proprietor is credited as the man who brought ‘moving pictures’ to the town. There is no doubt the munitionettes, their families and friends would have regularly visited the Hippodrome before its closure in 1920.
Built for the Wallaw Pictures Ltd. chain of Ashington, Northumberland, the Wallaw was designed by the cinema architecture firm Percy Lindsay Browne, Son & Harding (the most eminent firm in their capacity in the region). The company designed many cinemas in the North East but this grade II listed, Art Deco building is regarded as the firm's best surviving work. The architect responsible is thought to have been Charles Alfred Harding.
On 24, March 1955, the building was taken over by the Associated British Cinemas (ABC) chain who operated there for 15 years until 1970 when it was taken over by an independent operator. Then, on January 2, 1972, the London-based Classic Cinemas chain took over. This lasted five years until another independent took over on June 24, 1977.
A half-decade on, the now single-screen cinema closed on December 11, 1982. But, just 16 days later on December 27, 1982, it re-opened under another operator. It also served as a theatre, with Ant and Dec making their stage début there in the 1980s.
In July 1987, the auditorium was sub-divided, with the two small screens hidden beneath the balcony. These are reported to have been "comfortable but undistinguished".
The main screen however maintained all its original fittings, with covered lighting in full working order, and decorative plasterwork and wood facings to walls intact.
After being refurbished and redecorated in 1998,the building was designated Grade II Listed by English Heritage.
Sadly, as the credits and final soundtrack notes of The Passion of the Christ sounded, the landmark Wallaw Cinema closed in 2004, standing empty and unused for nine years until it was purchased by the J.D. Wetherspoon chain of pubs. After renovation, the new-look pub opened on December 10, 2013, as The Wallaw.
The impressive Art Moderne foyer contains its original fittings, including metal handrails, balustrades and inlaid doors. The projector on display in the foyer was found in the building after purchase. It had been left in the projection room, still bolted to the floor, pointing at the main screen.
The beautiful, impressive Wallow is well worth a visit even from an historical perspective.