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The young lady with the big kick

The Evening Chronicle (18 May 1948) carried a brief interview with North East munitionette star Sally (aka Sarah) Cornforth, who played for Birtley Cartridge Case Girls (CCG).


The article says Sally was better known by her maiden name Matthews.


Thanks to Patrick Brennan's incredible research on the subject, the first written record we have of Sarah "Sally" Cornforth - in Patrick's book The Munitionettes: A History of Women's Football in North East England during the Great War - was on May 26 1917, when Birtley Shell Shop Girls played Birtley Cartridge Case Girls (CCG) at the Cricket club in Chester-le-Street, County Durham.


Sally played for Birtley CCG in the 5-0 victory, scoring a penalty. The Shell Shop Girls played in blue and the CCG in pink. More than 1,000 people attended the match.


The next entry is on June 9 when Birtley CCG played Birtley Cartridge Case Fitters, a men versus women costume match in which the fitters won 3-2. The next recorded fixture is Birtley CCG beating Sacriston 2-0 with Sally scoring one of the goals.


The Chronicle article says Sally was a member of the "unbeaten" Birtley Women's football team...  "was known on most grounds in the region as the young lady with the big kick" and "the penalty kick champion of Tyneside". It continued: "It is on record that she won a penalty kick competition at St James' Park, beating [then Newcastle] keeper Jimmy Lawrence. "


Sally Cornforth
Birtley Cartridge Case


Birtley Cartridge Case Factory (CCF) in 1918

Front row: Sarah Cornforth, team captain (centre)

Back row: Julia Turnbull, left-back (2nd from right)

(Image credit: John Smith, son of Julia Turnbull)

On 3 October 1917, Birtley Munitions Girls (aka CCG) took the impressive scalp of Scotswood 60 Shop by 2 goals to 1, and later that month, on 27th, drew 0-0 with Palmers of Jarrow in the first round of The Munitionettes' cup, played at Bishop Auckland, County Durham. The replay, at Chester-le-Street, was on November 10 and ended in a 2-2 draw with Sally scoring both CCG goals, one a penalty three minutes before half time.


The disputed penalty decision and the resulting goal caused the Palmer's players to leave the pitch in protest. The result stood and two days later the cup committee awarded the tie to Birtley.


The Chronicle article states: "She possesses four medals together with a number of trinkets as a result of her football career during which she raised much money for charity." Adding: "Mrs Cornforth played in many representative women's football games, notably for England against Ireland."


It is believed Sally married in either November/December 1917 and next appeared on December 15 as Cornforth, her married name, when she was seen as an elite player and was selected to play in a trial match, at Wallsend, for a North East team to play the North of Ireland Munitions girls in Belfast on Boxing Day.


Around 20,000 people watched the match in Belfast. England won 4-1 and Sally (recorded as Sarah) scored a penalty.

Sarah, we discovered, on closer examination of Patrick Brennan's book, was married in 1912 and had a small child.


With her husband away fighting in France she, apparently, had a difficult time making ends meet but she loved playing football and registered under her maiden name of Sally Matthews until December 1917.


As mentioned elsewhere on this website, some women played under their maiden names to avoid the poisoned tongues of the chattering classes who disapproved of females playing football. And these selfless women were saving the WWI war effort!


By December 1917,  Sarah must have felt that her prowess on the field, especially her penalty-taking abilities, gave her the confidence to be identified in the press as Sarah Cornforth and not worry about seeking approval from the reactionary gossip.


On December 29, Birtley CCG lost to Armstrong Whitworth 57 Shop 1-0 in Round 2 of The Munitionettes' Cup at Scotswood, Newcastle. It's possible Sally never played due to her international commitments.

Sally never played in the Tyneside v. Teesside representative match on February 2 at Stockton (2,000 attended) although her Birtley teammate Julia Turnbull did. However, she was in the side for the return match (and 3-0 victory) on 2 March 1918, at St. James' Park, Newcastle.


Later that month, on the 18, Sally played for an "Internationals" side that took on Hood Haggies Munitionettes of Wallsend at the latter's Old Cycling Enclosure Ground. The Internationals won 4-0 with Sally notching a hat-trick.


Eleven days later (29th) Sally turned out for Durham against Northumberland at St. James' Park, Newcastle, before 5,000 spectators and bagged all four goals, including a penalty. Julia Turnbull was also on the winning side.


Back representing Birtley CCG, on 1 April 1918, the side drew 0-0 with Angus Sanderson at the University Ground, Durham, County Durham. All credit on this occasion to Angus Sanderson, though. Birtley had been due to play Darlington but they failed to show. Hence, Angus Sanderson played again, after beating Horner's Dainty Dinahs 6-0 earlier in the day.


A prolific goal scorer, Sally bagged the only strike on April 20, when Birtley defeated Elswick Works 58 Shop 1-0 at Pelton Football ground.

Selected to play for the North of England against the West of Scotland at St. James' Park on 20 July 1918, Sally had reached the pinnacle of elite football in the North East at this time. More than 4,000 attended the match. Playing alongside the likes of superstars Bella Reay, Winnie McKenna, Mary Lyons and Minnie Seed, Sally scored in the 3-2 victory. The other scorers were Mary Lyons and Winnie McKenna.

The full North of England team was:

Jennie Hodge (Dorman's, Middlesbrough), Hilda Weygood (Wallsend NEM), Nellie Fairless (Blyth Spartans), Bella Wallis (60 Shop Scotswood 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, Middlesbrough, captain), Bella Reay (Blyth Spartans), Mary Lyons (Palmer's Jarrow), Lizzie McConnell (Wallsend Slipway).


On 21 September 1918, it was posted that Sally played in an England international match (comprising North East players)  versus Ireland at St. James' Park, when England won 5-2. With the war almost over, the attendance was a disappointing 2,000. Sally was listed as playing for West Pelton at this time, though Birtley Munitions girls recorded a 1-1 draw with Wallsend Slipway on September 28. Neither team is listed.


It's more than likely, being a cartridge shop, the Birtley women - like Blyth Spartans Munitions Ladies - were made redundant and Sally became a guest player. Her final mention in dispatches is when she turned out for Armstrong Whitworth's against Vickers of Barrow at St. James' Park, Newcastle, on November 23, scoring the only goal of the game in front of 5,000 people.


The 1948 Chronicle article says Sally was a widow of 4 Washhouses, Birtley, and a member of the canteen staff at Ravensworth Colliery, near Birtley, four miles south of Newcastle.


Interestingly, she recalled her Birtley team beat Blyth at Blyth. "I have reason to remember the game for I was chased to the station with one shoe on and the other in my hand," she said.


There is no record of Birtley ever beating Blyth Spartans, and the only recorded time Spartans played Birtley was on 27 April 1918 (the match had been rescheduled from April 4 due to Birtley taking the wrong train and turning up too late to play).


The re-arranged game played at Seaton Delaval, Northumberland, ended up 0-0. Sally was in the Birtley team, and Seaton Delaval had a station at the time. However, there is no report of this unsavoury incident in the Blyth News & Wandsbeck Telegraph (29 April 1918) which said: "[The match] provided few thrills, a strong cross wind taking the effect from the play. Neither goalkeeper was seriously troubled, play reigning for the greater portion of the game on the wing receiving the force of the wind, so that each had to be content with a goalless draw."


Perhaps a few disgruntled fans weren't content with a goalless draw!

Discover more



Women's football in 1918: Dainty Dinah ladies versus the girls from the Birtley... (2019).

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