top of page
Soccer Stadium


It just goes to show!


Our good friend and tremendous supporter, Margaret Smithurst, was casually conversing about the play Wor Bella with her colleague, Sarah Chapman, when Sarah revealed her grandmother played for Wallsend Slipway Ladies in 1917/18.


An incredible coincidence that quickly led to Margaret introducing Sarah and Ed at the visually impressive Northumberlandia public art piece for a discussion.


Sarah, a former Linskill School pupil (North Shields, North Tyneside), was brought up in Tynemouth, at the mouth of the River Tyne, and lived in North Tyneside before moving to Northumberland. A former Tyne Tees Television costume supervisor in the 1980s (at the time of the immensely popular The Tube music television programme), she came armed with images of her Grandma, salient facts and fascinated us with the following.

Jane Agnes Watson

By Sarah Chapman

My grandmother was born Jane Agnes Watson on 21 June 1896 on Buddle Street, Wallsend. She was a crane driver during WWI at Wallsend Slipway and played for the works team. At the time, she lived at 15 Forth Street in the town and was known as Jean (Watson).


Standing 5ft 9ins and of shoe size 8, Grandma is the very tall one at the back of the team photograph, back row, on the far right (next to the goalkeeper) and played centre half.

ed 1_edited.jpg

Wallsend Slipway Ladies in 1918

She's also pictured in the photograph of Wallsend Slipway munitionettes - the tall one directly under the second window on the left (circled). We also believe she's pictured in the photograph of women crane drivers, operating the crane. She can just be seen in the top left-hand corner.

ed jane agnes story_edited.jpg
ed 3_edited.jpg
ed 4_edited.jpg

When Grandma left school, she trained as a nurse and worked at St Mary's Children's Hospital in Stannington, Northumberland.


During WWI, she served in France. It must have been a terrible time for anyone, never mind a teenager, to see the carnage. She always said the badly wounded and dying soldiers cried for their mothers. It brings tears to my eyes even now.


At the Front, she witnessed the change from horse-drawn to motorised ambulances. The stretcher length was increased and she said the feet of the injured and dead would stick out of the doors of the latter. 


Grandma was one of three and had two brothers, one of whom, Thomas, died aged 21, of wounds sustained at Ypres. The other, Uncle Ralph, also served at the Front. After the war, he emigrated to Australia and thankfully enjoyed a long life.


Such was the trauma of frontline nursing, Grandma returned home from France to recuperate in 1917 and that's when she joined Wallsend Slipway shipyard as a crane driver. Long, hard and dangerous hours. Some recuperation! But she always said it was something that had to be done.


After working in the shipyards until being made redundant in 1919 she returned to nursing at St Mary's TB hospital in Stannington. My Mam told me that grandma put their old books and toys in the hot oven to sterilize them and gave them to the sick children.


Grandma also worked in Hunters Moor Hospital in Spital Tongues, an infectious diseases hospital in Newcastle.


When she and Grandpa - George Gillander - first met, Jean was living in Middle Row, Percy Main (now the Royal Quays). They were married in the Wesleyan Church in Albion Road, North Shields, on 21 September 1929. Like Grandpa's family, she became a staunch Methodist, strictly adhering to beliefs of no drinking, swearing etc.


Grandpa was employed building turbines, including for the famous Mauretania [see image below], launched on September 20, 1906, at Swan Hunter shipyard, Wallsend. it was one of the most famous ships ever built on the River Tyne.


Following that, he worked for British Rail as a locomotive engine fitter in Darlington. He commuted every day.


My grandparents had three children: William (1930), Joan (my mother) (1932) and John (1934). Both brothers were to die at the age of 56 from stomach cancer.


Grandma and Grandpa, post WWII, lived at 144 Woodlea Crescent on the Ridges Estate in North Shields. Sadly, Grandpa died in the 1950s so I never knew him.


I know my Grandma had to work long hours to keep herself and the family going. Up at 5.30 am every day and, after lighting the house fire with firewood, she worked as a cleaner and took in washing. Being tall, she even painted ceilings, especially before Christmas. She would whitewash two a day at half a crown a go.


Grandma died on 14 March 1970, when I was 11 years old. She was dying of lung cancer then but I remember her as being a lovely, generous person; a loving grandma.


Unfortunately, she never spoke to me about her football heroics. Oh, to have an hour with her now! 


What we do know is she most likely made her debut for Wallsend Slipway on 6 October 1917, against North East Marine Girls at Murray Park, West Stanley, which they won 4-0 with Violet Bryant scoring all four goals.


The story is now continued thanks to Sarah's mother Joan.


Joan, as we know was born in 1932. She lives in Tynemouth and served her time as a tracer/draftswomen in Wallsend Slipway shipyard before transferring to Newcastle Civic Centre as a draftswoman in the city's Highways and Maintenance department. 


When she retired in the mid 1980s, a former colleague sent her the photograph of the 1917 Wallsend Slipway team as a joke, asking her to pick herself out in the picture given she was a sporty type and had previously worked there. Little did she know Joan's mother, Jean, was one of the team!


In an interview with The North Tyneside Courier (21/12/88), Joan said: "It was quite a departure for ladies to play football in those days."


In an article by Tony Henderson (The Journal 12/12/88), Joan said her mother told her the women footballers "even played at St. James' Park!" and were "a jolly lot".


And the story continues. In the same article, Tony Henderson mentions how Mrs Doris Baxter, from Simonside Avenue, North Shields, spotted her mother Elizabeth Clark (bottom left) in the 1917 team picture.


The first record of Elizabeth playing for Slipway was as an inside forward on September 22, 1917, when she turned out against Blyth Spartans at Croft Park. It finished 0-0.


"My mother worked on the docks during the [WWI] war but didn't talk a lot about the ladies' team, although it was a family joke that mam had played football during WWI," explained Doris.

It appears the family didn't believe Doris (see image, below, of Doris holding photo) but the 1917 photograph was used in a press image for the Football Exhibition in December 1988 at the Museum of Science and Engineering [Discovery Museum], Newcastle.


"I couldn't believe my eyes," said Doris, then aged 64, to Evening Chronicle reporter Paul Tully. "Immediately, I and my sister Elizabeth [Fenwick] went to the exhibition and were given a copy each.


"All our lives we've tried to tell the family that Mum was a footballer and they refused to believe us. But not now!"


Doris continued: "Mum lived till she was 84 and died in 1970. She used to talk about playing football but she never won any medals as far as we know."


Another person who spotted herself in the 1917 photograph was Elizabeth Hibbert of Blackett Court, Wylam, who in 1988 was 89 years old.  

Elizabeth, known as Betty (pictured back row, second left in football strip) played outside-left for Wallsend Slipway and went on to represent England. Her maiden name was McConnell. She recalled the picture being taken at St. James' Park for their very first match there.


If that's the case, the team photograph of Wallsend Slipway Engineering Company was taken at St. James' Park, Newcastle, on April 30, 1917, when the team played North East Marine in aid of Dr Barnardo's Homes.


"We used to play there [St. James' Park] now and again and got some good crowds in our day," enthused Betty (listed on the team sheet as L. McConnell).


Meanwhile Joan, in early 1989, wrote to Betty to ask her about memories of her mother Jean Watson. This was the wonderful response on 16 January 1989 [see images and text below].

ed 5_edited.jpg
ed 6_edited.jpg
ed 7.jpeg
ed 8.jpeg

"Dear Joan

Thank you so much for your very interesting letter. I well remember your mother "Jenny" [sic]. I remember her romance but did not know how it finished [she married George Gillander in 1929, see above].


I last remember her going to be a nurse. Her friend Mary Mulligan did become a nurse and was sister at Cherry Burn, Ryhope.


I played for four years. Your mother didn't because the women workers at Wallsend Slipway were finished in 1919 and I played on with a selective team of internationals.


This letter is written by Norma, my warden, because I can't see to write.


The man in the photo was George Haver. He founded the team and everything appertaining.


The other man [not in the photograph] was Jimmy Mutrie who managed the North Eastern girls [North Eastern Marine, Wallsend]...


Yours Sincerely


Betty Hibbert"


Betty was to pass away, aged 90, at Blacket Court in Wylam. She was the last surviving member of the Wallsend Slipway team and still had family (brothers and sisters) in Wallsend.


It is likely that one of her sisters, possibly called Agnes, also played for Wallsend Slipway.


A widow for many years, Betty had no children. She was an active member of Wylam WI and worked as an engraver in later life. Her Thanksgiving service was at St Oswin's Church, Wylam, on 26 November 1989.

ed 9_edited.jpg
bottom of page