by Stuart Moriarty-Patten
18 May 1918: Blyth Spartans Munition Ladies win the Munitionettes’ Cup
In August 1917 a tournament was launched for female munitions workers’ teams in the northeast of England. Officially titled the Tyne Wear & Tees Alfred Wood Munition Girls Cup it was more commonly known as the Munitionettes’ Cup.
During the First World War with the number of men who were away fighting at the front left a huge number of vacancies. As a result the number of women in employment between 1914 and 1918 leapt from just over 3 million to nearly 5 million. Over 700,000 of these worked in the munitions industry.
It was not unusual for the women working in the factories to play football in their lunch breaks, and women’s teams began springing up across the British Isles. On Christmas Day in 1916, a game took place between Ulverston Munitions Girls and another group of local women with the munitionettes winning 11-5. Soon afterwards, a game between munitions factories in Swansea and Newport took place. The Hackney Marshes National Projectile Factory formed a football team and played against other factories in London. On Christmas Day 1917 over 10,000 watched Dick Kerr’s beat the Arundel Coulthard Foundry 4-0 at Preston North End’s Deepdale.
The North East was no exception and the Blyth Spartans Munitions team was just one of a large number of teams in the area. They had begun with informal kickabouts between themselves but progressed to being a regular side and adopted both the name and the green and white stripes of the local Blyth Spartans football club.
The team had been getting coached by the crew of a ship which had been berthed in the harbour and on the 4 August 1918 the Blyth Spartans Munition Women’s team made their debut against the sailors’ team at Blyth Spartan’s ground Croft Park
The game was a light-hearted affair with the crowd being entertained before kick–off by the Navy’s centre-forward Petty Officer Baker and his Charlie Chaplin impressions. The men’s team were also obliged to play literally with one hand tied behind their back to make the game fairer, but perhaps the woman’s team did not need this advantage as they won easily 7-2 with six goals coming from the player who was to prove to be their star, a 17 year old named Bella Reay.
The Spartans first serious outing was against another Blyth team on 18 August 1917 when they played Blyth United Munitions Girls in a charity match. Spartans ran out easy 10-1 winners with Bella Reay again featuring heavily as she netted seven times, and the winners being presented with a souvenir brooch from Herrons, a local jeweler.
Two days later the formation of a knockout trophy for the Tyneside area’s Munitions’ women’s’ teams was announced. The ties were to be allocated to charities who would arrange the fixtures and take any money collected on the day. Spartans were drawn against Aviation Athletic of Gosforth but the tie was delayed due to the military commandeering the ground where it was to be played. The tie was eventually played on 17 November and Blyth won 4-2 with two goals coming from Reay and the others from Dolly Allen and Ada Reed.
The next round saw Spartans drawn against North East Marine (NEM) Engineering of Wallsend. This was a strong team whose captain, Bella Carrott, would go on to lead the first England Women’s International team. The teams met on 12 January at Newcastle’s St. James’ Park in a game Spartans won easily but was marred by controversy. Bella Reay scored six in Blyth’s 7-1 victory but it was her fifth that saw the game degenerate into a farce. After the referee refused to listen to NEM’s appeals that Reay’s fifth goal was offside the entire side stormed off the pitch. Spectators who were keen to join in the argument then invaded the pitch. After 15 minutes the NEM side was convinced to return but now the referee refused to have anything else to do with the NEM side and it became his turn to leave the pitch. Eventually play was resumed with a substitute referee only for Reay to soon add insult to injury as she netted her sixth of the game.
The third round saw the Spartans beat Armstrong’s Naval yard 3-0 with goals again coming from Reay who recovered from missing an early penalty to score two and see her side safely through to the semi-finals where they were to meet Armstrong-Whitworth’s 57 Shell Shop. St. James’ Park was again the venue and over 10,000 people were in attendance to watch the game on 9 March 1918. Annie Allen put Spartans in front but 57 Shop pulled one back just before half-time. The second half was as evenly contested as the first with the defences dominating, but with two minutes remaining, and the game looking like it was heading for a draw, Bella Reay scored after a fine run through the 57 shop defence to send Spartans into the final.
The Final took place at St James’s Park on 30th April 1918 between Blyth Spartans and Bolckow Vaughan’s women in front of 15,000 people. In a highly competitive match there was no score although Reay came close for Spartans by hitting the crossbar and Bolckow missed a penalty.
Problems with agreeing on a venue meant that the replay could not be played until 18 May when it was held at Middlesbrough’s Ayresome Park. This time 22,000 people turned up and were treated to a fine display by Spartans. The first half had been another tight affair with a single goal from Spartan’s Jennie Morgan, but in the second half the Spartans stepped up their game with Bella Reay getting a hat-trick and 14 year old Mary Lyons, who had made her debut only a few weeks before getting the fifth. Lyons had impressed throughout the game with The Blyth News reporting that she “was repeatedly cheered to the echo for her work and dribbling, which reached a point of brilliance when, beating four opponents in succession, she dashed through and beat the fifth, the goalkeeper, thus securing the fifth and last goal.”
A formal reception was held at the end of May in Blyth’s Theatre Royal to celebrate the women’s achievements at which they were lauded by Johnathon Ridley, the President of the Northumberland Football Association, who said he felt sure that all those present would agree “that if ever there was a team that deserved a set of medals these girls deserved them.” In their first season the team had won the Challenge Cup and since August the previous year they had played 30 games won 26 drawn 4 lost none, and raised over £2000 for various charities. By the end of the season the team’s star ‘Wor Bella’ had scored a scarcely believable 119 goals and appeared for various representative sides before rounding of the season being picked with the young Mary Lyons for an England XI who beat Scotland 3-2 at St. James’ Park on 20 July.
The next season the team played three early games but then seemingly disappeared without trace. Patrick Brennan, the author of The Munitionettes: A History of Women’s Football in North East England During the Great War has postulated that the team could have been hit by the influenza epidemic that spread across Britain in 1918, or they could have split acrimoniously following the dropping of the previous season’s captain Bella Metcalfe. Most likely though the War was coming to an end and the corresponding fall in demand for munitions possibly meant that the women were made unemployed, or demobilised to use the term of the day, and the loss of their positions saw the folding of the club
The 1918-1919 Munitionettes Cup saw the women of Palmer’s shipyard in Jarrow beating Christopher Brown’s of Hartlepool 1-0, but this was to be the last time it was held. The reduction in employment began to affect the teams in the competition and many had featured guest players, meaning that two of Blyth’s heroines Bella Reay and Mary Lyons again managed to get a winners’ medal, with Reay naturally scoring the winning goal for Palmers.
Munitionettes football gradually faded away as the women were laid off from the factories but I am sure that the memories for those that played in those games would remain for a long time.