When the women of Grimsby beat England

Cod Almighty | Article

by Pat Bell

2 August 2022

When the FA had banned women's football, Grimsby led efforts to keep it alive.

In 1921, women's football was doing so well that the Football Association banned it. The sport had grown in popularity during World War One and on Boxing Day in 1920 Dick, Kerr Ladies (named after the works where the club had been formed) drew a gate of 53,000 to Goodison Park.

in the spring of 1921, the Grimsby Thursday League considered inviting two well-known women's teams to play a charity match in the area. They decided instead to set up their own women's club, the Grimsby Thursday League Ladies FC. In his Reminiscences of sport in Grimsby Bob Lincoln describes two women's matches which had been organised in 1886 but there is no evidence that there had been any further games since then.

The Grimsby Thursday League Ladies played three games, setting a record gate at Scunthorpe's Old Show Ground

The secretary of the new club told the Grimsby Telegraph: "The girls are very enthusiastic and quite whole-hearted in their efforts to make the team a success. They have had big difficulties to face but these have now been overcome." The team was managed by a committee of married women who were "most enthusiastic in the performance of their duties and the welfare of the team."

The Grimsby Thursday League Ladies played three games that I know of. The first, on 5 May, set a record gate for Scunthorpe's Old Show Ground, raising £177 (around £6,000 today) for the Frodingham Cottage Hospital. Playing against Lincoln Ladies, they led 2-0 early in the second half but they had lent Lincoln a Miss Bell to strengthen their attack, and after she scored two penalties the game ended in a draw. When the teams met again at Sincil Bank on 14 May, Grimsby won 1-0.

In 1886, the Grimsby women had been refused permission to play on Clee Park, which had then been Grimsby Town's home ground. In 1921, the club took a more enlightened attitude and on 16 May the Thursday League Ladies played at Blundell Park against an experienced Yorkshire Ladies team. The teams came out to an ovation from what was described only as a "big crowd."

Attendance figures were rarely reported in the early 1920s but £413 was taken on the gate. Average gate receipts for the Mariners in 1920-21 had been around £600 and they had drawn estimated crowds of between 8-10,000 so if admission prices were comparable it suggests the game was watched by over 5,000 people. With advance ticket sales it raised £500 for the Grimsby Maternity Home Fund.

Local notables were often invited to kick off charity games, so the mayoress of Grimsby got the match under way. What followed was a "keenly contested" game of "surprisingly good football" and the crowd were not slow to show their appreciation. Grimsby's left back - presumably the same Miss A Bell who they had lent to Lincoln 11 days earlier - again and again won rounds of applause for her "clean kicking and fearless tackling", the qualities most valued in a 1920s full back. The best player on the pitch was Miss E Coggins, the visitors' centre forward, who "surprised the crowd by her clever manipulation of the ball." She scored the only goal of the game when the Grimsby goalkeeper miskicked a clearance and the ball ran on into the net.

The match was refereed by James Plastow, the Mariners' chair, who was also a Football League referee. He "proved a courteous and indulgent referee, turning the blind eye to all accidental infringements of the rules." Some attitudes were certainly patronising, but behind them there was a well-meaning intention to encourage participation by people who had been given few opportunities to play the game in the past, at least in Lincolnshire.

Other attitudes were less benign. The same day as the Grimsby v Yorkshire game, the Lincolnshire Echo carried this paragraph: "The missionary campaign to restrain girls from indulging in strenuous athletic sports should receive every support from a section of Grimsby inhabitants. Those Grimsbyites are unanimous that ladies’ football, at any rate, is responsible for a high rate of mortality in the vegetable world. This section of dissentients is composed of the allotment-holders, whose plots adjoin the local lady footballers' ground and bitter complaints have been raised as to the mischief caused among growing produce by eager supporters, who scramble over the plots regardless of the damage they do."

It was a facetious sign of the growing feeling being worked up against women's football. Spurious concerns were raised that the sport was bad for women medically, and allegations were made that teams like Dick, Kerr Ladies were overclaiming on expenses when they played charity matches. On 5 December, the FA banned its member clubs from providing facilities for women's teams. To my knowledge there were no more women's games at Blundell Park until long after the ban was lifted in 1971.

However, women's football in Grimsby was not squashed without a challenge. A week after the ban a new organisation, the English Ladies Football Association, was formed. It claimed to have 60 clubs affiliated to it, and its secretary, Mr Henley, was from Grimsby.

The ELFA seems to have hoped to appease the critics of women's football: they emphasised that they were a strictly amateur organisation and they considered amending the laws of the sport to make it more "suitable" for women. They decided to use a lighter ball and to give the referee discretion on the use of hands "for protective purposes."

The ELFA planned to play international matches against France and the Netherlands and on 21 January 1922 they organised a trial match, to be played at the corporation sports ground on Grimsby Boulevard. The gate money would be donated to St Anthony's Orphanage. On one side, there was a representative team drawn from all England, on the other Grimsby & District Ladies. Their team - originally called Cleethorpes - featured none of the old Thursday League Ladies but it did include a goalkeeper from Fleetwood and a full back from Huddersfield, added so that they would also have a chance to impress the selectors.

The day got off to a bad start. Half the England team got off the train at Grimsby Town station, the other half at Grimsby Docks and the game was 30 minutes late in starting while they found their way to Grimsby Boulevard.

It had been raining hard all day and the ground was "literally one big puddle" when the mayor of Grimsby kicked the game off. Soon the mud was coming up to the top of the players' boots, so that every step took effort, and the ball grew heavy and greasy. "Although the ladies put any amount of energy into their work they could not boot the leather far, and there was a lot of scrambling, muddy work near the line". The play concentrated in the Grimsby half, one spectator came out onto the field to shelter the England goalie, holding an umbrella above her head. Despite the conditions, the teams went about their work with earnest enjoyment, taking the comments of "the inevitable 'funny man' with good humour."

Grimsby, playing in black and white striped shirts, improved as the game went on, their forwards combining so that they attacked as a line. A convention of sports reporting was that while professional players were called by their second name only, amateurs were given their initial. As amateurs, the women were mentioned by their initial and also by their title. So the Grimsby Telegraph reported that the home side took the lead when a shot from Miss E Watson, their inside right, slipped from the goalkeeper's hand and trickled about a foot over the line. They increased their lead early in the second half when the inside left, Miss D Mitchell, scored after a goalmouth melee.

England pulled one back with the best goal of the game: Miss E Bridgett streaked away down the left wing and cut inside. Finding her path to goal blocked, she passed to the centre forward, Miss D Bates, whose rising, first-time shot left the goalkeeper Miss Rance (no initial given) helpless. The pair duelled again in the game's last action when Bates ploughed through 40 yards of mud until she was clear on goal, an equaliser apparently inevitable. Then Rance dashed off her line, dived full length and plucked the ball from her toe. The Fleetwood goalkeeper saved the game for Grimsby - they had beaten England 2-1.

When the ELFA named a side for a second trial they selected three Grimsby players in the XI with a fourth as a reserve

The Grimsby Telegraph's report of the match had begun "Man has seldom found it good policy to thwart woman" and when it described the formation of the ELFA it is hard to judge who was the target of their humour: "Thus is came about that women Soccer enthusiasts commenced to organise, partly for self-protection, and largely, it may be presumed, for the sheer joy of letting the autocrats of the Football Association know that she was, as ever, a law unto herself." It was though distinctly proud that Grimsby was the birthplace of the ELFA and that its first game should have been played in the town. If the ELFA undersold the occasion, admitting the away side was "perhaps not really the best team in England", the Telegraph insisted that every great movement has to have a beginning.

It suggested that although the England side had more skilful individuals, Grimsby had won because their players knew each other and worked as a team. Nevertheless they had impressed the selectors. When the ELFA named a side for a second trial, to be played in Plymouth, they picked three Grimsby players - the full back Mrs Bedford, a half back Miss Smith and Miss Watson - with a fourth, Miss Skoyles, as a reserve.

If that match was ever played, or any international women's match under the authority of the ELFA, I've found no record of it. Almost as soon as it formed, the organisation began to dissolve. It organised a cup competition but only 23 clubs entered and some of those later scratched. Although its not clear how many games they had played, Grimsby went into the cup unbeaten but they lost 7-1 in the first round against a Doncaster & Bentley Ladies side which "exhibited surprising speed and deftness of touch". Doncaster went on to the final where they were beaten 3-1 by Stoke Ladies.

It had been a short moment in Grimsby's sporting history, less than a year during which women's football briefly flourished. Watching the Lionesses these last weeks has shown what a crime it was against human talent and potential that it should have been so quickly snuffed out. Perhaps though we can allow ourselves a small measure of pride that for a time Grimsby's football enthusiasts stood on the side of encouraging women as well as men to play the game. It is a history we can build on.

Pat is writing a history of Grimsby Town between 1919 and 1939. The evidence uncovered here is an offshoot of his research. There is no doubt more to find. You can follow Pat on Twitter (@30s20s) and DM him if you are interested in carrying out your own research