Submitted by Kath Brooks.
In 1917, ‘Munitionettes’ was the term generally used by the Press to describe the women’s teams who played football in friendly matches, usually for charitable causes.
My family has always known my grandmother’s younger sister as ‘Nellie the lady footballer’, and her photographs and medal have been kept for nearly a hundred years.
Margaret Ellen Kirk, known as Nellie, was born in Northallerton in 1895. The family moved to Hartlepool some time before 1901 and lived in Stephen Street for many years.
In 1911 Nellie was working as a salt packer; she may have worked in the sawmills during World War 1, hence her connection to Browns.
After reading Patrick Brennan’s book ‘The Munitionettes: a history of women’s football in the North East of England during the Great War’, it became apparent that Nellie was a talented player who was chosen to take part in the first ladies’ international match played in Belfast on 26 December 1917. Two more internationals were played in 1918.
‘Opinions may differ on whether these games qualify as the first-ever women’s football internationals. The football association accords this honour to a game played between Dick, Kerr and Co. Ladies of Preston, and a touring French team which took place in Deepdale in April 1920. Nevertheless, the games played by the northeast Munitionettes have a greater claim to be regarded as true internationals, as in each case both teams were representative of their regions.’
Nellie was 23 years of age when she played for Brown’s (Sawmills)/ Christopher Brown’s Athletic Club. She had a very good year in 1917 when she was a prolific goal scorer and served on the ‘All Women Sports’ Committee and Football Team’, formed in West Hartlepool in 1917.
On 15 December 1917 she was invited to play as a ‘Probable’, along with Mary Dorrian (also from West Hartlepool), in a trial match against the ‘Possibles’, at Wallsend. This is a description from Patrick’s book:
‘The Probables continued to have the better of play, with Dorrian, Jackson and Kirk getting in a number of shots without being able to find the net. At half time the Possibles led by 1-0. In the second half the Possibles had a good run of play, but were driven back. Scott had to come out of her goal to clear from Kirk, but shortly afterwards Kirk centred to Bryant who equalised and the score remained 1-1 till the final whistle.’
Nellie was chosen to play for England. The team left Newcastle Central at 00:40 on Monday 24 December to travel to Belfast. A busy social programme had been organised including theatre and cinema visits, watching two football matches, a hospital visit and a dance.
Finally, on Boxing Day, they lined up at 11:00 at Grosvenor Park to play their match against Ireland. 20,000 spectators attended and, as very few Tynesiders would have been able to make the trip under wartime conditions, support would have been very one-sided in favour of the Irish team. The Lord Mayor of Belfast kicked off formally and the action started.
Mary Dorrian scored after the first ten minutes, then Ireland equalised, followed by another goal from England before half time. England was awarded a penalty early in the second half, taking their goal score up to 3.
Patrick describes the game:
‘The play was still very much in England’s favour, but the Irish team stuck to their task, and contained them until near the end, when Nellie Kirk added a further goal to make the final result England 4, Ireland 1. Bella Carrott, the English captain, was judged to be the best player on the field by the Daily Chronicle.’
The team returned home safely, despite an anxious journey due to the sighting of what was thought to be a German submarine.
Nellie played in the final international game played by North East Munitionettes in a return match against Ireland in September 1918. Once again she scored a goal and England won with 5 goals to Ireland’s 2.
Nellie went on to play in the 1918-1919 season. Her gold medal shows that she was a finalist in the Cup Final played on 22 March 1919 at St James’ Park before 9,000 spectators. Browns lost to Palmers (Jarrow and Hebburn): only one goal was scored.
Nellie was still playing in 1921 and was a goal scorer in a match played at South Shields in front of a large crowd. She played for Tyneside Ladies who defeated Chorley Ladies 6-0.
Sadly, Nellie died of tuberculosis on 3 September 1922, at the young age of 29. Her death certificate describes her as ‘spinster, no occupation’. I am pleased to put the record straight by uncovering the history of Great Aunt Nellie, revealing her occupation as an international footballer.
I feel proud that Nellie was part of the phenomenon of the Munition Girls’ football teams. Towards the end of the Great War, women formed the majority of the workforce and their new-found confidence and liberation is demonstrated in the story of the Munitionettes who, in two short years, took women’s football from ‘comic kickabouts’ to ‘serious and skilled play at international level’.
Kath Brooks 2014
Source: The Munitionettes, Patrick Brennan, Donmouth Publishing 2007