Spending time exploring our women’s football collection has allowed the team here at the National Football Museum’s archives to make connections between objects that help to tell the story of women’s football.
One of the most interesting periods of the women’s game are the years leading up to the Football Association’s decision to ‘ban’ women’s football in December 1921. Ban is probably too strong a word to describe the FA’s decision, but by rallying support from doctors and ‘experts’ to prove that football was unhealthy for women and preventing FA affiliated clubs from allowing women’s teams to use their grounds, the FA effectively stopped women playing the game. Women’s teams struggled to find suitable grounds to play on and lacked the support given to the men’s game. These restrictions stayed in place for fifty years, finally being lifted in 1971.
At the time of the ban women’s football was a popular sport for women and spectators. It was particularly strong in Lancashire, Yorkshire and Staffordshire. There were up to 150 women’s teams and regional league structures in place at the time of the ban, and the highest recorded attendance for a women’s football match is 53,000 at a match between Dick, Kerr Ladies and St Helen’s in 1920. (Williams, 2017).
Stoke Ladies FC were one of the more successful women’s teams at the time of the ban and they have an interesting role to play in the history of the women’s game. In 1921 the Stoke Ladies team was playing well under their manager and coach Lenoard Bridgett, who also founded the team. Len was from a footballing family. His brother Arthur played for England and we have in our collection a postcard sent from Arthur to Len whilst he was playing with England in Austria in 1909.
Lenoard Bridgett had four daughters who all went onto play for Stoke Ladies. It is likely that Len saw the team as a way to encourage his daughters to play. Although we don’t have a lot of detail about the matches they played, we do know that they played against the leading team of the day, the Dick, Kerr Ladies who represented the Preston based factory of the same name. Both teams took part in a tournament against a French women’s team when they visited England in 1921.
As well as his crucial role at Stoke Ladies FC, Len was instrumental in the development of the English Ladies Football Association which had a brief life between 1921 and 1922 and was arguably a direct response to the FA ban. The first meeting of the ELFA took place a few weeks after the ban and Len Bridgett was its first president. Len helped to organise the first and only English Ladies Football Association Challenge Cup competition in 1922. Len even sourced the competition trophy. His team the Stoke Ladies won the competition in a final against Doncaster Ladies. This medal was awarded to his daughter Lilian, who played in the match.
You can see Lilian and some of her sisters in the team photograph above. We think Lilian is stood on the right, next to her father. The lady on the left is her mother, Amelia.
Unfortunately the ELFA disbanded after 1922 as women’s teams failed to affiliate themselves to it. We are not sure why this happened but perhaps the lack of a league structure surrounding women’s football alongside the ban had an effect. In 1969 during a period of growth for the women’s game the Women’s Football Association was formed and a new exciting era for the game began.
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