Blyth Spartans may have stunned the world of professional football 40 years ago when the team reached the 5th round of the FA Cup but a lesser documented success was when Blyth Spartans Ladies won the Munitionettes Cup exactly 100 years ago, in May 1918.
That prestigious victory took place on May 18 at Ayresome Park, the then home of Middlesbrough FC, when 8,000 spectators watched the plucky lasses from Northumberland run out 5-0 winners against the Middlesbrough-based munitions factory team of Bolckow, Vaughn & Co.
When men were called up to go to the front after the bloodbaths of Somme and Ypres in 1916, women filled the gaps at home by entering workplaces. Munition factories were all over the North East, especially in the industrial areas and by 1917 80 per cent of munitions workers were female.
Blyth Spartans Ladies was started by the young women working on the South Docks loading ships with fresh ammunition for the front.
During breaks they kicked a football around on the beach.
Sailors from a Royal Navy ship stationed in the harbour gave them coaching hints and, from informal kickabouts on the sands, the Blyth lasses progressed. On July 28, 1917, they officially formed a regular team, supported by Blyth Spartans FC, who gave them green and white strip shirts.
Within nine months, on April 28, 1918, Blyth Spartans Ladies were playing at St James Park in the final of the Munitions Cup, which pitted the best team in Teesside (south of the region) against the cream of the north of the region.
Spartans had Bella Reay up front and in the 1917/ 18 season, the 18 year old from Cowpen bagged an incredible 33 goals in 30 matches!
Attended by 15,000, the final at St James’ Park ended in a 0-0 draw, despite Bella hitting the bar and Bolckow missing a penalty.
The replay on May 18 at Ayresome Park saw Spartans go in 1-0 at half time. Bella Reay eventually hit a hat-trick, the other two goals were scored by Jennie Morgan and 15-year-old May Lyons from Jarrow, who won the accolade “Woman of the Match.”
On May 31, the whole town gave the team a heroines’ welcome when the cup was presented at Blyth’s Theatre Royal.
Once the war ended the munitions factories closed and women were forced back into domestic servitude.
Blyth Spartans Ladies folded in 1919 but retain the honour of being one of the best women’s football teams ever from the region and were unbeaten, with 26 wins and 4 draws.
Blyth MP Ronnie Campbell said: “This is an amazing story and it is important that the people of Blyth know their history.”
Sadly today, the brilliant story of the football women of World War 1 has been forgotten…until now!
To celebrate the Blyth victory 100 years ago a talk will take place at Headway arts Centre, Cyprus Gardens, Blyth (NE24 1BY) on Friday, May 18, at 2pm and 7.30pm. Actress Vik Kay and playwright Ed Waugh will speak. Entry is free. All welcome. For more details contact 07960066377.