Women’s football is back to drawing huge crowds. Huge crowds as evidenced by the recent Women’s World Cup. Huge crowds as evidenced by the soon-to-be-staged Barclays WSL opener at Stamford Bridge, with all the tickets gone for Chelsea Women’s exciting London derby date against Tottenham Hotspur. The stage is set.
We say back to drawing huge crowds for a reason. Female football has been in this healthy state before, a century ago, and Stamford Bridge played its part then too, although Chelsea’s direct involvement in the women’s game began a lot later with at first steady progress made before a recent rapid rise. We will tell that story over next few weeks with this The History of Chelsea Women series, but let’s start at the beginning.
Women’s football during the First World War
There are reports of crowds of 10,000 turning out to watch women play the sport in north London in the 1890s but it was during the First World War, with many men away at the fighting front and the Football League suspended, that the women’s game really took off.
Suddenly many women, through the necessity of the conflict, were taking on jobs previously considered unsuitable for them – munitions factory work being a classic case – and as well as proving perfectly capable of taking the places of the men in that environment, they did so on the sporting field too.
The Football Association at that stage welcomed women in the sport. Their matches during the First World War raised money for injured soldiers and their dependents, and the on-pitch contests quickly became very popular spectator events.
A cup competition for teams representing specific munitions factories began and the most popular team of all came from what had been a railway engineering firm in peacetime – Dick, Kerr & co. from Preston in Lancashire. The football team were called the Dick, Kerr Ladies FC.
After the end of the War, a Boxing Day match in 1920 involving that side drew 53,000 spectators to Everton’s Goodison Park with another 14,000 locked outside. True stars of the era, the Dick, Kerr Ladies were being booked to play two games a week on average and in May 1920, one of those fixtures was at Stamford Bridge. The opposition were to be the top side in France, Femina Sport of Paris. This was just under 100 years earlier than Chelsea Women’s hosting of Paris St-Germain and Lyon at Kingsmeadow last season.
The first ever women’s game at Stamford Bridge
By 1920, men’s league football had restarted but still the crowds turned up to watch what was a tour of games for the French side against Dick, Kerr, mostly in the English side’s north-west region with matches in Preston, Stockport and Manchester but a London venue was still being sought.
Chelsea had just made expensive stadium improvements in readiness for hosting the FA Cup final for the first time so the last match of a ground-breaking tour, which became a media sensation, was booked for Stamford Bridge.
On the day it was the skilful French players who lit up the Bridge, winning 2-1, their only victory in what were England’s first four international women’s matches.
The Femina side sported ‘light blue jerseys with the red, white, and blue cockade on the left breast, and navy blue shorts’. Dick, Kerr were in stripes. Both teams wore tight, stylish bonnets. The two captains embraced at the end of the match.
‘Your crowds are so wonderful – so excitable, so demonstrative that it seems almost as heroic to lose as it is to win,’one of the French players said afterwards. ‘Your people cheer us very much and we have so enjoyed it. We think England is lovely – and London, it is fine!’
The 50-year FA ban
Yet despite the war effort from women everywhere and the enduring popularity of the women’s football matches that had followed, just around the momentous time in history when the first women were given the vote in the United Kingdom with more to soon be allowed that basic democratic right, the Football Association blew the whistle on the female game.
As incredible as it seems now in the way it appeared to go against the zeitgeist, they banned women from playing on the grounds of all their affiliated clubs, citing complaints that had been made to them about football played by women, and stating that the FA Council felt impelled to express their strong opinion that the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged.
They also cast aspersions on how much of the money raised was actually going to charity. It would be a long time before women’s football was seen at Stamford Bridge again, and indeed in any of the nation’s major stadiums.
England’s World Cup win in 1966 is thought to have got the ball rolling again, inspiring women to challenge the ban and in 1971, after 50 years in place, it was rescinded.
In 1972 Harry Batt, secretary of Chiltern Valley women’s club, predicted, ‘Women’s football will prove so popular that in 10 years clubs such as Arsenal, Spurs, Chelsea, Manchester United and Leeds will be running women’s teams,’ and indeed, one of the new pioneer clubs was a Chelsea Ladies side.
One of the Chelsea men’s team stars of the time, John Hollins, was the president of the women’s team and he was present as they won the London Women’s Football Challenge Cup final by beating Millwall Lionesses 4-2. Debra Hollingshead scored the first and last of our four goals with Derese Meade netting the other two.
Chelsea were also league champions so manager John Martin had steered his recently formed team to a league and cup double which was repeated the following season. However that success dwindled and it was not until Chelsea Ladies was reformed in 1992 that the rise towards the present-day success began again.
The Stage Is Set
Tickets for the London derby against Tottenham Women sold out in record time but a few returned standard tickets are back available to claim free of charge, plus some restricted view tickets.
Click here for tickets for for the match on Sunday 8 September (kick-off 12.30pm)
Fans can also purchase a Brunch + Ticket package for £60. The package includes a pre-match brunch with a complimentary bar and West Stand middle tier seating next to the Directors' Box.