In a year of widespread First World War centenary commemorations, a Lancashire theatre company is focusing on another aspect of that defining era – the rise of women’s football.
And Northern Irish actor/playwright Stephanie McKervill is just the latest to tackle the Dick, Kerr Ladies FC story in her new production, No Man’s Land.
Preston, Lancashire, played a major role in the development of professional football, as anyone who knows the timeline of the Beautiful Game will tell you.
What’s more, the history of the women’s game also had key links with this North-West heartland.
Dick, Kerr’s Ladies FC was one of the earliest women’s football teams, founded in 1917 and soon attracting huge crowds in their home town.
This isn’t the place to read that story in detail, but thankfully there are plenty of publications and online spaces dedicated to this remarkable tale.
For now I’ll just add something of a potted history, revealing that within three years, what started as a works team ended up representing England in the first of four internationals on home soil against a French side, played in front of 25,000 people at Preston North End’s Deepdale home.
A French tour followed, but despite widespread fame and popularity, the Football Association banned the club from using its pitches in 1921, in what turned out to be a 50-year ruling.
However, the Dick, Kerr’s Ladies’ continued, with Canadian and US visits following. And their legacy lives on, not least thanks to writers like Gail Newsham and Barbara Jacobs, a number of theatrical productions, and a BBC documentary.
It was the latter that first turned Clitheroe-based Steph on to the story. So what was it about the Dick, Kerr’s Ladies story that appealed to her?
“I first heard the story on a TV programme in 2011, and it was something that just stuck with me. As a writer I’m very interested in true stories.
“It’s those interesting snippets of information about people you can really draw on, trying to find out what those characters were like and what their individual stories might be.
“With this team of women at that time, I just thought ‘my goodness, what kind of lives did they lead, and how does nobody seem to know about this?’”
The initial Dick, Kerr’s team comprised of female workers at the Preston loco and tram manufacturer in 1914, taking time out from producing munitions for the war effort.
It was felt that such organised sporting activity would be good for morale and ultimately aid production.
And what started as informal matches during breaks led to much more thanks to Dick, Kerr’s office worker Alfred Frankland, who organised public matches.
That venture soon proved a major success, and one early clash on Christmas Day in 1917 pulled in 10,000 spectators to Deepdale.
Three Christmases later, a Boxing Day clash with a French tourist side drew 53,000 spectators to Everton’s Goodison Park.
Furthermore, regular Pathe News footage shown at UK cinemas ensured drafted-in talents like Lily Parr and Alice Woods – both originally from St Helens – became big names.
Those two leading lights are at the heart of Stephanie’s play, but No Man’s Land doesn’t just try to interpret their roles in the Dick, Kerr’s success story.
“There are characters I know lots about thanks to research from people like Gail, such as Lily and Alice.
“Their stories were really interesting to read about, as it was to hear about the other characters. But there’s still not that much available about some of the others.
“I’ve used real names in there, and all the surnames who played are there, but for a lot the only thing we know is that they were in the starting team.
“That allowed me to use a little artistic licence, putting them in situations I believed they would have been in at that time.”
An FA ban at the end of 1921 largely curtailed the team’s success, the game’s authorities feeling – at least privately – that the Dick, Kerr’s Ladies’ popularity threatened the men’s game.
That too was something that made an impression on Stephanie.
“I personally connected with this as I once played cricket for Ulster. So while I wasn’t a footballer, I had a hard time at school training with the boys, getting bullied a little.
“As it turned out I gave that up, because I had more love for theatre than sport.
“But hearing this story and learning that women had gone through all this 100 years before, I wondered why we were still going through it all. That resonated with me.
“No Man’s Land is about the journey of the Dick, Kerr’s Ladies from creation until the FA banned women’s teams from playing in their stadia.
“It’s a journey over four years, from the mid-point of the war to when the men returned home, looking at how life changed and how the team grew and became more and more popular.
“In effect they became the England national team, and we follow the story until the time when the FA turned around and told them they didn’t want them anymore.
“These women were playing at an important time, around a year before women got the vote, so it’s all hand-in-hand with the suffrage movement.”
It seems somewhat ironic that in a period which opened up the world to women, and at least led to them gaining the vote, the FA seemed to be swimming against the tide.
“Very much so. I think at first it was felt we needed the entertainment, the chance to have something light-hearted and sporting going on while the men were away.
“But later they wanted women back to where they were. One other problem was that the women’s league was set up for charitable causes and was raising money for hospitals and returning soldiers. The FA wasn’t making money in the way they were with the men’s game.”
The poster publicising No Man’s Land depicts two actors recreating an evocative 1920 photograph of opposing international captains shaking hands and kissing before a match at Preston, one that might suggest a gay sub-plot.
“Well … society now looks at that and might think it suggests a lesbian story, and there is a hint of that within the play, which includes a lesbian character.”
In fact, I could add at this point that Lily Parr, who settled in Goosnargh and nursed at Whittingham Hospital after the FA ban, was openly lesbian.
“It was an iconic photo from that period, and again maybe shows a difference between then and now.
“There’s something very different from today’s men’s game – not least the relationship between the teams and camaraderie of the game.”
After studying a BA in acting in Carmarthen, a six-month exchange at California State University and work all over, including a year in Germany, she re-settled in the North-West.
So how did this Ballymena girl become a creative director with the rural Lancashire-based Ribcaged Productions theatre company?
“Ribcaged was started by Owen Phillips in Ribchester in 2005, and I became involved in 2010, having met Owen at the National Youth Theatre.”
Steph ended up getting called up to Edinburgh to help Owen with a few shows, and after that moved to Manchester, then to Clitheroe.
“The company’s really pushing forward now, and we’re becoming quite successful, which is fantastic. It’s been a real adventure.”
Ribcaged has so far been commissioned for six performances of No Man’s Land, starting at the Cloudspotting Festival in Gisburn Forest on August 2.
That’s followed by further Lancashire shows at Lowther Pavilion, Lytham on August 14, at Blackburn Empire on September 25, 26 and 27, then The Grand at Clitheroe on November 11.
“There’s a cast of 13, and it’s very much an ensemble show. There are leading characters, but hopefully when people come and watch it they’ll see every person has a deep and interesting story.
“The reason I fell in love with this story and doing this as a play was related to my own story as a struggling actress, trying to find work and interesting roles.
“There wasn’t really anything for women, so I wanted to write something that was meaty and had something interesting for women to get their teeth into.
“We have 11 women in this show, and they’re all really excited about performing, which is fantastic.
“We start with Cloudspotting in Stephen Park, Slaidburn, where the organisers are really keen to get theatre involved as well as music.”
You held auditions in Clitheroe at the end of May – did many locals come forward to try out for roles?
“We had a really good response, and the majority of the actors are local, which is fantastic, because everyone in acting thinks that if they’re going to be taken seriously they need to head down to London.
“We’ve got actors from Blackpool and Manchester as well. Above all, they’re all from Lancashire!”
“It’s really nice to be able to help create jobs and have locally-based actors ready to work.”
Through her involvement with Ribcaged, Stephanie has clearly clicked with her new surroundings.
“I stayed in Manchester a few years, but never ended up getting a lot of acting work there – it was always down in London or elsewhere.
“When a full-time opportunity arose to push Ribcaged further, that brought me here. I’m from a town where the theatre scene isn’t great, and I’m very interested in rural touring.
“It’s about trying to engage with people who wouldn’t normally come to the theatre – trying to reach out to those people.
“This is a historical play, with a sporting theme, so hopefully will engage more people than a Shakespeare play might. It’s just something a bit different to come and see.”
For performance details of No Man’s Land and Ribcaged Productions, head to the company’s Facebook page here.
This is a revised version of a Malcolm Wyatt feature first published in the Lancashire Evening Post on July 24, 2014. For the original online version, head here.