1919 A Legend is born in Essex

Saturday 26 April 1919 was a day for wretched weather in Chelmsford. 500 spectators had gathered at 3pm on the field of Hoffmann’s Athletics Club to watch two football matches in driving rain and gale force conditions. Two teams, one female and one male, had journeyed the 25 miles from Dagenham in Essex to Chelmsford in Essex, northeast of London. The teams were from the Sterling Telephone and Electrical Company, based in Dagenham and they were playing the mighty Hoffmanns. Hoffmanns manufactured ball bearings and was one of the big four companies in Chelmsford, bigger at the time than Marconi. The women’s game was due to start at 3pm and would be followed by the men’s game at 4pm. This was the last game of the 1918-1919 ‘war season’ and it was the women’s game which was the important game. This was game number 36 for the Sterling Ladies FC and prior to this game they had drawn two and won the rest, over two entire seasons.

Would the Sterling Ladies FC be able to hang up their boots in their last ever game and go down in history undefeated with this unique record?

Saturday 26 April 1919 – Sterling Ladies FC 2 v 0 Hoffmann’s Ladies FC
Source: BNA Daily Mirror Monday 28 April p9

Celebrated in Daily Mirror – Invincible History Makers

History records that M Reader knocked in their 200th and 201st goals for a hard fought 2 v 0 win against Hoffmann’s. The men’s game ended in a 2 v 2 draw. After the game a ‘merry tea party’ was held at Hick’s on Duke Street, Chelmsford for everyone. The Eastern Counties Times newspaper recorded that:

“The curtain of the 1918-19 football season thus dropped in a very happy manner”.

The famous Sterling Ladies FC finished their football careers and could proudly say for the rest of their lives:

“I was an invincible”

Guy Burney – A Man Ahead of His Time

It is interesting to note that it is the women’s match that is featured in the Daily Mirror and not the men’s match. It is also very unusual to be able to find a photograph of the last ever game of one of the great women’s football teams. However, the Sterling’s were no ordinary team. This was not the first time that the Sterlings had featured in the media. In fact there is strong evidence that the ‘blues’ were THE national and international ‘media darlings’ of an astonishing 1,000+ women’s games known to have been played in World War 1 seasons.

It is my intention in this series of articles to share the remarkable story of the men and women of the Sterling Factory in Dagenham. The Sterling Telephone and Electrical Co were a small family firm which grew to about 2,400 employees by the end of the War.

How were the Sterlings able to defeat?:

  • Marconi Ladies
  • Vickers (Crayford and Dartford)
  • Harrods Ladies
  • Woolwich Arsenal – ‘The Rockets’, ‘The Dreadnoughts’, ‘Barker’s Girls’
  • Burton Vowles (Stratford + City) Ladies FC
  • Sopwiths Ladies
  • Kynochs Ladies
  • Handley Page Ladies – ‘The Aircraft Girls’
  • Cubitts (Kings Cross) Ladies
  • Cairn Mills (Silvertown) Ladies
  • Midland Rail (Kentish Town) Ladies
  • Associated Equipment Co (Walthamstow) Ladies
  • Staines Projectile Co Ladies
  • London General Omnibus Co (Forest Gate) – ‘The Clippies’, ‘The Greens’
  • Great Eastern Railway (Romford Stores) Ladies
  • W + G Du Cros (Acton) Ladies
  • Brocks Laundry (Romford) Ladies
  • Hoffmanns Ladies
  • Gnome (Walthamstow) Ladies*
  • Dagenham Dock Men (in fancy dress)
  • RAF Sutton Farm (Hornchurch) Men (Arms tied behind backs)

*The Gnome game was one of several cancelled due to Spanish Flu

It is an astonishing story of men and women combining together in a time of great need. It is also the story of an amazing man, Guy Burney, an extremely kind, talented, and forward thinking man who started a small company in Dagenham and left a legacy which has hitherto not received the appreciation it deserves.

“Unbeaten Women Champions of the Country” – Reported in America

“An Invincible Football Team”
“The captains leading the team out onto the field”
“Miss Maud Smith, of the Sterlings, stops a pass.”
Source: BNA Daily Mirror Monday 6 May 1918 p5

“They are all munition workers and put up a fast game”.

National newspaper the Daily Mirror was the great national printed media champion of women’s football during World War 1. The photograph above shows the Sterling’s star centre forward Maude Smith in action during their last game of the 1917-1918 season and 4 year old mascot, Maisie Smith (no relation). The game was played at the FA affiliated ‘Gordon Club Ground’ which belonged to Isthmian League founder club, Ilford FC. The Sterlings thrashed the ‘clippies’ (bus conductors) of the London General Omnibus Garage (Forest Gate) by 11 goals to 0. The game was filmed by British Pathe and in the 39 second clip Mrs Burney can be seen kicking off for the start of the game.  [To watch the film please click HERE]. Champion centre forward Maude Smith recorded her 38th goal of 103 team goals with a record of 21 games with 19 wins and 2 draws from their first full season. Mr Burney awarded each member of the winning team silver medals with a gold centre. One of these medals was auctioned in 2023 for £350. By this point the Sterlings were nationally and internationally famous. Their picture had regularly appeared in the English national newspapers all through the season. This game was featured in the Winnipeg Tribune in Canada with the headline: “Winnipeg Girls Should Follow English Maidens and Get Into Football Game”. Their team picture featured in the New York Herald with the byline:

“Women are furnishing much of the athletic entertainment in Great Britain these war times. This group is the Sterling Ladies Football Club, the unbeaten women champions of the country. They are all munition workers and put up a fast game.

“What Would Grandmama Have Said!!”

‘The Blues’ –  Featured in Society Magazine ‘The Tatler’
Source: BNA Wednesday 6 November 1918 p24

“Sterling Footballers and Footballesses”

The photograph above (despite the ironic title) was a coup for the Sterlings. Society magazine ‘The Tatler’ printed this picture of the Sterlings in their iconic blue quartered kit early in their second 1918-1919 ‘war season’. This was not a normal topic for the magazine to cover. This gives rise to the question of just how a working class women’s football team from rural Essex had reached such a level of influence in such a short time? The Sterlings started playing football in the very early 1916-1917 season. The earliest reference that I have been able to find was published in the Eastern Counties Times and Barking Recorder on Friday 4 May 1917 under the heading: “Sterling Footballers and Footballesses”. The game was played on Saturday 28 April. The paper reported:

“At Dagenham, on Saturday, several of the talented lady footballers connected with the Sterling Athletic Association (Sterling Telephone and Electric Co Ltd), participated in an interesting and hard fought game. Machine Room v. Assembly Room: the latter winning by 1 – 0. Miss A Fairman netting. “Maude” was very conspicuous at centre-forward for the Machine Room who were not at full strength.”

The article goes on to describe a game played after the women’s game by the male members of Staff of the Sterling Factory. The Tool Room defeated The Staff by 2 v 1. There is a fascinating insight into football life at the Sterling factory showing that many well-known male footballers worked at the factory:

“The rival teams contained several players of note in days of yore: Benny Cartwright (Matlock Swifts and Leyton), Baxter (Millwall), Onested (Barking), being well known locally. Others famed in other parts of the country were: Moxom (Bolton Wanderers), Wilson (Salford), Bates (Manchester United), Lloyd (London Welsh). R. Rowe, an ex-league referee, was knight of the whistle.”

Sterling Ladies Cricket Team – Summer 1917 and 1918

“Maggie” – A Lady Cricketer
Source: Lizzy Ashcroft Collection

Sterling’s Female Cricket Superstar – Miss Lazarus

The Sterling Ladies played two full summer seasons of cricket in 1917 and 1918. Several of the women athletes played for both the cricket and football teams. However, their star cricketer was a Miss Lazarus, who did not play football. The first cricket game that I have been able to find was played on Saturday 9 June 1917 at Dagenham. The Sportsman newspaper had this to say:

“In the ladies’ section Miss Lazarus’s team beat that of the captain, Miss Sexton, by 56 – 24. The chief scorers were Miss Miller, with 17, and Miss Lazarus (who also took five wickets for 11) with 12.

In this era and in this part of rural Essex top sportsmen were important and respected local figures. The article also describes a male cricket match taking place as well as the women’s match. Key elections were made for the male cricket club: captain, vice-captain and honorary secretary. Later, we will see similar elections for the ‘ladies’ sections’ of the club. It is interesting to note that this respect and equality of opportunity for women athletes was taking place over 100 years ago. Women’s football history (and indeed the history of other sports) is often portrayed as ‘nasty men banning women’. The exact opposite is taking place here at the very special ‘Sterling world’ created, encouraged and nurtured by owner and manager Guy Burney. The close cooperation, friendship, respect and help between the men and women at the Sterling Factory was an enormous factor in the eventual fame and success of the Sterling Ladies FC.

Hornchurch in WW1 – ‘Little New Zealand’

New Zealand Convalescent Camp – Grey Towers, Hornchurch
(Source: Lizzy Ashcroft Collection)

Cricket Versus Men

The Sterling Ladies Cricket Team played against a variety of men’s and women’s teams with over 20 matches being recorded and reported over the two summer seasons of 1917 and 1918. They played several games against women’s teams whom they would also meet as rivals on the football pitch, including the great Marconi Ladies. During the 1918 season they were much in demand to play against men’s teams of wounded, disabled or ‘rejuvenated’ soldiers. The games, whilst taken seriously, would often have extra rules like the men batting left-handed or bowling underarm. One particular game was played in Hornchurch, Essex on Saturday 21st July 1917. Their opposition were the members of the Mahutonga Club. The relatively small population of rural Hornchurch had been considerably swelled in 1917 by the use of the local mansion Grey Towers to house convalescing soldiers from New Zealand. Their sports and social club took the Maori name ‘Mahutonga’. The sports mad New Zealanders with their distinctive uniforms, strange accents and positive outlook would have been a very noticeable, exotic and distinctive addition to this part of Essex in 1917. The game was reported in the Sportsman newspaper under the heading: Sterling AC:

“The girls beat a team of N. Z. wounded at the Grey Towers by 88 to 75 despite 34 by Pte H. L. Emeny and the bowling of Ptes E. Barrett and E. Brooke. The lads in blue use their left hands only. For the fair sex, who, thanks to the Christ Church forward Lt. F. H. Dodd, had an enjoyable outing: Miss Lazarus and Miss Mullett bowled with effect, and the former scored 28.”

The report was incorrect. The scores had been reported the wrong way around and a week later the Sportsman corrected and stated: “I trust I shall not be accused of lack of gallantry in making this correction.” Edie Mullet was also one of the stars of the Sterling Ladies football team.

Some Unusual Opposition!

The most elegant & commodious EMPORIUM in the WORLD
Source: Lizzy Ashcroft Collection

“The Most Elegant and Commodious Emporium in the World”

One of the most amazing aspects of the Sterling Ladies FC story is the variety of their opposition. The name that pops out in the list of their opponents at the beginning of this article is the famous department store in Knightsbridge, London. The term ‘munitionettes’ is used as an umbrella term for all women footballers of WW1. Whilst some indeed were munitionettes who moved into heavy industry to make munitions, the opponents of the Sterlings included a wide range of other occupations such as the laundry workers of Brocks in Romford. The detailed match report which follows shows that in their one and only game the plucky Harrods Ladies FC were still holding the mighty Sterlings to a 2 v 2 draw at half time.

On Saturday 2nd June 1917, five months before the Harrods game, the Daily Mirror reported the death of Sir Richard Burbidge, Head of Harrods. He was 70 years old and was described as one of the foremost commercial figures in the life of the country. In 1916, the paper reported that he had received a baronetcy in recognition of his services to the Ministry of Munitions and to other Government departments in the war. His son Woodman, assumed the baronetcy and took over the lead at the company. In this period Harrods was renowned for its innovative and thorough training programmes and for its investment in sporting facilities for its staff.

Harrods Ladies 2 v 8 Sterling Ladies FC

“Girl Footballers at Barnes”
“Football is becoming increasingly popular with women, and there now exist a number of teams with regular fixture lists.
This snapshot was taken during a  match at Barnes on Saturday”
Source: BNA Daily Mirror Monday 26 November p12

1917 Saturday 24th November – A Unique Football Match

The 6th formal game of the first season for the Sterling Ladies was a truly unique game. They travelled to Barnes in Richmond-Upon-Thames, South London to play the ladies football team of the world famous department store. This is the only known game for the Harrods Ladies FC. The game was kicked off by Sir Woodman Burbidge. The football match was again featured in the national Daily Mirror and as was usual (wartime) only vague details of the teams and location were given. The Sportsman newspaper announced plans for the game on 8th November saying that the game was: “on behalf of the Harrodians’ Christmas Parcels’ Fund for “the boys” serving with the colours. The game was played at Mill Lodge, Lonsdale Road, Barnes which was Harrods own sports facility. Mill Lodge was a 25 acre sports facility and clubhouse which was opened in 1904 for the mental and physical betterment of the Harrods’ employees. After the game there was to be a fundraising whist drive in the reportedly palatial clubhouse. The Harrodian Sports Club at Mill Road closed in 1988 and is now occupied by the independent Harrodian School, which is very proud of its history.

Sterling Ladies in Illustrated Sporting & Dramatic News

“The upper pic shows play by the Harrods Company forwards”
“The lower one is of the Sterling firm’s team”
Source: BNA Illustrated Sporting + Dramatic News Saturday 1 December 1917

5 Goals for Maude Smith Superstar

The Sterlings are featured again in their iconic quartered kit in the weekly Illustrated Sporting & Dramatic News. Detailed match reports appeared in the Sportsman and the Eastern Counties Times & Barking Recorder newspapers. As the only known game for Harrods I am including the full text from the Times and Recorder which gives team lists:

“The lady footballers, at Mill Lodge, Barnes, were opposed to an eleven of Harrods excellent sportswomen, who turned out to assist the Harrodian “Khaki Boys’ Parcel Fund.” Sir Woodman Burbidge, Bart., ever ready to support any worthy object, was present at the game, and kicked off in a manner that induced one to think he is himself an old football player. The Harrodian girls made a highly creditable first appearance, and promise to develop into a capable eleven; they all displayed considerable ability, and were very fleet-footed, and in the early stages of the game with a strong wind at their backs set a hot pace, scoring the first goal two minutes from the start through the instrumentality of Miss Murray. A. Tennyson shortly afterwards netted for the visitors, M Mullett shortly following, giving the visitors the lead, of which they were soon deprived, a fast combined movement by the Harrodian front rank resulting in Miss Murray again finding the net, the teams crossing over upon an equality. With the wind behind them Sterling gave a very fine display, the combination of the whole XI being excellent, and, despite a grand display in goal by Ina Dettmer and a good show by D. Wilkinson and A. Boatswain at the back, the visitors scored on six occasions: E. Mullett netted the third goal for the Dagenham XI, Maude Smith registering the last five points, two from penalty kicks awarded for hands. Her magnificent shooting was a feature of the game; she was, however, indebted to the splendid work of her colleagues for unselfishly making numerous excellent openings which she turned to good account.

The Sterling XI was:

Fairman, T. Peters, V. Foster, V. Hale, M. Reader, E. Scrivener, A. Segger, A. Tennyson, M. Smith, E. Mullett (Captain), A. Fairman.


Ina Dettmer, D. Wilkinson, A. Boatswain, M. Melsom, D. Rhodes, C. Hughes, A. Murray, A. Welchman, G. Dibble (Captain), G. James, E. Hartnett.

Referee, Mr E. D. Rees.

After the game the visitors were hospitably entertained by the Harrodian Amateur Athletic Association. Mr J. Davies, the energetic secretary, in his efforts to make the game a financial success and in looking after the visitors, left no stone unturned. Mr. H. N. Gowan, a councillor of the West End Football Association, was a genial chairman of the happy tea party, and as an able speaker was in his best form. In response to his congratulatory remarks and welcome, also of Miss G. Dibble, Miss E. Mullett and W. Howell replied on behalf of Sterling.”

1918 “Women Work Better After Cricket and Football”

“A football helps them to work off a little spare energy”
Source: BNA Daily Mirror Saturday 18 May 1918 p2 and p5

“Without giving further crusade to certain sections of the press”

The Sportsman newspaper had a shorter write-up of the game with Harrods but had the following interesting comment at the end of its report:

“The Sterling Ladies, who are willing to arrange other matches on behalf of charity – if away from the London district bare out-of-pocket expenses would be required – were subsequently most hospitably entertained, yet without giving cause for a further crusade by certain sections of the press.”

The quote above could be referring to excessive expenses which is a portent for the 50 year English FA ban in 1921 or it could be referring to the morality of the female workers. In the article above, which was printed in May of the following year, we can see the Daily Mirror quoting the redoubtable Mrs. Yeman:

“After twelve hours’ work and an hour’s travel to and from home my girls at Woolwich were as keen as mustard on gymnasium, swimming and football, and it made them the fine workers they are.”

I am tempted to respond to the above quote with the very un-academic ‘crikey!’ On a more serious note, there were serious concerns about the morality of young women munitionettes, who despite long, arduous and often dangerous hours were enjoying a freedom unknown to the previous generation. There was a concerted attempt to encourage sport and to monitor their activities with each factory having a team of older female supervisors. The above article and picture appeared in May 1918. The role of the Daily Mirror newspaper in educating the nation in how to think about the new place of women, especially younger women, in society and in sport was of paramount importance after the enforced social changes due to the war. In November 1918 the Daily Mirror again quoted Mrs Yeman:


“Indignation Over Mrs. Booth’s “Smoking and Drinking” Charges.”

“Mrs Bramwell Booth’s charges against the munition girls, who, she alleged, drink and smoke too much and whose moral interests are not cared for, have aroused indignant protests from workers and their leaders alike. Mrs Yeman in a spirited denial says: “As a worker, as a supervisor and now as a Whitehall official I have been connected with munition girls from 1915 to 1918,” she said to The Daily Mirror, “and on day and night work at Woolwich and many other factories. I have never seen one of the many thousands of girls intoxicated. I respect them all. As for excessive smoking and drinking, the charge is absurd. Off duty, I believe it is good for the girls to smoke if they want to.”

Daily Mirror Defending Munitionettes in November 1918

The above article was printed in the Daily Mirror on 6 November 1918. This is just prior to the November 11 Armistice announcement. It is in response to Mrs Booth who was the wife of General Booth of the Salvation Army. Mrs Booth launched a tremendous verbal attack on both the authorities and the munitionettes. She accused the authorities of encouraging drinking at work facilities and even recommending spirits for night work. This was a charge the authorities vehemently denied. She was widely quoted as saying:

“I suppose we shall see the mothers of the future puffing clouds of smoke into their babies’ faces.”


Conclusion to Part 1

Portsmouth Ladies FC 9 v 7 Gosport Submarine Men
“Fine Display by Girl Goalkeeper”
“Tipped over the bar”
“Saving from a penalty kick”
Source: BNA Saturday 9 June 1917 p4

The Greatest Team of World War 1?

The ‘journey’ of women’s sport has been bedevilled for over 100 years by a ‘toxic’ mixture of societal attitudes. Each advance is cheered (rightly so) and the women involved are regarded as pioneers. It is such a shame that each generation has had to regard themselves as pioneers. When asked about ‘The Ban’ in 1921 I often ask back about the women’s 800m in the olympics. Attitudes to women in football did not happen in isolation to attitudes to women in all other sports and society as a whole. I have over 100 ring binders of research tracking over 100 women’s football teams up to the 1960s. It is an extremely complicated and challenging data set. My calculations show that over 1,000 high profile women’s games were played from the onset of World War 1 to the end of the 1918-1919 season. Terms like ‘the greatest’, ‘modern’, ‘golden era’ are disliked by academic historians as they belong in the ‘pub conversation’ category. I do not describe ‘the invincibles’ as the greatest. If I could go back in a time machine to 1918 and arrange a tournament between: Sterlings, Marconi, Vickers, St Helens, Portsmouth, Whitehaven, Blyth Spartans, Wallsend Slipway, NPF Lancaster, Humber Ladies, Carlisle Ladies, NFF Aintree, Glasgow Beardmores, Belfast Distillery (The Whites), a number of others (oh – and the Dick Kerr Ladies) with nobody allowed to swap sides and play other teams’ players then maybe I could answer that one. I have tried hard to make this article as accurate as possible. Researching women’s football history from a century ago is fraught with challenge. If and when new research challenges my conclusions then I will be happy to correct. I am looking forward to sharing more about the Dagenham Invincibles. In this and future articles I will provide evidence for their status in the pantheon of women’s football history. However, they were not the first women’s football team in World War 1. The ‘poster girls’ of the early part of World War 1 were the Portsmouth Ladies FC and you can read about them by clicking HERE


This is my sincere tribute to those magnificent women. Our freedom today owes a great deal to the women footballers of WWI and we should remember them with pride and honour.

Read Part two HERE 

Article © of Steve Bolton