Bella Reay: The footballer with better goals record than Alan Shearer who was banned from playing

Front row (left to right) Dollie Allan, Annie Allan, Bella Reay, Ada Reed, Jennie Morgan  – Bella Reay: The footballer with better goals record than Alan Shearer who was banned from playing
The Blyth Spartans team that won the Munitionettes' Cup in 1918

You might not have heard of Bella Reay, but with a remarkable record of 133 goals in just 30 games for Blyth Spartans, she is the most prolific goalscorer in the long and distinguished history of football in the North East.

Jackie Milburn and Alan Shearer’s goalscoring feats are celebrated through the generations, but Reay’s exploits have largely been forgotten – for the simple reason she was a woman playing a supposedly man’s game.

Wor Bella, a play written by Ed Waugh and being performed this month in Clapham and then the Newcastle Theatre Royal, aims to change that.

It is more than just a story about a teenage girl who rose to local stardom for her stunning scoring statistics. It also shines a light on a sordid period in the Football Association’s history, when scared men in suits – in football and in politics – trampled all over women’s rights in a post-war world.

Bella Reay
Actor Catherine Dryden, who plays the title role in the play Wor Bella - Sophie Teasdale

Having played a key role in the First World War effort, with more than 800,000 so-called Munitionettes brought into factories to keep the industrial machine going and the guns on the front line firing, women were returned to their former roles in society when peace broke out and the male workforce came home.

“It is a period of English football that has been airbrushed from history,” says Waugh. “I came into this because I read a book by Patrick Brennan about women’s football in the North East during the First World War. It opened my eyes as a lot has been said, quite rightly, about the women from the North West – the likes of Lily Parr – who are portrayed as pioneers of women’s football in the First World War and the 1920s.

“They deserve everything, don’t get me wrong. But Patrick’s book highlights the fact women’s football in the North East was ahead of the game, because our first game happened in Wallsend in February 1917. Blyth Spartans women’s team was formed in July 1917 and had their first game in August of that year.”

The population still had a huge appetite to watch the national game during the war and women’s football filled the void. It also helped raise money for wartime charities.

“The reason women started playing football was due to the carnage that happened on the battlefields of Europe,” says Waugh. “Nearly a million men, British and Commonwealth soldiers, were either killed, maimed or injured in the space of a few months, which led to conscription in 1916.

“Men were called up and women stepped into their roles in the workplace. It was a war economy, it could have been anything from shipbuilding to armaments.

“Spontaneously, these women started playing football in what we call in the North East bait time – lunchtime. Because men’s football was outlawed in 1915, there was a massive gap for people who wanted to go and watch football.

“The war was supposed to be over before Christmas in 1914, which didn’t happen, but the Government had made no provision for people who lost men fighting in the war; orphaned children, the sick, the injured, the widows. People started collecting money to help them at cinemas and theatres, but these women’s games started initially to raise money for these charities.”

Bella Reay – Bella Reay: The footballer with better goals record than Alan Shearer who was banned from playing
Bella Reay regularly stole the headlines with her goal scoring exploits

Reay, born in 1900 in the Northumberland coastal town of Blyth, was still a teenager when she joined Spartans and ended her solitary season having never lost a game, winning a cup final, too. Waugh came across her while he was looking to write a play telling the story of another player involved in that Munitionettes Cup final of 1918.

He says: “The two best teams, Bolckow Vaughan and Blyth Spartans, met in a final at St James’ Park in March. It ended in a 0-0 draw in front of 18,000 people. The replay six weeks later was held at Middlesbrough’s Ayresome Park and saw Blyth Spartans win 5-0 in front of a crowd of 22,000. Bella Reay scored a hat-trick.

“She wasn’t actually the player of the match, that went to Mary Lyons. She was the youngest player to play for England when she was just 15. So the idea was initially to do a play about her, but the club historian at Blyth gave me all the records and Bella was the obvious person to write about, unbeaten in 30 games, in 14 months, scoring 133 goals.”

Women’s game remained banned in England until 1971

Her time in the spotlight was short. Reay was one of the best footballers in the country in 1918 but three years later, she, along with every other female player, was banned from playing – a law that would remain in place until 1971.

“Football was caught up in a wider shift after the war,” says Waugh. “These men running the game were fearful about the rise of women’s football and feared it would undermine them.

“On top of that, the mines that had been nationalised during the war were returned to the coal owners. They had made a lot of money during the war but told the miners they had to take a 40 per cent pay cut now it had ended. This was April 1921.

“As a consequence, there was a lockout and the miners were on strike. There was no money, people were starving. The women’s football teams re-emerged. This time, they were raising money for the miners and their families. The authorities didn’t like that either. They were losing their grip on women’s football and it turned political.

“On December 5, 1921, women’s football was banned. It was a disgrace. It’s a shameful piece of FA history. The play isn’t just about football, it’s about women’s rights. These women who had saved the war effort, they weren’t even allowed to vote. The women who had helped save the country couldn’t vote until 1928. Women were cast aside after the war, football was a symbol of that desire to put women back into their ‘rightful place’ – having children and looking after the men. Women like Bella were forgotten and pushed aside. That’s why I wanted to tell this story.”

Wor Bella runs at the Bread & Roses Theatre, Clapham, on April 22-24 and at Newcastle Theatre Royal on April 27-28.