My Grandma - by Helen Moors

Helen Moors is an education consultant and founder of oPEn, the Outstanding PE Network, a network of primary schools in Stoke-on-Trent. She encourages physical literacy in schools and is also the instigator of the city-wide 'Run for Fun' each June. This is her inspiring story of her Grandma and her Yorkshire roots...

I was always a little envious of my best friend at Primary School because she had a Grandma. She had a Grandma that met her from school, invited her for tea, took her on long walks and outings and who gave her a shilling on her birthday; she had a Grandma and a very special friend. All I had was a staged, stilted, sepia photograph of my Grandma on her wedding day. Her solemn expression stared back at me with only the ghost of a half-smile on her face. Had she been nice? Would I have liked her? Would she have liked me? A child’s questions that couldn’t be answered.

They couldn’t be answered because my Grandma died when my mum was only 10. She died just before the outbreak of WW11 and no one seemed to want to talk about the young mother who died in childbirth. My own Mum could not fill in the blanks and would only say that if anything Mary was like her sister – my Great Aunt Mu.

As a child I was quite relieved as I couldn’t imagine being best friends with Great Aunt Bessie or Great Aunt Flo. Great Aunt Mu was different. She was funny, with an irrepressible laugh and a giggle that was contagious. She did cartwheels in the garden and rode to Brighton and back on her old sit up and beg bicycle. She was lovely. Still, however hard I tried I couldn’t see any similarity between my Great Aunt Mu and the serious, self-composed young woman in the old sepia photo. I felt a little cheated that I didn’t know more.

It wasn’t until I was in my 40s that another rather old and battered photograph surfaced of my Grandma. Not particularly unusual except that the photo was of a women’s football team with my Grandma on the front row, sitting to the right of the woman with the football.

My Grandma with her long hair tied back, sitting with her back straight and arms folded, kit on and ready for action. Wow! Way to go Granny. This photo was a game changer. My Grandma was playing football when women under 30 didn’t even have the vote. When women had only just dared to shorten the hem on their skirts to show their ankles! My Grandma was rocking up to play a man’s game wearing a pair of shorts and football boots. The photo may be staged and in sepia but it tells me so much more about the woman I never met. She was a trail blazer, she was unconventional and happy to go against the social expectations that constrained so many women of her day. 

The historical record of women’s football pre 1921 is very sparse. There were approximately 150 registered teams nationally and they apparently got quite good crowds. The women’s games did not start until the end of the normal football season, when the women would use the men’s pitches to play. In Yorkshire many of the teams were associated with collieries, particularly in South Yorkshire with its long mining history. At the time of the miner’s strike in 1921 the gate money from women’s matches was used to support the soup kitchens; a reason why my Grandma might have played seeing that she came from a family with a strong mining heritage.

My Grandma was born in 1904 in Goldthorpe near Doncaster and later moved to a small village called Kinsley near Hemsworth. Her brothers played Rugby League and as both villages had a club that doesn’t help to clarify the situation. So Mary either played for Goldthorpe Women’s team or Hemsworth West End. Either way her playing career would have been relatively short lived, as in December 1921 the FA ruled that men’s clubs should not allow women to use their grounds, tantamount to a ban on women’s football.

However for me the photo provides me with a lovely connection with my Grandma. I have played sport for most of my life and am a PE teacher. My two boys both studied Sport and Exercise Science at degree level and both play Rugby. One of them now plays Rugby League for Stanningley in Leeds (established in 1889) so could well be playing on pitches that his Great Great Uncles used to play on. The family connection has been made and I know that Grandma and I would have been best friends. If there is a gene that gives you an aptitude and a passion for sport then I am proud to say that it runs in my family.