Women’s football expert reveals Derry’s historic links with game

A football historian has uncovered the fascinating story of a high profile women’s game which took place in Derry nearly 100 years ago, writes Sean McLaughlin.

May 1927... This old photo shows the Irish Ladies team which lined-up against Rutherglen Ladies FC in Derrys Waterside in May 1927. Big Molly Seaton isnt difficult to spot. Shes pictured far left.
May 1927... This old photo shows the Irish Ladies team which lined-up against Rutherglen Ladies FC in Derrys Waterside in May 1927. Big Molly Seaton isnt difficult to spot. Shes pictured far left.

It was in May 1927 that Ireland’s greatest ever woman footballer, Mary Ann ‘Big Molly’ Seaton, captained an Irish team against the Sadie Smith led Rutherglen Ladies, the Scottish champions, in a 2-2 draw at Bond’s Field Park, in the city’s Waterside, in front of a crowd of 5,000.

Steve Bolton made the discovery while researching the story of his footballing granny, Lizzy Ashcroft.

Lizzy was just sixteen years old when she made her debut for St Helen’s Ladies in front of a crowd of 30,000 at Birmingham City’s football ground in April 1921.

The famous Rutherglen Ladies side pictured before the game at Bonds Field Park in Derrys Waterside in 1927.

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    St Helen’s folded shortly after the December 1921 English FA ban on women’s football and Lizzy, then, played for the ‘World Champions’, Dick, Kerr Ladies, of Preston, for 13 years until her retirement as captain in 1935. The legendary Dick, Kerr Ladies played from 1917 to 1965 despite the 50 year long FA ban.

    During a recent family visit to Craigbane in Co. Derry, where his parents-in-law live, Mr Bolton travelled to Windsor Park in Belfast where his famous granny played twice.

    “I would personally like to thank the people of Northern Ireland because they didn’t ban women’s football and, so, my granny was able to play at this magnificent stadium,” he said.

    He also took time out to lay a card and some Lancashire red roses on the grave of ‘Big Molly’ Seaton on the outskirts of Belfast.

    Steve Bolton at the grave of Big Molly Seaton on the outskirts of Belfast.

    Mr Bolton found himself in Belfast after discovering that so much women’s football had taken place there in the 1920s and 1930s.

    It was during this research trip that he uncovered an advertisement for the historic May 1927 game in Derry in the pages of the ‘Derry Journal’.

    “On my last morning before heading back home, I popped into Derry on the off-chance of finding some more information about this game. “With the help of the knowledgeable staff at the Central Library on Foyle Street, we were able to locate not only a detailed account of the game with team lists but a number of amazing photographs.”

    Steven says the photographs – which show the two line-ups before the game got underway at Bond’s Field Park – are fascinating and an important social document of the time.

    “My father-in-law, with a critical countryman’s eye, pointed out fellows hanging in trees for a free view and also the smart dress of some of the spectators,” he says.

    Rutherglen Ladies actually inflicted a rare defeat on the Dick, Kerr Ladies in Glasgow in 1923 (with ‘Big Molly’ Seaton apparently turning out for the Scots side as a ‘ringer’). With this famous victory in their pockets, Rutherglen then spent the following few years advertising themselves as the ‘World Champions’

    Steve says: “Sadie Smith, the Rutherglen captain, was a superb sprinter, outside left and goalscorer. Her granddaughter is the famous Glaswegian singer, Eddi Reader, of ‘Fairground Attraction’ fame. The Rutherglen side were the pre-eminent Scottish side of the 1920s and early 1930s and they toured Northern Ireland at least twice in 1927 and 1928.

    “Big Molly Seaton, meanwhile, was the ‘towering’ figure of Irish women’s football throughout the 1920s and 1930s and, in one game against the Dick, Kerr Ladies, is described as having taken them on virtually on her own. In my book, that makes her some footballer.”

    Steve Bolton has also discovered that games took place in Derry as far back as 1896.

    “My researches into women’s football over here are at an early stage but I am hoping to arrange with the Central Library to visit and lead a talk/presentation about my findings. If anyone does have any memories or knowledge that they would be willing to share, then please do get in touch.”

    Steve Bolton can be contacted at the following email address: [email protected]