100 Years On: Huddersfield Atalanta and the Ban on Women's Football
On a cold Boxing Day afternoon in 1920, more than 53,000 fans packed into Goodison Park, while a further 14,000 or so lingered outside, unable to enter.
But they were not there to watch Everton.
Instead, they had braved the elements to witness a much-awaited clash between two of England’s most popular football clubs: Dick, Kerr Ladies and St. Helens Ladies.
With many men away at the front, the women’s game had grown in popularity during and immediately after the First World War. Clubs sprung up in every corner of the country, including in Huddersfield.
Equal in Weight
The most prominent, Huddersfield Atalanta Ladies, was an offshoot of the Atalanta Sports Club, which was founded in November 1920 “to provide games for the women of Huddersfield, to foster a sporting spirit, and a love of honour among its members.”
Under the guidance of chairwoman and captain Constance ‘Mary’ Waller, Atalanta were based at the Sands House football field in Crosland Moor. One of three women’s football clubs in Huddersfield at the time, alongside Huddersfield Alexandra and Huddersfield Ladies, they were christened in honour of a heroine from Greek mythology whose name means “equal in weight.”
“New Rivals to Dick, Kerr Ladies”
Their first competitive game was a 1-0 win over Bath Ladies at Leeds Road on 25th March, 1921, which 15,246 locals turned up to see. According to the subsequent match report, the home side put in a particularly robust performance, with defender and Thongsbridge native Hilda Clarke singled out for comment: “The services of the woman trainer were required upon two occasions owing to the havoc caused by the vigorous Miss Clarke.”
Over the next few months, Atalanta gradually made themselves known to the wider world.
On 4th May, the biggest test of the club’s short history came in the form of Dick, Kerr and their talismanic winger Lily Parr. The game took place at Hillsborough in front of a crowd of 25,000. Unfortunately, despite being billed as “new rivals” to Dick, Kerr by the Daily Mirror earlier in the year, Atalanta fell to a 4-0 defeat.
Ten days later, they hosted a French XI team at the Fartown Ground, home of Huddersfield Rugby League Club. 8,832 spectators saw Atalanta lose 1-0. Result notwithstanding, the match itself was deemed a great success, raising £424, 8s, and 6d for the Mayor’s Distress Fund. For his part, the mayor was kind enough to invite players from both sides—as well as those from Huddersfield Town—to a post-match dinner at the Masonic Hall in Greenhead.
Training with Billy Smith
The men’s players, it seems, were already acquainted with their female counterparts.
An Examiner article from 2010 confirms as much. In it, former Atalanta forward Ada Beaumont recalls joint training sessions at Leeds Road:
“The fellas were smashing. They would take the girl who played in their position and try and teach them. There was a good centre-half who took my sister under his wing. We made a good team up that way. I trained with Billy Smith, the international. They all did it voluntarily, but they seemed to enjoy it, and so did we.”
Beaumont’s recollection is backed up by two rare photographs of Waller and another Atalanta player, respectively, wearing the Huddersfield Town kit.
The summer and autumn brought more games. Performances and results, meanwhile, had gone into steady decline, perfectly encapsulated by a 10-0 loss to Dick, Kerr Ladies at Leeds Road on 3rd October.
Then, just before Christmas, everything changed.
Under sustained pressure from traditionalists, who ludicrously claimed that the game was undermining women’s fertility and femininity, the Football Association (F.A.) relented. On 5th December, 1921, the F.A. Council passed a resolution which declared football to be “quite unsuitable for females” and prohibited women from playing on Football League premises.
Atalanta’s then-captain, one Lucie Barraclough, was a vocal opponent of the ban, dismissing the F.A.’s arguments with her tongue firmly in cheek:
“If football were dangerous some ill-effect would have been seen by now. I know that all our girls are healthier and, speaking personally, I feel worlds better than I did a year ago. Housework isn't half the trouble it used to be, because there is always Saturday's game and the weeknight training to freshen me up.”
Sadly, despite the best efforts of Barraclough, Waller, and thousands like them, the ban remained in effect until 1971.
The best available evidence suggests that Atalanta’s final competitive game was a 4-0 drubbing at the hands of Doncaster and Bentley on 3rd June, 1922.
Their story does not end there, however.
Indeed, Atalanta left behind a profound legacy in Huddersfield and the surrounding areas, having raised thousands of pounds for local good causes. More than that, they were pioneers, paving the way for future generations to surmount and dismantle unjust barriers to aspiration and participation in every walk of public life—a fact underscored by the recent success of Amanda Whittington's play, Atalanta Forever.
Today, women’s football is on the crest of a new wave of popularity. More girls and women are playing and watching the sport than at any other time in living memory. Only last week, UEFA announced that over 268,000 tickets had been requested in the general ballot for the 2022 Women’s EUROs.
Closer to home, Huddersfield Town Women continue to impress on and off the field. In recent years, Glen Preston’s side have consistently competed at the top of the Women’s Premier League North. Moreover, in February 2020, they played their first game at the Kirklees Stadium, drawing a club-record crowd of 1,115—an incredible feat for an amateur team.
The women of Atalanta would have been proud.
Find out more about the history of women’s football in Huddersfield by browsing our two dedicated primary source collections: Women’s Football Archive and Women’s Football Timeline.
If you are interested in supporting Huddersfield Town Women, their website can be found here, where you can stay up to date with results, team news, and match reports. You can also help sponsor women's team players, who have to pay to play.
A note on sources: We are heavily indebted to Patrick Brennan for his voluminous work on this subject, which you can view on his website. Alan Hodgson's research, which John Avison reported on for the Examiner, has also been invaluable, as have the insights provided by Steve Bolton. We would also like to thank Penny Mannings for providing the above photograph.