Florence “Flo” Bilton
Born: c.1921, Hull
Occupation: Factory Worker (1963)
Flo Bilton: Hull’s favourite footballing daughter
After the formation of the women’s national team in 1972, WFA committee member Bilton washed and laundered the players’ kits by hand. She obtained a men’s England cap from Hull neighbour Raich Carter and reverse engineered it, producing copies for the female England players.
As part of her various assignments she also stitched badges onto the kits, chaperoned the players, met foreign dignitaries at airports and put together the WFA Newsletter.
Even after roping in other stalwarts like June Jaycocks and Pat Gregory, it quickly became clear that stitching caps for every player after every match would turn into Bilton’s life’s work! Instead the WFA produced a cap to mark each player’s debut and when they retired they got a big wooden shield complete with little silver badges to mark each appearance.
Players sometimes slipped through the net: Wendy Owen (2005) recalled that Josie Clifford (née Lee) of QPR played five times in the 70s and didn’t get a cap.
On England’s first trip to Italy in 1976, vigilant Bilton had to constantly ward off representatives from pro Italian clubs who were trying to “tap up” England’s players.
Bilton remained in two minds about players going abroad: she wanted the players to better themselves and knew better than anyone about the hostility and derision they faced in England.
But it left the WFA trying to market, arguably, a second-rate product. Also, the miniscule grant given by the Sports Council (now Sport England) was given on the basis that women’s football was an amateur sport. Even these crumbs from the table may have disappeared, if the powers that be got wind of England players pulling down bumper salaries in Italy.
The English party in Rome were granted an audience with Pope Paul VI. Unmoved by the experience, straight-talking Bilton later described: “a visit we had been told would take one hour but in fact took two”.
Bilton played hockey, netball and cricket for the Reckitt & Colman factory in Hull where she worked. She was already 40 when the factory leadership tasked her with forming a women’s football team for a charity game in 1963. With Bilton as goalkeeper, Reckitt’s saw off rivals Smith & Nephew 2–1 on 19 April 1963.
Support from the factory continued and Bilton’s team eventually produced future England captain Carol Thomas (née McCune) as well as Doncaster Belles and England striker Gail Borman.
Bilton’s protégée Thomas, a sturdy full-back, made her England debut in 1974 and entered the Guinness Book of Records as the first Englishwoman ever to get 50 caps.
She looks like everyone’s favourite granny, but gentle natured Flo Bilton can put the boot in with more crunch than Vinny Jones — WFA News, March 1989
In summer 1987, the WFA’s class of FA Preliminary Coaching Badge hopefuls descended on Lilleshall. As always, Bilton was on hand with a kind word and a smile to keep morale high. Her chocolate eclairs and banana cake reportedly went down a storm too!
The lack of media coverage and derisory crowds at women’s matches routinely broke Bilton’s heart. But her steely resolve kept her at the forefront for over 25 years. Other lesser personalities would surely have walked away.
In Women on the Ball (1997) Sue Lopez wrote of Bilton: “She is respected by everyone in the game and the players were always certain that she had their interests, and that of the game, at heart.”
As a plain-speaking Yorkshire lass, Bilton had always let much of the petty bickering which marred the WFA go over her head. But she was never afraid to speak up when required. Many of her ideas were ahead of the curve and found some traction many years later. She understood the power of TV and predicted “North and South Super Leagues for the top clubs.”
Bilton remained on the WFA’s board when the FA took over in 1993. Sadly the FA promptly ‘chucked the baby out with the bathwater’, completely ignored everything which had gone before, and then did … nothing much.
Flo died in Hull on 22 July 2004, aged 82. She had bravely battled Parkinson’s disease in her later years.
To this day, the Flo Bilton Trophy is still contested by girl’s football teams in the East Riding of Yorkshire. Her place is enshrined forever in women’s football lore.