The death of Miss C.V. Richards: A tragedy felt right round the world
England booked their place at the 2015 Women’s World Cup this week, with a 4–0 win in Cardiff. Wales’s mad five minutes just before half-time saw them ship three ridiculous goals and turned the match into a tedious cakewalk. But events at another match in South Wales some 90 years ago had far greater import for the history of women’s football…
In late 1926 Miss C.V. Richards died from injuries sustained in a football match in Glamorganshire. The outcry went round the world as far as the New York Times.
In January 1927 a follow-up Associated Press (AP) release titled “ABANDON WOMEN’S FOOTBALL” went viral, 1920s style. It was regurgitated in the Straits Times, the Baltimore Sun and everywhere in between.
Many of the facts are lost in the mists of time. Records show the death of a Catherine Richards, 27, registered in English–Welsh border town Oswestry during the last quarter of 1926.
And there was a Caroline Richards registered dead at 19 in Oswestry during the first quarter of 1927 (perhaps after an inquest?).
But Oswestry is three hours away on modern roads. The real C.V. Richards might have been playing under her maiden name, or a pseudonym.
Amidst dark mutterings of “trouble”, Dick, Kerr’s Ladies infamously lost the support of their factory in 1926.
Most of the recent Dick Kerr’s literature assumes this to be tied in with that year’s general strike.
But public outcry at Richards’s death has been widely overlooked as another possible motive.
The short AP release which went round the world on Richards’s death bragged: “One of the best known women’s football clubs, called “Dick Kerrs” has already been disbanded.”
It was manna from heaven for those who wanted to stamp out women’s football altogether. There had been no shortage of experts reeled out to block it on medical grounds.
1908 Olympian and writer Eustace Miles, something of a Hooray Henry, reckoned that soccer’s “jerky movements” wrought havoc on female bodies.
Even Major W.B. Marchant, big-hearted boss of the Women’s Amateur Athletic Association (WAAA), had an opportunist swipe:
[…] the day is not far distant when women’s football will be unknown in this country. Our association confines its attention to track and field events.
So was there any truth in this stuff? Well, frankly … yes.
1920s Dick, Kerr’s stalwart Alice Woods loved to rough up opposition forwards. On the 1922 tour of the USA she decked Paterson FC’s Dunblane-born US Hall of Famer John McGuire.
Woods was laughing on the other side of her face when she got home in agony, sporting peritonitis and a strangulated hernia.
Barbara Jacobs related all this in The Dick Kerr’s Ladies (2004) but did not connect it with Woods’s buffetings given and received on the pitch.
Woods’s modern day equivalent, goalkeeper Rachel Brown-Finnis, displayed the same Lancastrian heft in her own career.
She’s shredded both knees, broken bones, had her teeth kicked out and crocked her shoulder, her ankle, her fingers.
She once had her face literally smashed in – then took to the pitch wearing a Zorro-style protective face mask.
The past is a different country. Where today’s society tolerates, even admires, Brown-Finnis’s exploits, it was very different for Woods and Richards in the 1920s.
The death of a footballer in her prime is thankfully rare.
Another sad case was Camilla Larsson, a 19-year-old Sweden player who died in 1990. The Öxabäcks IF starlet bumped her head on a bench while training with her champion club.
The loss of C.V. Richards remains one of English football’s great tragedies. A tragedy compounded by the way it was seized upon by those who would use it for their own ends.
Sometimes to know where you are going it can be useful to know the truth about where you have been.
The time is ripe for Richards to take her honoured place in the story of our national game.