Hull recognises late WFA icon Flo Bilton with a plaque
It is 10.30am on dull, dreary Monday morning, in the wake of the devastating effects of the ‘Beast from the East’ and Storm Emma and before the potential disaster that awaits us from the ‘Pest from the West’. Location: the Guildhall, home of Hull City Council. A crowd of the great, the good and the less well known assembled to celebrate the little-acknowledged achievements of five even less well known women pioneers of the city of Hull.
Whilst four of these great women have had no impact on the women’s game of football, they, in their own right, were true trailblazers in their own fields, including Professor Eva Crackles (botanist and conservationist), Elsa Gidlow (poet and philosopher), Pat Albeck (designer of printed textiles) and Mary Hatfield (Hull’s first woman Councillor).
However, the fifth woman, the women’s game of football can rightly boast as their own, the one and only Flo Bilton: administrator, chaperone, seamstress of England caps, logistics manager and chief cook and bottle washer! Indeed, Councillor Mary Glew one of the organisers of the Centenary Plaque project commented:
“It just shows you when you are born in Hull you’re part of a gene pool that is extremely diverse and talented.”
Two former England internationals, Karen Walker and Carol Thomas, were invited to reminisce about Bilton in front of the assembled dignitaries and unveil a plaque in her honour which will be displayed at a strategic, and as yet unknown, place in Hull. (Sadly, Bilton’s home of Reckitts Ladies FC is now a housing estate, whilst the site of the former Reckitt and Colman factory, her employer – now rebranded Reckitt Benckiser – has changed beyond all recognition, so locating the plaque remains a headache for the council administrators).
Walker, Hall of Fame inductee and Barnsley born and bred – still retaining that broad West Riding lilt but a Hull resident for over 20 years – opened with her memories of a Bilton she first met in the mid 80’s. She recalled the thousands of miles travelled with other ‘England sisters’ as Bilton transported her and many other England hopefuls to training camps and international appointments. She remembered how many of those miles were travelled with both hands covering her face as Bilton attempted a James Hunt impersonation in second gear along Britain’s highways and byways. (Of course, these anecdotes are legendary and many a ‘refreshment’ has been consumed by many a player across England’s green and pleasant land whilst these stories were related to disbelieving audiences in local hostelries!). She then explained that during her career, Bilton had occupied a number of roles within the WFA but always had the players’ best interests at heart.
Walker, a community PC, working and engaging with disadvantaged children and families in some of Hull’s most deprived areas, could not overstate the ‘massive contribution’ Bilton made – not only to English women’s football but the help she received personally from the tireless, unpaid workaholic.
For Thomas, this was a much more deeply personal tribute. As this site has already observed, Thomas is definitely and undoubtedly Bilton’s finest protégée and one that she was most proud of.
Thomas, was recognised by this website some years ago, mysteriously and to the utter disbelief of all associated with the women’s game, despite a list of firsts in the women’s game longer than most men’s arms and England’s second longest ever serving captain to this day, remains a significant omission from that same Hall of Fame that Walker rightly occupies. Something that Bilton in her heyday would surely have ensured was appropriately addressed!
Thomas opened by outlining her achievements in the women’s game, to the hearty applause of the audience, and then admitted that all of it was owed to the tenacity and dedication of Bilton. She also recalled the white knuckle rides down the M1 and recounted the infamous statement with regard to the timekeeping of Pope Paul VI, and soon to be a sainted! Again, it is fairly certain that Bilton would have a very cryptic and acerbic observation at such an elevation in position! (see Flo Bilton bio on this site). She also made reference to the spotting of Gail Borman, another England international, as not luck or coincidence but someone who also understood the game of football.
Thomas then went onto some thought provoking observations that many in the women’s game of today overlook. She highlighted what the FA lost when they decided that Bilton and her counterparts were surplus to requirement in 1993, when they acquired the running of the women’s game. The first highlighted how, single handed, Bilton made a telling coup on behalf of the women’s game at that time, quote:
“She didn’t accept the words NO and CAN’T. She was not frightened to confront local businesses and Lord Mayors for support and sponsorship ….. One of her greatest successes was her dealing with the owners of Hull City. (that statement drew laughter from the audience given the turmoil the local professional club now finds itself in!) Only those involved will ever know what happened. Whether, it was flattery or the more direct approach or indeed if the Needler men (the club was owned by the Needler family, sweet manufacturers) were ahead of the footballing times but I was honoured to captain the England team at Boothferry Park, the home of the professional club, not once but twice in my career.”
The first of these games, on the 28th April 1977 against Switzerland, was the first ever game on a FA Football League ground. The added bonus for Thomas was not just captaining her England charges on ‘home soil’, but a 9–1 victory added even more sweetness (excuse the pun, we just could not resist it!) to the occasion. The second was a 2–all draw against a very powerful Danish side in September 1979.
Thomas then moved onto the current day, interestingly observing, quote:
“I read with interest the new ideas for the women’s game, a Women’s Super League, a Women’s Championship, professional contracts and the broader involvement at the early years. Sadly Flo is no longer with us to see these being introduced but I know she would be very happy but also have a wry smile about it, because some 35/40 years ago these same proposals were being put out by Flo and her fellow committee members, different names and titles but exactly the same principles. These ideas were not from some expensive think tank, but from a band of tireless volunteers who had one of their bases in a three bedroomed house on a North Hull estate.
Sadly in 1993 the FA took over the running of women’s football …… Flo and her counterparts were now surplus to requirement …… It also led to some wag at the FA to say women’s football didn’t exist before 1993. I would have liked to have been there if Flo had ever met that man!”
Following the speeches Walker and Thomas unveiled the plague in honour of Bilton, a Hullensian honoured by the people of her home town. She would have been both proud and embarrassed. It is a pity that the administrators of the modern game do not take more time out themselves to acknowledge the achievements, and ideas proposed by these unpaid, maverick pioneers of yesteryear, including Bilton, Gregory, Whitehead, Gwynne, Marlowe, Hunt, etc – many of whom were men! – because quite rightly without these, the women’s game would not hold its current exalted place in today’s society, put simply – none of these, no women’s game!
After the event Walker and Thomas were invited to talk on Radio Humberside about Bilton. Walker again stressed the work that Bilton did for her and the England players and that without those ‘forgotten’ people, the women’s game would never have progressed from the days of banishment. Thomas recalled her development through the help and advice of Bilton. Both agreed that Bilton was the archetypal role model and inspiration for all women in all walks of life.
For Walker, her day was not finished. Following all her Guildhall commitments was she was last seen in a trail of dust as she raced off to run yet another sports session with a group of disadvantaged children.
For Thomas, her media day was only just beginning. She was further asked to appear on the BBC’s Look North programme to discuss Bilton’s contribution to the sport, reiterating the inspiration of Bilton to her and the many others of her era. In what turned out to be a busy day for Thomas, an interview with Kirsty Leake (Women and Girls Football Development Officer) of the East Riding County FA followed, with a view to the publication of an article inspiring girls and women to take up the game. Leake’s excellent article can be found at:-
In that article, Thomas indicates how she remains committed to the expansion, progression and development of the women’s game, even if it is now in a more ambassadorial and inspirational role. She finished her interview with a ‘call to arms’ to all women and girls, most appropriate for International Women’s Week, to take up the game, and to quote directly from the ERCFA website article:
“I asked Carol if she had any words of encouragement for any girls or women thinking about getting involved or those already involved. Carol’s reply was ‘Do it and enjoy it, listen to your coaches, you can learn a lot from them and you can achieve anything.’”
Womensfootballarchive.com have sought and gained permission where possible to use the images and speeches reproduced in the article and where appropriate, further use is subject to copyright. Speech © 1974-2016, Thomas Family Archive, All Rights Reserved