clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Memory Lane: The Story of Minnie Seed, Sunderland Ladies first England International

Today marks 100 years since women were banned from playing on FA-affiliated grounds, and we celebrate the life and times of local lass Minnie Seed, who captained Sunderland against Newcastle in 1919. #ForTheLoveOfTheGame

This story is taken from a fantastic blog post by Minnie Seed’s great nephew, James Dutton, abridged and adapted by Roker Report editor Rich Speight. If you have any further information about Minnie’s life and career, or that of her more famous footballing brother Jimmy Seed, do get in touch with James through the @Minnie_Seed Twitter account.

I had always been aware that Minnie Seed was the youngest of the Seed siblings because of a photo that had pride of place in a family album, but that was literally all I knew about her. Taken around the turn of the century it shows all ten siblings with their parents, dressed up in their finest. Sadly I never had a chance to meet Great Aunt Minnie as she died eight years before I was born.

But in 2015 I received a message out of the blue on social media containing the revelation that Minnie had been a munitionette footballer during the First World War. None of the surviving family seemed to know anything about it.

The Seed Family of Marsden, Whitburn, with Minnie (bottom right)

In my search for information about Minnie I was lucky enough to be helped at an early stage by Patrick Brennan owner of the Donmouth website, and author of an excellent book The Munitionettes: A History of Women’s Football in North East England During the Great War.

While statistical information was very useful, in a way it only heightened my need to find out more about Minnie the person, a process that continues to this day. I am also very grateful for the work of Alex Jackson of the National Football Museum who uncovered Minnie’s involvement in an international match held in Belfast on 29th March 1921.

The youngest of the ten Seed siblings, Minnie Mary Jane Seed was born in March 1897 in Marsden, near Whitburn. During World War I, she joined the many women volunteering to work in factories making military equipment and armaments for the war effort.

In press reports of her early matches for various regional sides she is listed as ‘Minnie Seed (Gosforth Aviation)’, so we can assume she must have worked for the aircraft manufacturer based in the outskirts of Newcastle.

Her story is intertwined with that of her elder brother Jimmy, who signed for Sunderland in April 1914 on a summer wage of £1 a week, the equivalent of £120 today. After completing a full season with Sunderland reserves he signed up for military service in April 1915, aged 20. Having completed his initial training with the Northern Cyclist Battalion in Gainsborough near Sheffield, he was deployed to Belgium in August 1916 with the 8th Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment (The Leeds Rifles).

Back home, the newly recruited factory girls started having kickabouts during their lunch breaks to let off steam, and the “munitionette” football phenomenon had begun. Deemed at this point to be good for the health and wellbeing of the girls, these kickabouts were encouraged by management, and gradually, as the girls improved their skills, works teams were formed and regular inter-company matches were organised.

These games evolved into the charity fundraising regional matches that really began to capture the imagination of the public.

It’s not known how long Minnie had been working for Gosforth Aviation when in the early hours of 22 July 1917 Jimmy was one of many soldiers gassed in Nieuwpoort, near Ostend. The attack, one of the earliest utilising mustard gas, hospitalised 802 soldiers, 96 of whom died.

Blinded Soldiers
British casualties blinded by mustard gas in World War I
Photo by Three Lions/Getty Images

Jimmy was sheltering in the basement of a bombed-out building with his comrades when mustard gas shells were dropped from German aeroplanes in the dead of night. Being heavier than air the gas seeped down into their cellar, their confinement meaning the attack was far more deadly than it would normally have been in the open air.

One of the lucky ones to survive from that group, Jimmy was sent home to convalesce after a two-week hospitalisation in Belgium before returning to England. It would be a full thirteen months before he was well enough to return to action, such was the severity of the damage to his lungs.

He must surely have been aware of his sister’s footballing progress, but up to this point Minnie had played only in low-key works games. However, a couple of months after Jimmy’s return to England, Minnie was due to step up a level as she was selected from several works teams to represent all the Munitionettes working in aviation in the region.

The Munitionette’s Cup first round tie between ‘Aviation Girls’ and Blyth Spartans was due to take place on 20 October 1917, but the match was cancelled at the last minute because the organisers found the military, not yet aware of the benefits of the women’s game, unwilling to sanction it.

Nevertheless, her breakthrough was cemented when in February she was twice selected to represent ‘Tyneside Munitionettes’ against ‘Teesside Munitionettes’. She qualified to play for the Geordie girls despite growing up in Whitburn - Mackem territory - by dint of the fact that Gosforth Aviation was a Tyneside company. Alongside Minnie in both fixtures was one of the legends of women’s football, Blyth Spartan’s Bella Reay.

The famous Bella Reay of Blyth Spartans

Next up were appearances for Durham, Wearside Munitionettes, and Blyth Spartans Munition Ladies, where Minnie teamed up again with Bella. Held at St James’ Park, a ground that even Jimmy hadn’t yet played at, the match raised funds for the Alnwick branch of the National Federation of Discharged and Demobilised Soldiers and Sailors.

June saw Minnie turning out for ‘Walker Naval Yard’, and in her next few regional matches, including three for ‘North of England’, she was listed as Minnie Seed (Armstrong’s Naval Yard) or (Naval Yard). Whether Minnie was now working in the shipbuilding industry or was merely poached by their football team, isn’t clear, but both Walker Naval Yard and Gosforth Aviation were Armstrong owned, so either is possible.

The practice of poaching players was quite common amongst the more ambitious clubs, with Palmers and Dick, Kerr Ladies, in particular, taking advantage of the practice.

Bella Reay featured in several of these games, sometimes as a teammate but quite often as an opponent, scoring all three goals for Blyth Spartans in a 3-0 defeat of Walker Naval Yard followed by both goals in a 2-0 win against Minnie’s North of England. A local newspaper covered the match:

The game got off to a sensational start, Bella Reay charging through on her own and scoring within the first few seconds with a well-hit drive. The stunned North of England team rallied and worked hard through the remainder of the first half to get an equaliser, but several promising runs by Minnie Seed, the Sunderland international, failed due to her holding on to the ball too long.

Out of the 30 matches that Minnie is known to have played in, Bella Reay featured in 20, thirteen of those as a teammate.

Many, if not all of these representative matches were charity fundraisers and they proved extremely popular both with spectators and with a press searching for good news stories to lighten the Great War gloom. The higher profile regional fixtures were played at some of the biggest football league grounds in the country and large sums of money were raised for various disabled servicemen charities.

But it is clear that much of the initial public interest was based on novelty value and perhaps, for some, the prurient value of watching relatively scantily clad young ladies charging around a muddy football pitch. And yes, some may have turned up to mock their efforts, but unquestionably the standard of football on display though initially poor, improved exponentially with time, as reflected in press articles of the era.

Rather than drifting away, as they might have done had this been merely a curiosity, the crowds actually grew as the product on show improved and new stars were created. The men had the advantage of physical strength and speed, but they also benefitted from the fact that many had played football from a very early age in school. Girls certainly weren’t encouraged to get involved, and to some extent, still aren’t today.

Ladies’ Football
The “novelty” of women’s football first drew crowds to watch games

So the majority of those munitionette footballers would have been learning the game from scratch, and it’s no wonder their skills may have been a little lacking early on, the game being described as ‘kick and rush’ in early reports. It’s notable that those who had learned the game at an early age, often by kicking a ball around with their brothers had a distinct advantage over those that hadn’t.

This, according to historian Gail Newsham, was the case with a fair few of the Kerr Ladies team. Minnie, having two brothers who went on to play the game professionally, may well have benefitted herself from some sort of filial support

It’s not known if Jimmy attended any of these munitionettes matches, or even whether he approved of women’s football. Victorian values were still very prevalent in much of society at that time, with many men feeling it was unseemly for women to be exposing their ‘vulnerable’ bodies to such arduous physical exertions.

Whether the Seeds approved of her footballing exploits or not Minnie and the munitionettes were raising funds for charities that helped cater to the needs of injured soldiers, like Jimmy. Minnie even played a couple of times for the famous Dick, Kerr Ladies who raised an estimated £10 million (in today’s money) for various war-related charities. At many of the matches these war-wounded were welcomed as special guests and excused the entry fee.

In July 1918, a few weeks before Jimmy’s return to the front lines, Minnie was selected to represent the North of England against the West of Scotland alongside Bella Reay and another women’s soccer legend, 14-year-old Mary Lyons, resulting in a 3-2 win for the English side.

This match is now considered by some authorities to be the second-ever England women’s international. According to a local press report from the time:

Women’s football had moved on from the days when crowds came to laugh at their efforts, and the game was described as “one of the best of its kind seen at Newcastle... the football was fairly fast and some really clever work was witnessed.” The Scottish players in particular approached the game in a robust fashion, and one of their number had to be spoken to by the referee.

Jimmy was by now close to being fit enough to resume military service. A victim of an ‘ordinary’ gas attack could expect to be returned to the front lines after an average of around 40 days recuperation, but mustard gas was a far more potent weapon, and it was almost thirteen months before Jimmy could return to the theatre of war, which he did on 28 August 1918.

He later described having suffered ‘periods of mental depression’ during the war, relieved only by captaining 8th Battalion West Yorks in the football matches held behind the front lines. It was perhaps with trepidation he returned to the conflict, having been well looked after at home, and being fully aware this time of the conditions and dangers that awaited him in France.

At this time, Minnie played in three more notable matches. The first was her 7 September appearance for a Durham select XI against a Northumberland team that included Bella Reay. Played at the Rockcliffe Ground, Monkseaton in aid of the local branch of the Comrades of the Great War the Durham girls ran out winners by three goals to nil.

This contest was followed by what is now considered by some authorities to be the third women’s international, a 5-2 victory for England over Ireland featuring a Mary Lyons hattrick. The Newcastle Daily Chronicle of 21 September 1918 certainly bills it as a ‘Ladies International match’.

It was held at St James’ Park in front of a disappointing 2,000 spectators, raising just £60 for the Lord Mayor’s Relief Fund. The poor turnout may have been the result of the Spanish Flu epidemic that was sweeping through the country at the time.

Despite this, 12 October 1918 saw a repeat of the Durham v Northumberland contest. Once again Minnie played alongside Mary Lyons for Durham and Bella Reay featured for Northumberland, but this time the tables were turned as Northumberland ran out 1-0 winners. The match in aid of the local branch of the Comrades of the Great War was held at the Rockcliffe Ground, Monkseaton.

Just seven days later in Valenciennes in northern France not far from the border with Belgium, in the build up to the critical offensive that helped end the war, Jimmy was again to be the victim of a mustard gas attack, with the end of the war just three weeks away. Five days later he was evacuated from France to receive treatment in England. The war ended shortly after with the Armistice signed on 11th November.

Gas Alert In Trenches
Gas alert in trenches during World War I
Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images

On 2 November, just days after Jimmy’s return from France she turned out in the first of three consecutive matches for the Tyneside Munitionettes on this occasion against their Teesside rivals.

On 14 December Brown’s were despatched 4-0, and on Boxing Day the highly regarded Whitehaven side was the opposition. Played at St James’ Park before 18,000 spectators Tyneside fielded a strong line-up including Minnie, listed as a Sunderland player, alongside Bella Reay and Mary Lyons up front, and the result was a three-nil victory for Tyneside. This was the first defeat for the Whitehaven team whose previous record was played 25, won 23, drawn 2.

In March 1919, while Jimmy was convalescing, Minnie pulled off one of her most notable achievements in winning the Munitionettes Cup. She had been poached by “Palmer’s” who built a very strong team that again featured Minnie alongside Bella Reay and Mary Lyons in the forward line.

Minnie scored a goal in the semi-final 3-2 victory over “Foster, Blackett and Wilson’s” which set up their place in the final against “Browns” of West Hartlepool at St James’ Park. The match was previewed in the Northern Daily Mail on Friday, March 21 1919

Palmer’s team includes Miss Bella Reay, Blyth Spartans’ famous centre forward, who performed the “hat trick” in last season’s Cup final: Miss Bella Willis, of Armstrong-Whitworth’s and Prudhoe. captain of Tyneside Ladies’ team, and perhaps the best right half playing in this class of football: Miss Mary Lyons, a tricky 16-year-old player: and Miss Minnie Seed, of Gosforth Aviation and Naval Yard, a tricky left-winger...

This is the only Ladies’ Cup in existence. As in men’s cup-ties, the new ball that the match is played with will become the property of the player who captures it after the final whistle blows.

The cap and gold medals will be presented to the winning team after the match. Birtley St. Joseph’s Silver Prize Band will render selections half-an-hour before the game commences, and also during the interval.

Judging by the reputation of the players and the interest taken in the game, last season’s record, when £651 was taken at the gates from 30,000 spectators, promises to be exceeded.

Unfortunately, the ‘Spanish’ Flu outbreak meant that a reduced crowd of 10,000 spectators witnessed the Palmers side securing the Cup in a tense 1-0 win over ‘Browns’. The whereabouts of Minnie’s gold medal is unknown.

Another highlight for Minnie was turning out for ‘Newcastle Girls’ (actually a team made up of girls from the North and the North East) in two matches against the previously undefeated Dick, Kerr Ladies. The first, on 8 March in front of 5,000 fans at Deepdale produced a 1-0 win for Dick, Kerr Ladies and raised £179 for charity.

Newcastle Girls. Minnie Seed is front row, on the far right.

On 22 April 1919 a crowd of around 30,000 - the deadly Spanish flu pandemic was beginning petering by then - packed into St James’ Park for the return match. The Northern Girls, again including Bella Reay and Mary Lyons, held out for a creditable nil-nil draw. Fortunately for the Newcastle Girls side the great Lily Parr hadn’t yet joined the Dick, Kerr Ladies, being only 13 or 14 at the time.

May 1919 saw Minnie playing for Tyneside Ladies at Ayresome Park in a 1-1 draw with Teesside Ladies, and this was followed by a derby double in which Minnie captained Sunderland against Newcastle. The first, played at Roker Park, resulted in a 4-1 win for the Geordies in front of a crowd of 10,000, raising £436 for the Haverfield Serbian Distress Fund.

The return fixture was held on 31 May in front of 9,000 at St James’ Park and didn’t go any better for Minnie and the Mackems, the Newcastle girls triumphing 4-0. On this occasion, the beneficiary was the Newcastle (Central) Division of the St John Ambulance Brigade.

However, many of the ladies teams folded in the post-war period as the companies involved would no longer be manufacturing munitions, ships, and planes to same extent, and those engineering companies that were still involved would have been pressured into allowing men returning from the theatre of war to fill those roles again.

Even so, some women’s football did continue, but it wouldn’t surprise me if there was less coverage in the papers as men’s football had returned, and perhaps newspapers were less inclined to give publicity to women occupying what were previously considered men’s roles, both off and on the pitch, now the war was over.

Leeds Mercury, 26 May 1919

After the war, despite helping the Lads out in a match against Durham City on 11 January 1919, Jimmy was rejected by the directors of Sunderland AFC as unfit for professional football due to the effects of these attacks. But he didn’t give up on his dreams, and despite his war injuries would go on to have a long and successful career in the game.

1921 turned out to be a spectacular year for Jimmy, who had signed for Spurs after a successful two-year spell in south Wales with Mid Rhondda, contributing five goals as the north London side ran away with the Division Two title.

But Minnie wasn’t finished yet either, featuring in an eye-catching match at Windsor Park in Belfast. Just ten days after Jimmy’s appearance in Spurs’ FA Cup semi final 2-1 victory over Preston North End, Minnie turned out for an ‘English Girls’ side against Ireland in front of 10,000 spectators.

In the build-up to the contest the Northern Whig newspaper described Minnie Seed as “the inside right is the fastest lady footballer in England. She is a real dandy player, and is a sister of Seed, who plays for the FA Cup finalists, Tottenham Hotspur.”

The contest took place on 29 March 1921 and was billed as a Testimonial for Diana Scott, a leading light in Northern Irish women’s football during WW1. The English Girls won 3-2, Mary Lyons scoring two of the English side’s goals, and the National Football Museum’s Dr Alex Jackson tells the full story on the Playing Pasts website.

Just three weeks later Jimmy Seed won the FA Cup as Spurs defeated Wolves 1-0 at Stamford Bridge, and less than a month later he won his first England cap, playing alongside his childhood idol and Sunderland legend, Charlie Buchan, as England defeated Belgium 2-0 in Brussels, sixty or so miles the scenes of Jimmy’s gassings a few years earlier.

Jimmy Seed
10th January 1925: Jimmy Seed leads the Tottenham Hotspur team on to the pitch at White Hart Lane for their first round FA Cup match against Northampton Town.
Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

But while Jimmy’s footballing career was going from strength to strength Minnie’s came to a juddering halt when, 100 years ago today, the FA decided in their wisdom to prevent Football League clubs from allowing their affiliated grounds to be used for women’s football.

Many reasons have been given for this decision, and it’s possible that they all had a part to play. The most bizarre was the FA’s sudden stated concern that football might damage women’s health and hamper their ability to bear children. This claim was rebuked by Mrs Boultwood, captain of the Plymouth Ladies team, who stated

the controlling body of the F.A. are a hundred years behind the times and their action is purely sex prejudice. Not one of our girls have felt any ill effects from participating in the game

The FA also expressed some concern that some of the funds raised for charity may have been misappropriated, but even if that were the case the women’s game could hardly be blamed for this. There was nervousness that the large sums raised for charity revealed how much money was being made by the club owners at a time when the Football League was insisting on a maximum wage for players.

The establishment also feared that the success of the women’s game would lead to further support for the emancipation of women in society, and there was a general concern that women’s football’s popularity was somehow a threat to the men’s game.

Or perhaps the establishment’s disquiet was due to the fact that some women’s teams had switched from raising funds for disabled servicemen to supporting the Labour Movement, including striking coal miners. The profile of Lily Parr on FIFA’s website states the following:

...with the growing popularity of Parr, the team, and the women’s game, and the huge amounts of money being raised, Kerr’s and women’s football became embroiled in a political battle. With Kerr’s holding games in support of miners, and the team seen as a tool for helping the Labour Movement, the FA moved to suppress the women’s game. Further to the statement released saying “football is quite unsuitable for ladies”, the FA added: “The Council are further of the opinion that an excessive proportion of the receipts are absorbed in expenses and an inadequate percentage devoted to Charitable objects.

Ladies International
Dick, Kerr Ladies’ football team representing England (in white) take on the French Ladies International team at Herne Hill, London in 1925
Photo by MacGregor/Topical Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Minnie Seed was married on Boxing Day 1923 to blast furnaceman Thomas Quayle at Whitburn Parish church. Minnie and Thomas had one son, Thomas Anthony Quayle, born 30 December 1924 at the Quayle family home in Miles St, Eston, Middlesbrough.

Minnie’s husband Thomas died in 1939 and she moved to Aldershot to live with her older sister Frances in York Road, on the military base. Very sadly, the death of Minnie MJ Quayle, aged just 51, was registered in December 1948 in Barnsley.

Minnie Seed was just one of the many women who blazed a trail in women’s football whose adventures were largely forgotten for many years. Many of her generation, both male and female, drew a line after the war, and just wanted to put it all behind them, but in recent years there has been a real surge in interest in munitionette football which has shed much more light on the topic; some excellent books have been written and a feature film was planned, although the current pandemic seems to have put production on hold.

But nonetheless, it does seem odd that Jimmy Seed’s grandchildren knew nothing of Minnie’s time as a footballer until recently. She wasn’t mentioned in Jimmy’s autobiography, and in a suitcase full of Jimmy’s memorabilia, including photo albums, scrapbooks and hundreds of newspaper articles, there’s not a trace or mention of Minnie at all, other than that one family photo from 1900.

It would be easy to speculate that her exploits may not have met with her family’s approval, or that perhaps Jimmy didn’t take women’s football very seriously, but we don’t have any real evidence to support that.

However, no one could blame Jimmy if his traumatic wartime experiences, and his near forced exit from the game because of the effects of the gassings, meant that he looked upon Minnie’s successes with a wry smile.


Fan Letters: “Could Sunderland go for great great brill brill, wicked wicked Will Still?”


“Michael Beale & Sunderland was a fruitless and ultimately failed relationship”


On This Day (22nd Feb 1977): Sunderland smash West Brom for six as the mini revival continues!

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the Roker Report Daily Roundup newsletter!

A daily roundup of Sunderland news from Roker Report