Lady Nellie stars in the beautiful game

LADY footballer Nellie Kirk
LADY footballer Nellie Kirk
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FEW people in Hartlepool can claim they were part of sporting history. Nellie Kirk can.

In fact, she was, in many ways, the town’s early 1900s equivalent of a sporting superstar.

Nellie’s claim to fame was that she had soccer talent in abundance but perhaps it was also her downfall. In another day and age, she could have made her fortune in the modern women’s game.

But Nellie lived in the early 1900s when times were hard - and became even harder when the world went to war from 1914.

In an age when women’s soccer did not have the high-profile it does these days, Nellie and many other women kept the game of soccer going.

And these were no street corner knockabouts either. They were well-organised games, pitting well trained teams against each other.

In 1917, the lady from West Hartlepool was part of a football team called the Munitionettes which took part in what is thought to have been the first female international football match in history.

She was known within her family as Nellie The Lady Footballer and researcher Kath Brooks told us: “Her photographs and medal have been kept for nearly a hundred years.”

Kath’s family tree research must have seemed an absolute delight.

In other parts of her genealogical studies, she found out her grandfather John Hayes had been a key witness in a murder trial in 1899, and her grandmother Ada Charlton was a parlour maid to one of the wealthiest men in town in the early 1900s.

But Kath, it seems, has a past which is littered with fascinating stories.

This time, it concerns Margaret Ellen Kirk, known as Nellie, who was born in Northallerton in 1895.

The family moved to Hartlepool some time before 1901 and lived in Stephen Street for many years.

In 1911, Nellie was working as a salt packer; she may have worked in the sawmills during the First World War.

It was in 1917 that she made history. She was part of the Brown’s (Sawmills) team which had a very good year and Nellie was a prolific goalscorer.

her defining moment came on December 15, 1917, when she was invited to play as a Probable in a trial match against the Possibles at Wallsend.

The idea was that the best players would form an England team to take on Ireland. Nellie featured heavily.

She had one shot blocked and laid on a pass for a colleague called Bryant to score, getting their team back into the game at 1-1.

Her performance was good enough to get herself a place on the England team.

It was next stop Belfast - but it meant spending Christmas away from her family on a four-day trip to Ireland and back.

And it wasn’t going to be an easy passage with the world in the middle of war.

Next week - crossing the sea under threat of torpedo.