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Women's cricket during the war

Military advance

Joan Wilkinson  •  Getty Images

Joan Wilkinson  •  Getty Images

On October 14, 1948, Joan "Wilkie" Wilkinson boarded the RMS Orion to Australia - one of a party of 17 women selected for England on their first post-war tour. The next few months would prove an all-embracing experience: meeting high commissioners, visiting koala sanctuaries, and hobnobbing with Don Bradman at the MCG, where in January she would make her England debut.
At a time when long-distance travel was reserved for a few, a tour Down Under was always special. For Wilkinson, it represented something more fundamental. A decade earlier, she had been a weaver in a cotton mill in Lancashire, having left school at 14 - a typical 1930s working-class girl. She loathed every minute. Then war was declared on Germany and, for the first time in the country's history, women were conscripted into the armed forces: in 1941, Wilkinson was called up into the newly formed Women's Auxiliary Air Force. After learning cricket in the backstreets of her village, and appearing for Burnley, she was handed the chance to train and play as part of her everyday duties in the WAAF. She became the captain of an inter-services XI, remained in the Air Force after the war ended, and caught the eye of the selectors. Wilkinson would go on to play in 13 Tests between 1949 and 1958 - the mill long forgotten. In short, the Second World War transformed her life by offering her cricketing opportunities that were scarcely conceivable to working-class women before 1939.
Inevitably, the war was disruptive for the women's game - as it was for the men's. At the AGM of the Women's Cricket Association, held at Devonshire Street in London on October 13, 1945, it was announced that during the war the number of women's clubs in England had fallen from 105 to 18, and affiliated colleges and schools from 103 to 12. Clubs found their members scattered all over the world, called up to serve their country; many disbanded. The WCA at least continued to function, setting up a war emergency committee in 1942 and raising over £300 for the Red Cross through charity matches. By contrast, the English Women's Cricket Federation, which had run thriving leagues in Yorkshire and Lancashire in the 1930s, attracting a playing membership of over 3,000 and crowds of up to 8,000, ceased activity altogether, and never re-formed.
War also delayed the 1939-40 tour of Australia and New Zealand by almost a decade. In September 1939, the players had already been selected, and were weeks away from setting sail. Audrey Collins, who later served as WCA president, had spent two years saving £115 for the boat fare, and handed in her notice as a teacher. Another tour would not take place until 1948-49, by which time Collins had been deselected: her chance of an overseas Test had vanished forever. It haunted her for decades. "The disappointment at not going was intense," she wrote in 1985.
Despite the disruption, the war threw up opportunities for women to participate in cricket, as Wilkinson soon discovered. Women's cricket had previously been a minority, middle-class sport - difficult to access if you had not played at a fee-paying school, with travel to matches and equipment expensive, and no prospect of it being a career, unlike the men's game. There had also been entrenched opposition to women participating: one correspondent wrote to the WCA's Marjorie Pollard in May 1930, insisting that the women's game was "a sacrilege… a direct insult at the heads of those who call themselves men".
The pressures of total war, though, meant such attitudes were no longer sustainable. The conscription of women into the armed forces, essential industrial work, or the Women's Land Army, left the government concerned about female morale. Actively promoting women's sport was one solution: organised team games between women war workers would prevent boredom and promote esprit de corps. An anonymous article in Women's Cricket magazine in May 1939 declared: If the British Empire is to survive as the greatest barrier in the world against despotism, she must be upheld by the trained service of all her peoples… The team-games player learns discipline through games, so that this comes naturally to her; she will fall into the ways of an organised service all the more easily.
With 950,000 women taking up work in munitions, many factories were encouraged by the government to open their on-site recreation facilities to women for the first time. Barbara Blaker, the daughter of Kent CCC's Dick Blaker and another member of the 1948-49 tour party, worked on the production of Wellington bombers at the Vickers Armstrong plant in Weybridge, Surrey. She joined a works team that used the factory ground. One government report from 1943 suggested female workers showed "a great improvement in bearing and appearance… there is a definite desire for camping and outdoor exercise, which certainly was not the case before".
Other WCA members followed the 1939 call to "fall into the ways of an organised service" by participating in the war effort. Kathleen Doman, who had originally proposed the formation of a "central association for women's cricket" at a meeting in October 1926, was put in charge of clothing in the WLA, a civilian organisation which sent women to farms to replace conscripted men. They were often lodged together in hostels, and encouraged by local welfare officers to set up sports teams as a way to spend their free time "productively"; Doman's influence meant cricket was particularly popular. Intriguingly, while she had earlier overseen the introduction of a rule making skirts and stockings compulsory in women's cricket, she now helped push for breeches and dungarees for the Land Girls. As a result, WLA cricket was played in trousers.
Among others, Dorothy Broadbent of Yorkshire and Cecily Mawer of Middlesex both contributed thousands of hours to civil defence; Mawer became an ARP ambulance driver. The physical fitness required to cope with demanding conditions during air raids meant the government encouraged physical recreation for civil defence workers via their Fitness for Service scheme. Broadbent recalled several cricket matches with fellow volunteers: "On the first occasion, I was the only woman. I suppose all the spectators thought I was a brazen hussy, but what did it matter? I enjoyed myself enormously." Mawer, an off-spinner, continued playing for the London-based Wagtails club. On January 5, 1941, she was killed in Harrow during an air raid.
Away from the home front, cricket thrived within the women's armed forces - the WAAF, the Women's Royal Naval Service and the Auxiliary Territorial Service, all formed in 1938-39. By 1945, some 445,000 women were serving in them, and their day-to-day lives involved compulsory physical training and team games. A battle had been fought to ensure this was possible: Dame Leslie Whateley, director of the ATS, described "resentment" among male officers at the idea that women should be permitted to do PT in their working hours; another struggle was "convincing the Treasury that money was necessary for [female] PT kit".
But with support from leading officers, the battle was won, and thousands of working-class women gained access to cricket. As Peggy Scott, a war chronicler, wrote in 1944: Never has the average girl had the opportunity of playing games as boys have always done. Netball and rounders have been the extent of her games experience. A new world of sport has opened out before her, and she finds everybody in it anxious that she should have a place. The hockey player will coach her, although she has never before played hockey. She learns to play lacrosse and tennis. She plays in the cricket team. The airmen teach the girls cricket, using their left hands or some other handicap… The aim in the unit is not only to do the best for the unit, but to spread the ability to play games to those who have never before had the opportunity.
As elsewhere, WCA members led the way. Betty Archdale, who had captained England in 1934-35 and been due to do so again in 1939-40, signed up for the WRNS and was stationed in Singapore and Colombo, starting teams in both (Colombo Cricket Club made her an honorary member). Nancy Joy, one of the 1948-49 England team who travelled to Australia, served as a member of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry. Future chair of the WCA, Sylvia Swinburne joined the WAAF, became a squadron officer, and started cricket at every station to which she was posted; she also set up an inter-station competition. Seventy teams entered in 1945, when the winners were RAF Weeton, thanks to the performances of Corporal "Wilkie" Wilkinson, who averaged 58 with the bat and below six with the ball.
The ATS, though, outshone the other services thanks to their three established England players: Joy Liebert, Muriel Lowe and Myrtle Maclagan. In 1943, when inter-service matches began, the ATS - with Maclagan as captain - thrashed both the WRNS (bowling them out for 41 after scoring 252 for two), and the WAAF (by 131 runs). The ATS also took part in games against male officers' teams, including one in 1940 against a side featuring Colonel Alexander Johnston, a former first-class cricketer for Hampshire. Maclagan hit a century, before declaring with the total on 140, "leaving, I considered, defeat impossible. Our opponents had 140 to make in 70 minutes… [but] one brigadier employed a golf swing to such use that they passed our total on time."
By 1942, Maclagan's prowess had become so well known within the army she was asked to play in an otherwise all-male Officers v Sergeants match. She recalled congratulations from her senior commander "on being in natty white… while the men were mostly in khaki or grey flannels. I was in such a dither that I can remember nothing else about the match!"
In general, though, mixed cricket had been frowned on before the war; Marjorie Pollard described it as "a waste of time", and argued it was important women were not seen to be trying to "play like men". Wartime, it seemed, helped break down gender divisions. But what would happen when hostilities ended?
The first post-war gathering of women cricketers came with the revival of the WCA's Cricket Week at Colwall, Herefordshire, from August 26 to September 1, 1945. All told, 68 players showed up, though the absence of Archdale and Maclagan (still waiting for demobilisation) was keenly felt. Club numbers were way down, and Pollard struck a note of despair in the first post-war edition of Women's Cricket, in May 1946. "Now where are we?" she wrote. "Almost where we began in 1926."
That proved pessimistic. By 1950, the WCA reported that they had exceeded pre-war affiliation figures, with active clubs rising to 200 in 1953. This included the three women's services, who maintained their enthusiasm for the sport. Audrey Disbury, who would play for England between 1957 and 1973, signed up for the WRNS as a mechanic in the 1950s because of the cricketing opportunities. "I met someone who persuaded me to join," she recalled. "She said I could play as much cricket as I liked."
The WCA were quick to clamp down on some wartime innovations: skirts would remain the uniform of the Association until the 1990s, while the pre-war ban on mixed cricket was hastily reinstated. But England captain Molly Hide wrote in 1950 that "the number of women and girls wishing to learn and play cricket [has] increased enormously, and there has been a great demand for coaches". Presumably some of the women exposed to cricket for the first time during the war were keen to continue.
The men played a series of Victory Tests to celebrate the coming of peacetime; the WCA could not afford to. It would take six years of fundraising before they could welcome the Australians again, in 1951. But it was worth the wait. The Oval Test, played in late July, saw England triumph by 137 runs, and was attended by a record 15,000 spectators. The war, it seemed, had helped shift any remaining public opposition to women playing cricket. Like the victory against Hitler, it was not to be taken for granted.
Raf Nicholson is a women's cricket writer, the author of Ladies and Lords: A History of Women's Cricket in Britain, and editor of CRICKETher.com.

Raf Nicholson is a writer on and historian of women's cricket. @RafNicholson