This chapter first appeared in 13 Inspirations, edited by Tony Hannan, published by Scratching Shed Publishing Ltd (2014). Buy the book here.
‘They’ve a girl as boss of their rugby team’
If you could have five people over for dinner, from the past or present, who would you invite and why?
Everyone, at some point in their lives, will have probably played this game. Perhaps you wiled an hour away in the car on the way to Wembley, trying to choose between Marx or Engels, or argued with someone on a coach trip to an away game over which of the 1914 Great Britain team you’d rather converse with and why.
My choices would largely be literary and musical; Christopher Marlowe and Bram Stoker would meet Nina Simone and Lux Interior over a glass of Argentinian Malbec and Mediterranean tapas. However, the seat of honour would be reserved for an ordinary woman from Hull whom I’ve no doubt would enchant everyone with her stories of determination and success against the odds.
That woman is Kay Ibbetson.
Kay and I have never met, but we have spent many wonderful days together over the last few years, playing a game of hide and seek. I have chased her through the cobbled streets of Hull’s Old Town, cycled with her along Preston Road in the east of the city, and got lost in her shadow on the Bransholme Estate in the north.
The first time I saw Kay was in the summer of 2012, when she waved at me from the pages of Rugby League Magazine. ‘Scorn and ridicule are generally the just and deserved rewards of women who try to talk Rugby League – a real man’s preserve if ever there was one’ stung the opening lines of N. R. Maplethorpe. I felt those words cut to the quick; even today when people discover that I research the history of women’s involvement in rugby league, I often receive similarly snide comments by way of reply. ‘This then must be the measure of Kay Ibbetson’s success’ he went on, ‘to have overcome male prejudice and be accepted as one of them in the amateur Rugby League code’. Wow, I thought. Even today, the formidable Kath Hetherington hasn’t been wholly accepted by the game, so how, in 1964, did this woman manage it? Perhaps it was down to the tired eyes of a researcher reading under dim lighting, but with that thought I’ll swear I saw her wink at me from the page.
And so it began. Maplethorpe’s article was all I had to go on. It told me she was the 35-year-old secretary of East Hull RLFC, and that she was the first woman on the Amateur Rugby League Council; her background was in youth club work and she was a successful business-woman who ran a clerical agency. She also supported Hull Kingston Rovers, but even though I’m a Hull FC fan I couldn’t hold it against her. I had so many questions in my head: how did she cope when she started out with East Hull? What problems did she face? I reckoned she must be about 83, so would I be able to track her down and speak to her? Full of burning excitement, off I went to Hull History Centre in search of Kay.
I squealed with delight when the index of names brought up two entries that lead me to newspaper articles from 1961. Astonishingly, Kay made front page news in January 1961 when the Hull and Yorkshire Times lauded her as the ‘belle of the oval-shaped ball’ with the headline ‘They’ve a girl as boss of their rugby team’. Whilst journalist John Rodgers emphasised the masculinity of rugby league, he could not hide his admiration of Kay as he introduced her to the public:
‘For a woman, Kay Ibbetson, a tall, attractive, mature redhead, certainly has one of the strangest ambitions – she wants enough money to build a permanent headquarters for a boys’ rugby club. Repeat: rugby – that rough, tough game for brawny men. Belle of the oval-shaped ball, Miss Kay is the only female rugby club secretary in the whole of Yorkshire, and her beau is East Hull Rugby League FC. A woman who can control 35 lusty, high-spirited youths, and silence the sniggers of rival males, must have some fine qualities, but it is surprising not to find her as large and tough as a Sherman tank.’
Kay, embroiled in a man’s world, married to the club, may not have been built like a tank but it seemed that she very much had the drive of one.
Firm but Fair
It all started for Kay whilst she was involved in youth club work at Maybury Road Youth Club in East Hull, and in 1958, realising that the club did not have a rugby league team, she set one up. However, the team were expelled from the club for a misdemeanour involving alcohol. Kay, a singular woman who advocated discipline, strongly believed the punishment was too severe. Convinced of the social benefits of rugby league for young boys, she backed her team, saying “rather than let these boys be without any guidance or interest, I resigned and formed a club for them”. Resigning from the youth club meant that Kay not only had to organise the team, but train them too, something unheard of for a woman at the time. She was very knowledgeable about the game, and preferred a fast, open style of rugby; the type of rugby she enjoyed to watch. In later years she spoke fondly of how she used to pass the ball around and was proud of doing so.
At the same time, over at Craven Street Youth Club, a battle was going on over who would take charge of the Championship winning under-17s side the following season. It was usual for a coach to take on an under 17s side and see them through their under-19s season too, but at Craven Street, under-17s coaches Dennis Laws and Fred Whittaker had something of a bust up with the under-19s coach Bill Robinson, because Bill wanted to take the under-19s team again after his boys had progressed to open age. Bill had apparently done this before, but this time, Dennis stood his ground. He had built his team well, and had players like Flash Flanagan, Bob Coverley, Alan Burwell and Ted McNamara playing in his side. Having just won the championship, Dennis did not want to give up his team easily, nor did his team want to leave him.
Assistant Fred Whitaker got in touch with Maybury Youth Club, where Kay had set up her under-17s side, and the Craven Street lads went there to train. The team were all set to transfer to Maybury, but when Alan Burwell and Mike Bullock went to the youth club dance one night, the club told Burwell that he could not come in. Burwell went to Riley High School and the headmaster, having discovered that he planned to attend the dance, had rung the club expressing his wish that Burwell would be denied entry as he should be at home studying for his exams. To this day Alan has no idea how his headmaster found out he was planning to go to the dance. At the next training session, the captain of the team said that if Burwell wasn’t allowed in the youth club then the full team wouldn’t be going in again. The transfer to Maybury was off.
With the two youth teams looking for new homes, they joined forces and the new East Hull Rugby League Football Club was born.
Kay was very much the boss, organising everything. As the club’s secretary she looked after the club’s administration, but Kay was not afraid of hard work and remained very hands on, continuing to coach the younger lads at times. She was firm, but fair, and joked that everyone knew her as Kay, unless they wanted something, then it was Miss Ibbetson! The teams played matches at East Park, but Kay had great difficulty in finding the boys somewhere to train. “I called on every hall in East Hull, but no one wanted 35 lads bouncing on their floors” she said. Her persistence paid off however, and the vicar of St. John’s, the Reverend P. Haynes, eventually lent her the use of his hall. However, this was only temporary, and sporadic, so the club had to move about a lot.
Other clubs were suspicious of East Hull for having a woman as a secretary, but Kay shrugged off criticism and pointed to the record of the two teams, which was exemplary. In their first two months the juniors lost only one of five games and were top of the league. The intermediates were unbeaten in nine matches. They even beat the Hull Kingston Rovers B team 36-12; and as Kay said “they are professionals getting £2 a match, our boys pay to play!”
A kindly disciplinarian, she found no difficulty in controlling a large number of boys. She advocated good behaviour on the field, saying:
“Our boys are fairly well-mannered. It doesn’t matter what they say in front of me, I’ve got cloth ears. But I don’t like them to swear on the field. It is not sportsmanship. Both our teams play cleanly and, above all, they are enthusiastic. That’s what gives me so much heart to do things for them.”
Determined to bring some stability to the club, she told the Hull and Yorkshire Times, “Give me five years and I’ll have a club house or my name’s not Ibbetson!”. She was very proud of who she was and clearly good at what she did, because she had a club house in a mere ten months, an achievement which is testament to her dedication and devotion to the club.
Kay was adept at networking and used her business skills to her advantage. Albert Draper, a director at Hull KR, put Kay in touch with a businessman who was willing to let her rent a warehouse in Hedon, a village just to the east of the city. The former grain store had been unoccupied for eight years previously, and when Kay took it on she ignored the rat-infestation and focused on the goal of making it a permanent home for the club. Kay and the boys set about raising money for refurbishments, and with the generosity of Hull KR, Hull FC and other local businesses, Kay raised a total of £285 for the renovations, which Kay and the club members mostly did themselves to keep the costs down. Kay said that the generosity of local people was “overwhelming” and they had many donations of furniture and electrical equipment. Someone even gave them a piano. This restored her “faith in human nature” as she came in for some criticism, not least from the people of Hedon, who worried that the club may apply for an alcohol license. Her motives however, were purely about social good. East Hull’s new headquarters were to be used as a youth club, as Kay wanted somewhere for “her boys” and girls to relax and take part in normal youth club activities. She said:
“So many youngsters at youth clubs are hamtied by regulations and red tape and they don’t enjoy themselves. Here we want to give them advice rather than authority, and we’ve built up respect between ourselves and the boys by friendship […] all of them come to me when they’re in trouble or have problems. By giving them responsibility and letting them virtually build this clubhouse themselves, we’ve something to be proud of, and it means a lot more to them than a clubhouse they could just walk straight into.”
A successful open age side was developed that season, and East Hull became a breeding ground for talent; players from the club that went on to become professionals included Hull’s Trevor Carmichael and Roger Booth and Hull KR’s John Moore and Alan Burwell. ‘Kay cared about the team beyond the playing of the game and used her professional experience to help many an East Hull graduate negotiate their first professional contract.
Scent of a Woman
Kay was not one to settle and it seems that she was always striving to push the club forward. In May 1963 Kay facilitated a five day trip to France for the open age team, making East Hull the first Yorkshire amateur club to play international football. Matches were arranged against a Paris XIII and the semi-professional Regiment de Jonville, a side made up of members of the French Army. For many an East Hull player, this was a first trip abroad or at least on an aeroplane. For Kay, arranging the trip wasn’t always easy and, as Kay’s friend Julie Dunham would later tell me, she met with some opposition because “she was a [single] woman going away with men”.
In the first match East Hull were beaten 14-12 by the Paris Selection XIII. Mike Bullock, who had been with East Hull since the Craven Street days, later recalled that the game was played in torrential rain and the mud was so thick the players could hardly lift their feet off the ground. They were ahead at half time, but with only one substitution facing a fresh set of forwards in the second half, they did well to keep the score tight and even had a match-winning try disallowed at the close of game.
The East Hull team were recognised all over Paris and treated like film stars. Mike recalled that waitresses in cafes would come up and talk to them about the games, and one lad even got his studs put into his boots for free, which was good because in reality the lads were flat broke. Mike himself was newly married and nearly didn’t go. As a general labourer on the docks, the “20 odd” pounds the trip cost was a lot of money. Mike and his wife Ann had just moved into their own house off Newbridge Road, but a sympathetic Ann wouldn’t let him miss what she considered a once in a lifetime opportunity.
The boys were on such tight budgets they ate chicken and chips for the whole trip, but Kay made sure that the women in the men’s lives were not forgotten. She arranged for each player to take home a token gift, a small bottle of the Jacques Heim’s perfume J’Aime, which inspired Christian Dior’s own J’Adore. Heim, a contemporary of Dior, was a Parisian designer, manufacturer of women’s furs and couture and the inventor of the bikini. Luckily for me, Mike Bullock’s wife Ann kept her bottle, and despite the bottle being a little mouldy on the inside it still smells absolutely divine. The gift, however small, indicates that Kay thought holistically and realistically about the club. She understood that the women were making sacrifices at home so that their men could play international rugby league and deserved to be thanked accordingly. That she chose a Parisian designer’s perfume showed that she thought they deserved more than a trinket, and that Ann Bullock has kept it these last fifty years shows it was something special.
Kay made sure that for the team the France trip wasn’t all about rugby league either. They received a cultural education visiting the Louvre and Notre Dame, and took in the sights, just as she organised.
The second match against Regiment de Jonville took place on rock hard ground, in a big, but quite derelict stadium. One Army player had a skinhead, which Mike said was odd and in Hull in 1963, rarely seen. When asked about it one of the French players managed to communicate the words “bad lad” and explain that, in the French Army if you’d misbehaved you got your hair shaved off. The semi-professionals won easily, but French officials praised East Hull’s open style of play and numbed the pain of defeat for the visitors as they were treated to post-match champagne with the mayor of Paris, complete with some kind of “posh biscuits” that Mike Bullock has still failed to identify but recalls looked like trifle sponges. The Mayor gave them speech in a French, and it rounded off their trip in style.
East Hull were defeated in France, but victorious at home, as that 1963/64 season also saw East Hull become the triumphant winners of the Council Cup. Off the field, Kay’s success and dedication to rugby league was such that in the same season she was the first woman ever to be appointed to the Hull and District Amateur Rugby League Council. The council’s meetings of club secretaries took place at The Ritz club on Holderness Road on Tuesday evenings, where Kay would have been the only woman amongst approximately fifty men from the other teams in the leagues. “At meetings I would imagine she gave as good as she took, knowing her!” smiled Mike Bullock.
However, despite her drive and spectacular achievements, in 1967 Kay disappears from rugby league history. We know from the Rugby Football League’s Official Guides that Kay remained at the helm of East Hull until the 1966-67 season, when East Hull became New Embassy and Brian Robins took over as the new club’s secretary.
‘Happiness is an allegory, unhappiness a story’
It would have been very easy to draw a line under Kay’s story here, and put her achievements as rugby league’s first known female coach and a highly successful secretary into the record book. But I couldn’t draw the line, and I doubt I ever will. For me, history is about human stories and all too often it is boiled down to the cold, hard facts of who did what and when, especially rugby league history whereby a reader is frequently given dry lists of player names, match scores and tables of points scorers. Given the obstacles many women have faced, and continue to face in the game, I feel that it is important to get a sense of who these women are and what drove them to push the gender boundaries and make inroads into such a masculine sport.
Kay was not the first female amateur club secretary; that honour goes to Rosalie Kyle, who, in 1947 became secretary of Huyton Juniors for four seasons in the St Helens Junior Rugby League. Kay was the next female secretary and clocked up six seasons at East Hull, and during her time only two other women took up posts in Keighley and Hensingham, each lasting one and two seasons respectively. What is remarkable about Kay in contrast to these other women, is just how dedicated she was and what she achieved beyond the secretarial role in her six seasons at East Hull.
And so I fell in love with Kay. Having spent months in the Rugby Football League Archive looking for the proverbial needles in the haystack that are passing references to women, here at last was a woman who had really pushed the boundaries that society, and the culture of the sport, imposed on her gender. A woman who had made herself active in the masculine game she loved and even dared to enter the field and coach a team. Whilst the journalists were instantly smitten with her appearance – she was described tall, attractive and with extraordinary flame coloured hair – it was her achievements and tenacity that sprung out from the page and grabbed my heart.
Never before had I wanted to meet someone so badly. I felt sure that Kay Ibbetson would be more than the sum of her accomplishments in rugby league. I wanted to know more about her so I could attempt to do her story justice by putting her achievements into the full context of her life. So here is where I feel my real search for Kay began.
The only mention of Kay’s family in any of the articles I’d read said that her love affair with rugby league began from an early age, when she used to slip under the turnstiles to watch Hull KR with her father. I could only hope that she had similarly passed on her love of the game to children or other relatives who were active in the game in some way. But how best to reach them? Initially, I turned to the rugby league community for help. I put out a call for information via several online forums, and after several weeks I had one response from a gentleman in Queensland who played for East Hull in 1962, but more of that anon. Next, I printed over a thousand leaflets containing what information I had about Kay, plus a photograph, and handed them out around Craven Park before the Hull derby. Wearing my usual black, the remnants of my Gothic teenage years, but sporting no Hull FC logo, it’s fair to say I got an ‘interesting’ reception from some of the home fans and left wishing I too had developed ‘cloth ears’! I took it as light-heartedly as I could, and every so often someone would say “I remember her”, but further questioning showed that they knew she existed but never actually knew her, which is not surprising given that she had made the front page of the local paper. A few helpful people took extra leaflets for friends they thought might know about her, and one man said “I remember her running a bus company, but that’s all” which gave me food for thought and a possible lead.
With not much new information to go on for my efforts, I turned my attention to tracking her down in a more traditional way. I mentally donned my deerstalker and set to work on telephone directories, electoral rolls and finding my way around several genealogy websites. Time consuming database searches allowed me to piece together her family tree, and anyone who has tried this knows just how frustrating it can be for a beginner. The software is very unforgiving, and it was especially frustrating because when I finally found the entry for her birth I realised Kay had knocked five years off her age every time she spoke to the press! It seemed that she was an only child, and I could find no death certificate, so with the hope that she was alive I traced her lineage back to both sets of grandparents, exploring the branches of aunts, uncles and cousins in order to see whether she had any living relatives. It’s fair to say that I now know more about Kay’s family than I do my own!
Kathleen Emily Ibbetson was born into a typical working-class family in the Sculcoates area of Hull on August 11th, 1923. Her 27-year-old mother, Kate, came from Dundee and was the daughter of a shipyard driller. Kate was the youngest of five children and had two sisters and two brothers. By the time she was 14 the family had moved to Hull, no doubt due to her father finding work within Hull’s extensive shipping industry. One sister was a domestic servant and the other a black lead workers at Reckitts, whilst her brothers were a shipyard labourer and a private in the army. A member of the 6th Battalion of the East Yorkshire Regiment, the latter died in 1915 aged 25 during the Gallipoli campaign.
Her father was born Thomas Ibbetson in Hull in 1894 and was the son of a general labourer and warehouseman. In 1911, aged 17, Tom was a light porter at a paint manufactory alongside an elder brother. He had been born into a large family; his mother gave birth to twelve children in total between 1874 and 1894. The births and deaths of ten can be traced, and we know that Tom was one of only three brothers and seven sisters, but sadly only nine children survived in 1911.
Kate and Tom married in 1922 and Kay came along the following year. Kay was very close to her parents throughout their lives and in 1950, aged 27, she remained at the family’s first known address, 8 Keble Grove, Preston Road, with her mother and father. How long they had been at the address prior to 1950 is not known, but they remained there until 1970 when 47 year old Kay and her mother moved to the recently-built Bransholme estate.
Kay set up her business, Clerical Services, which began operating from 25 Bishop Lane in the old town, in 1958. Clerical Services was an employment agency that also offered typewriting and copying services. Kay had a keen business acumen and according to Rugby League Magazine, business, rather than on the terraces at Craven Park, is where Kay ‘developed the confidence and sure touch of mixing in a man’s world’.
Telephone directories and electoral records allowed me to map her addresses through the city, and helped me find out more information about her businesses. The electoral roll also told me that she married at the age of 47, and that her husband disappeared quickly. With all sorts of questions going round in my head, I traced her through her married name, Maule, only to be utterly deflated when I found her date of death: March 20, 2005. I would never get to meet this woman I’d begun to admire. I raced to the microfilms of the Hull Daily Mail, hoping to see several memorial notices that would lead me to those that knew her, but there were no messages of love from friends of family; all that appeared was a simple notification of death. With no mention of any family, and no other notices to go on, I had a horrible vision that Kay had died very much alone.
I set out to find her grave, hoping that it may give me some new information. At the crematorium I discovered where she was buried and so I set off for Eastern Cemetery, armed with three red and white roses, and found her unmarked grave. I’m not ashamed to say that I cried. I had become so wrapped up in Kay’s story, that to see her grave with no headstone seemed like such an injustice. There lies a Hull woman, who made rugby league history, and no one would ever know. What made it more poignant is that the graves around hers were so flamboyant. I placed the flowers and felt that I owed it to her more than ever to find out more about who she was and celebrate her life accordingly.
Considering she had been so public in her rugby years, I could not understand why I couldn’t reach anyone in the city who knew her. I looked back through the articles for names that might help, and realised that I may as well begin with Hull KR legend Alan Burwell. I interviewed Alan, who began to add necessary detail to her time at East Hull, but as Kay was a very private person he did not really know her personally. However, he put me in touch with others and when the copy of her death certificate arrived, I found her next of kin, and friend, Julie.
Slowly, I began to get closer to Kay.
I knew that Kay was constantly registered as living with her parents throughout her life, and such records seemed to show that Kay was their only child. However, Julie told me that Kay was not alone and instead had a younger brother, Michael. Michael was born in 1937 and was fourteen years her junior. How close they were as children is not known, and Michael is yet to be tracked down. I could only smile at the predictability of Julie saying that during her twenties Kay served abroad with the army.
We can begin to get a full picture of the woman Kay was from 1958, when Kay began her clerical agency and her pursuits in rugby league. Mike Bullock remembers her as a happy, outgoing person who did all the organising for everything: “She had a laugh and joke with you and you could say things back to her, she’d give you just as good like. That’s the type of person she was. She was a character in her own right”. Mike can remember thinking: “that she shouldn’t come into the changing rooms when we were getting changed which she did quite often. In them days it was quite embarrassing and we’d all turn around. It’s not like now, nowadays they’ll go in and do all sorts but in them days women didn’t do such as that. But Kay was one on her own, with her red flaming hair. Quite outward and boisterous was Kay; would put people in their place. Those are the things that you remember about her. She was well before her time, it didn’t bother her at all. Kay socialised with everybody and took participation in most of the things. She did what club secretaries did and beyond that really.”
My first respondent, Graham Rumble, who now lives in the Gold Coast area of Queensland, played for East Hull under 17s in 1962-63, and remembers that Kay ‘was a very bubbly character and her enthusiasm rubbed off on the players. In our team were Ken Crane (brother of Mick) and Roger Booth, who signed for Hull FC’. He recalls her being ‘a very attractive lady with flame her’ and like Mike ‘found it a bit strange when she was in the dressing rooms but we got used to it after a while’. Generally, I found that the players did not know anything about her personally, but Graham remembers her liking Johnny Mathis and the boys teasing her about that. Kay left an impression, as he went on to say, ‘for me to remember these things nearly fifty years on shows that she had an effect on us all’.
Kay’s father Tom died in December 1967, which coincides with the time she left East Hull, however exactly why she left East Hull at the time of merger is not known. In 1971, when Kay and her mum moved to Bransholme, her business, Clerical Services, ceased to appear in the telephone directory. Records for her company haven’t been found, but it is perhaps telling that in 1962 when the category ‘employment agencies’ appears in the phone book Kay’s was one of four listed. In its final year, it was one of seven, and in the following year there were nine competing for business.
Perhaps a major factor in the closure of her business was her marriage in 1971 to Arthur Maule, who moved into Logan Close with Kay and her mother. Arthur was five years younger than Kay (she was 47 at the time) the former ship’s cook from London already had one ex-wife to his name. What is curious about Arthur is that in 1948 he married his first wife, Joan, in Kensington, and they lived with Joan’s parents in Camden for at least ten years. Here he was again, moving in with his wife’s parents.
Together, Kay and Arthur pair set up K.E.A. Coaches in their name (quite literally as it is possible the acronym stands for Kathleen Emily and Arthur) which advertised as ‘specialists in private hire at home and abroad’ and operated out of Wincolmlee. However, the business did not last long, for in 1976, the adverts disappear, and a year later, so does Arthur’s name from the electoral roll. On the June 17th, 1977 K&A International Hauliers file for bankruptcy, and the notice in the London Gazette lists Arthur as an HGV driver and Kay as a stenographer.
Marriage over, and seemingly in financial trouble, Kay then suffered what was perhaps her biggest trauma in 1979, when her mum, Kate, died aged 83. Kay had lived with her mum most, if not all, of her life. The misery was prolonged as it took six years, until 1983, for the bankruptcy file to be closed. Kay was aged 63. The following year, Kay moved into 88 Amberley Close, Bransholme, and in 1995 went round the corner to 105, the home that would be her last.
‘Surely something resides in this heart that is not perishable’
It was around the time of her final move that Julie met Kay, and the two became firm friends. Kay was Julie’s Avon lady and from there Julie became Kay’s hairdresser. They became close, and Kay came to look upon Julie’s family as her own and would spend hours talking to the family about coaching East Hull, her Challenge Cup experiences and players like Alan Burwell.
Herself devoted to East Hull, Kay disapproved of anyone not fully committing to the club. She told Julie of the time she berated a player who couldn’t go to France simply because his girlfriend would not let him: “If she’d committed herself to something, everybody should commit their selves to something and no amount of excuses would be tolerated; if she said she wanted him there […] he should be there for the team and no mistaking.” Julie remembered that Kay was proud of her time in rugby. She did meet obstructions, but “Kay’s never backed down. She was a feisty, determined person. And if she set her mind to do something she would see it through.”
Julie understands that in her post-rugby days, possibly in the 70s, Kay worked as a steward on North Sea Ferries as a purser on perfume section. Julie said “She’s always worked in male society, like in the Army and on the ferries so she sort of made her mark as a female working with men.”
Julie remembers Kay as “a sweet old lady. Quite feisty; a typical red head. Loved to be smart, prim and proper, always nicely turned out. She was ways very slim and upright and did not leave the house without her make up on, face powder and lipstick, even at the end of her life.”
She remained independent until her final three years, getting out and about on her motorised scooter. “She found her legs again and was never in,” said Julie. She was usually at bingo, or if she was at home, she would listen to Radio Humberside or read. “She would read anything and would never watch television before a certain time in the evening,” recalled Julie. An animal lover, Kay’s “best pal” was a Yorkshire Terrier and she once broke her arm falling over it, but denied it was his fault as she loved him so much.
Kay was quite sporty and watched most sports, but rugby league was her passion and I am pleased that rugby league never really left Kay’s life, even though she left Hull’s rugby league life behind. She loved watching rugby league and never missed a game on the television. She followed Julie’s boys’ amateur careers with interest and when the eldest signed for her beloved Hull Kingston Rovers she was “over the moon”. She would listen to both professional Hull teams on the radio, occasionally to Hull FC fan Julie’s chagrin. She chuckled as she recalled, “It used to be the first thing that greeted me on a Monday when I took her pension. ‘You did well again yesterday’ she’d laugh, if we’d lost”.
Sadly, Kay’s life after rugby was not easy. She told Julie of the pain of losing her parents. “Her mum was her world,” said Julie. “I think she suffered a breakdown when she died. She did miss her mum often. She’d spend hours talking about her mum, saying how she was a red head and she’d inherited her temperament. She was ‘brought up proper’ as she said.” Sadly, Kay and her brother quarrelled and the relationship was never repaired.
As for Arthur, he remains something of a mystery and Julie doesn’t know whether Kay ever divorced him. “She was very private person but I know she had a hard life. I think her husband wasn’t the best of people for her. He dragged her down a bit. I never met him, but from what I’ve heard of Kay speak of him I don’t think there was any love lost when he went.”
Kay died aged 82 from bronchial pneumonia and lymphedema. She was left a pauper and had just had enough money to bury herself. Problems with paperwork meant that Kay couldn’t have a headstone or be buried with her mother, much to Julie’s regret. Having spent so long with Kay in my life, I was happy to hear that there had been about twenty people at her funeral. She didn’t have many friends but at least there were people there who cared about her at the end of her life.
Kay’s autobiography is far from complete, but what we can say is that Kay’s achievements in rugby league were significant, as the first known female coach and a highly successful secretary. These achievements were made possible because of the person Kay was, the influence of her mother’s temperament, her desire to facilitate positivity in the lives of Hull’s adolescents through youth club work and her early independence and motivation in business. At the time she didn’t get a sense of what she’d done in the game, and it wasn’t until later in life that she realised she had broken new ground as a woman in a masculine sphere. She’d met with problems, but she never backed down; she’d never walked away from anything and she’d seen things through to the end.
I will always be sad that I never got the chance to meet this remarkable woman. “If she’d have been in the suffragettes’ times Kay would have been one of the ones leading them. She was very strong minded. She didn’t think there were rights and wrongs for both sexes,” said Julie. There is no doubt at all that we would bonded over more than just our love of rugby league, because Kay is a woman after my own heart, for whom if you did something, you did it as an individual regardless of your gender.
Who wouldn’t want a woman like that at their dinner table?
© Victoria Samantha Dawson