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The Beardmore Girls: We’ll be singing when we’re winning!

September 16, 2011

The nature of the length of exhibition labels means that only certain aspects about an artwork can be relayed in the physical display environment.  After writing the labels for one of the Portrait Gallery’s re-opening exhibitions, Playing for Scotland, I am now searching around for connections with collections on display in the other new Portrait Gallery exhibitions. These correlations can initially be extraneous but on reflection bring together seemingly disparate subjects.

Sport, particularly football, played an important part in the First World War. In 1918 The Field magazine reported: ‘the spirit of sport, has become one of the most distinctive marks of the British Army and it will be a task worthy of the greatest historians to record what this sporting spirit has done, not only for the British Army, not only for the British Empire, but for the whole civilised world during the present war.’ The two exhibitions Playing for Scotland and War at Sea bring to light how the role of women in the First World War was, for eighty minutes on Saturday 2 March 1918 at Celtic Park, twinned with the beautiful game.  The objects that point to this subject and which will both be on display when the Gallery re-opens on 30 November are the reproduction of a poster hanging in the sport exhibition and a painting by Sir John Lavery in War at Sea: Scene at a Clyde Shipyard (Beardmore & Co. Ltd.). Lavery gained access to one of Sir William Beardmore’s engineering works, the gun factory at Dalmuir on the Lower Clyde, in order to paint this scene. The women on the shop floor appear to be doing some kind of finishing work on gun barrels.  It was the Dalmuir girls’ colleagues at Beardmore’s Parkhead factory who were chosen to play at Celtic Park.

By the start of the First World War Celtic’s ground capacity had risen to 70,000, but by 1916 the professional game in Scotland had been suspended. The ladies’ match, held between the works teams of Beardmore’s at Parkhead and Vickers-Maxim at Barrow-in-Furness and billed as a charity match between munition girls, must have been keenly anticipated. Although it was wartime, the game was accompanied by entertainment: a plane from the Dalmuir works visited the ground and there was an exhibition by a Mr Handford of his skill as a ‘donkey expert’. The Vickers team won 4-0 with one of their goals an own goal by the Scottish ladies. The Beardmore girls were therefore unable to show off their singing skills!

William Beardmore, Baron Invernairn (1856-1936). Photographed by T & R Annan in 1932


Both William Beardmore & Co and Vickers were major contributors to the war effort. William Beardmore was committed to the production of weapons and munitions, often making investments without government guarantees.

As well as the main works at Parkhead and Dalmuir, several other factories were taken over to produce a range of war materials, including artillery, shells, warships, aeroplanes and airships. There was a labour shortage, which led to the employment of many thousands of women, particularly in munitions works. The near location of Celtic Park to the munitions bases is likely the reason for the choice of playing the game there.

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