From Paris to Preston: how 1920s French football superstar Carmen Pomiès kickstarted the women's game with Dick, Kerr Ladies
The year was 1920 and the women on the powerhouse Fémina Sport side were on their first tour of England with one goal: to test themselves against the very best, which happened to be Preston’s own Dick, Kerr Ladies. And amongst the French retinue was a prodigious 19-year-old named Carmen Pomiès whose life was about to change forever.
Born in Paris in 1900, Carmen was raised during La Belle Époque, World War I, and Les Années Folles. An era of heady industrialisation and cultural awakening, the first generation of female sports stars also emerged, with Carmen excelling at athletics, the javelin, tennis, swimming, hockey, and, most emphatically, football.
Thanks to the proliferation of women’s football via factory teams during the war, by the end of 1918, Britain boasted more than 100 women’s teams, one of which was the imperious Dick, Kerr Ladies. Formed by employees at the Dick, Kerr Company who took to having kick-abouts on their lunch breaks, the team became legendary.
A crowd of over 10,000 turned out to see their first ever organised match at Deepdale on Christmas Day in 1917 - the first game held at the home of Preston North End since football was suspended in 1915 - and 35,000 watched them play Newcastle Ladies at St James’ Park in 1919. Women’s football was catching the public’s imagination like little else.
A century later, it’s still capturing imaginations, too.
Since 2016, Liverpool-born historian Chris Rowe has worked on the Football Makes History project, which explores the social, political, and cultural context of famous footballers’ stories, focusing on concepts such as identity, discrimination, and equality.
“I’d started to assemble stories about the obvious suspects, people who were historically important,” says Chris, who lives in Parbold. “But I knew we had to diversify. The project had an agenda of offering an inclusive, multi-perspective history, so I started collecting information on women’s footballers.
“That’s how I came across Carmen Pomiès,” adds Chris. “Of all the stories I put together from 150 years of football history, hers grabbed my attention the most because she was not only interesting but historically important, too.”
Spurred on by his own curiosity as well as by a meeting with former footballer Petra Landers in Eindhoven in 2020, Chris has gone on to write an upcoming book titled ‘Carmen Pomiès: English Football Legend and Heroine of the French Resistance’ detailing the life and times of Carmen who, following the 1920 tour, developed a deep love of Preston and its people.
“She was a footballer at probably the most important time for the expansion of the women’s game - a time when women’s football was getting very big crowds of men watching and there was a lot of encouragement for women’s football,” explains Chris. “The sport was such a powerful link to social normality during and after the war.
“During the Fémina tour, there was a real entente cordiale and international sense of sisterhood,” he adds. “It was groundbreaking.”
Led by the visionary Alfred Frankland, manager of Dick, Kerr Ladies, the Prestonians soon developed a reputation as one of Europe’s best teams thanks to the likes of Lily Parr, who scored over 1,000 goals across a three-decade career and became the only woman to be made an inaugural inductee into the English Football Hall of Fame.
Having broken into the Fémina side as a left-sided defender, Carmen was eager to challenge herself against the Dick, Kerr Ladies on the 1920 tour. Across five sell-out matches, the English side won two games, the French one, and one was drawn, but the most lasting impact came in the form of the friendships Carmen developed along the way.
Firm friends with Dick, Kerr players Lizzy Ashcroft and Florrie Redford, Carmen ended up living in Preston for a year between 1921 and 1922 and even joined the team on their historic 1922 tour to the United States of America. For 20 years, Preston was this Parisian’s home away from home. It’s estimated she played football in 40 towns across the North West.
As with most tales set in the 1920s, however, rampant sexism was never far away and, in 1921, an FA Council ruling stated that ‘the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged’. A request that clubs stop women’s teams from using their ground for their games followed, crippling the game just as it appeared ready to soar.
“The FA ban was part of a major story about the fear and loathing lots of men had about women playing football,” says Chris. “Even things like the accusations that female footballers were all lesbians was part of the general obstruction of women’s football. The backlash against it was so strong and, at times, nasty and stupid.
“It punctured the balloon of the surge in women’s football following the first world war and, in a way, Dick, Kerr Ladies never recovered from it,” he continues. “They kept playing and the likes of Lily Parr had wonderful careers, but what the sport might have been without the ban, we’ll never know. It did terrible damage.”
Having spoken out against the misogyny of the FA ruling, Carmen showed early signs of the influential figure she was soon to become in the ‘30s, when she blossomed as a player, captain, tour manager, and ambassador for equality as Europe descended into war.
Having become secretary for the famous film star Renée Saint-Cyr in 1940, Carmen went on to become an active member of the French Resistance during World War II before eventually emigrating to the US and working as an interpreter at the United Nations during the war in Korea. She set about gaining American citizenship.
Little is known about Carmen’s life after she turned 60. She eventually moved back to her home country of Paris and died on her 82nd birthday. But her story lives on.
“People ask me if I’m frustrated that I can’t find out everything about Carmen,” says Chris. “I know there’s information out there that I can’t get ahold of as well as mysteries about her that will always be black holes. But, as a historian, I know that no matter how much you research, you can’t know it all and I’m comfortable with that.
“It’s a nice thing that I’ve found out so much about this amazing woman,” he adds. “I’ve tried to put her in the proper context of her times, but I also kind of like that I had to do a chapter on what we simply don’t know about Carmen because an awful lot of being a good historian is knowing what you don’t know.
“What will stay with me from Carmen’s story is the fact, when I started researching her at the age of 78, she opened my eyes to something new,” Chris says. “I became genuinely enthusiastic about it and there was so much I didn’t know about women’s football.
“It was lovely to learn and I never ran out of enthusiasm for the project,” he adds. “Carmen’s story just got more and more interesting.”