A new display in the University’s Heritage Quay exhibition space is ensuring that the pioneering roles played by many women in establishing women’s rugby league in this country some long overdue recognition.
Heritage Quay is home to the official Rugby League archive, which now includes a fascinating collection of items donated by former players, coaches and fans.
It has been coordinated by Hull-born Julia Lee, herself a true pioneer of women’s rugby league. Julia was a referee in the 1980s and 1990s and one of the first women to officiate in men’s matches. She also refereed some ground-breaking international clashes between Great Britain’s Lionesses and their counterparts in Australia and New Zealand.
The new display coincides with the Rugby League World Cup currently taking place across England. This year’s edition of the tournament – held over from 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic – is the first where not only the women’s competition but the wheelchair competition has parity with the men.
Julia generously acknowledges the contribution of other pioneers like former Lionesses coach Jackie Sheldon, who dug into her collection of memorabilia to kickstart the collection as part of Julia’s ‘Life with the Lionesses’ project. And just added to the collection is one of the match balls used in the 1996 series, donated by that year’s head coach Ian Harris.
“The role played by Jackie, this amazing woman, was key to the Lionesses,” says Julia. “She was assistant coach on the tour of Australia in 1996, then head coach for the next four tours.
“These women took time off work unpaid and were away from their families for weeks. They also had to raise £70,000 for the tour to happen. A player had to raise £1,000, and if you didn’t, you couldn’t go.
“But they won six out of seven matches and are the last rugby league team to beat any Australian side in Australia in a three Test series. It was, and remains, an incredible achievement but they had no recognition.
Julia’s own rugby league story is one of overcoming obstacles for many years until she became a highly respected figure in the sport, working for the Rugby Football League (RFL) for 20 years and helping to secure £29m of funding as for RL’s Development Officer. Key to that funding was Sport England insisting that the women’s game be brought ‘in-house’, leading to a revival of an international side under the flag of England in 20078.
And in a classic case of ‘poacher turned gamekeeper’, self-confessed terrace referee abuser Julia took the plunge to become a referee herself while still in her teens. She officiated in games of all age groups, including a stint in Australia, as well setting up the Fulham Women team during a spell living in London.
“The beauty of the archive is that I have found things I had forgotten about like my coaching badge from Australia. I loved refereeing in the National Conference, it was hard as it was a mix of older players and up-and-coming youngsters, both groups trying to get one over on the other, and the ref as well!”
The archive at Heritage Quay now has volunteers cataloguing items and data on a weekly basis, allowing players and unheralded achievements from the past to be finally recognised by the sport.
“The archive means that there is a collection that people can interrogate, that can give us more information that can go into academic research and that can get things right. The other great thing on this project is that rugby league’s record keepers had nothing on the women’s game, now they are putting the GB and England games in there as a starter so there is a record of these players internationally as well.
“In Hull alone there are 11 former ex-Lionesses that had been forgotten. They had things in the attic, but in some cases had not told their kids they had played internationally or had forgotten they were a player in the World 17 had played in a World Cup.”