Flat Track Heritage Part One: Scotland’s National Museum of Roller Derby

Written by Kevin Dennison

I stumbled across the National Museum of Roller Derby (NMRD) just a couple of weeks ago while scouring the web for a new, unique topic to address and was immediately taken by the fascinating story of how it all came together. Here is a passionate project where women athletes and derby leagues across the country have come together in a tremendous effort to ensure that the history of UK roller derby is accurately kept as it continues to grow. With a new NMRD exhibit opening on July 25, 2014 at NN Contemporary Art in Northampton, England, I felt this was a great time to explore the topic of history, feminism and the importance of curating as it applies to the sport in both the United Kingdom and abroad.

I hope you enjoy Part 1 of 3 of this feature!

 

21 Revolutions; The Glasgow Women’s Library & National Museum of Roller Derby

To promote and celebrate 20 years of Glasgow Women’s Library (GWL) serving as Scotland’s sole women’s archive and museum, at the end of 2011 they commissioned 21 artists and 21 writers to create new works, exhibitions and readings that would ignite the interests and passions of others. One of those artists, Ellie Harrison, was stepping foot into the library for the first time when she was commissioned and she took it upon herself to really take advantage of exploring the extensive women’s history housed in GWL’s collections. Though her research of the archives and its plethora of knowledge and shared experience was fascinating, she felt a twinge of guild about having not ever visiting the building before and, through conversations with her peers and friends, learned that many others hadn’t yet visited the library as well. In an interview conducted by Catherine Hemelryk, aka Rebel Rebel of the London Rockin’ Rollers, published on August 24, 2012, Harrison said: “It upset me that this resource was sitting there and not really being used or accessed by my generation or those younger. It felt as though the best birthday present I could give the Library would be a whole new young and inspiring audience – to give them access to a radical and inspirational new generation of women…”

One day, while skating in circles around the flat track and contemplating what her contribution to the GWL would, it suddenly hit her. What embodies a “radical and inspiration new generation of women” more than roller derby? Nothing compares! Harrison herself was brand new to the derby scene having joined Glasgow Roller Derby over the winter of 2011 and she was well underway with her freshmeat training come March of 2012. Meanwhile, as more of the greater derby community began to open up to her, particularly the cultural scene, she started to draw some strong parallels between the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s and the resurgence of this sport as a tool to empower women in the 21st century.

In fact, roller derby itself is in many ways a feminist, social movement. Built upon a grassroots foundation, derby is a “do it yourself” venture and has always perpetrated that it welcomes women of all shapes and sizes and of all walks of life. Those who become involved in the sport develop a strong support network, construct their own identities, contribute to the evolving cultural/social identity of the sport as a whole and garner a sense of togetherness as the very nature of the sport challenges traditional gender norms and sexism the world over. Countless leagues and individuals utilize the sport on a regular basis to tackle all kinds of major issues including sexual abuse, rape, domestic violence, misogyny, breast cancer, abortion rights, and much more.

The Blackwell Companion to Social Movements states that a social movement can be seen as: “…collectivities acting with some degree of organization and continuity outside of institutional or organizational channels for the purpose of challenging or defending extant authority, whether it is institutionally or culturally based, in the group, organization, society, culture, or world order of which they are a part.” [8]

This conceptualization makes it incredibly easy to see how roller derby, its culture, its community,  its athletes, and its fans and contributors, operates as a social movement. All in all, it was a perfect fit for the GWL.

Ellie Harrison speaking during the launch event for the National Museum of Roller Derby in Glasgow Women's Library.

Ellie Harrison speaking during the launch event for the National Museum of Roller Derby in Glasgow Women’s Library.

Despite only having passed her benchmarks on May 1, 2012, Harrison had already become extremely well versed in derby culture as it exists in the UK and had developed strong personal connections with each of the country’s 90 leagues. Through these avenues, she was able to begin collecting a variety of roller derby merchandise, gear, jerseys, bout pamphlets and newspaper clipping from UK-based leagues for permanent preservation at the GWL. The NMRD was official launched on June 14, 2012. Just over two-months later, on September 22, 2012, the library hosted the first NMRD public exhibition entitled “The Revolution on Roller Skates”.

The NMRD's "Revolution on Roller Skates" exhibit ran from September 22 to October 13, 2012.

The NMRD’s “Revolution on Roller Skates” exhibit ran from September 22 to October 13, 2012.

During her speech at the NMRD Launch event in June of 2012, Harrison made sure to highlight another incredibly important fact: while it may be exciting to see the sport of roller derby booming on an international scale, if we are not consciously making efforts to track it all then all of us, especially those in extremely grassroots regions, run the risk of loosing the knowledge of our past. “History is being made but history is being made so quickly that there has barely been any time to properly document it,” said Harrison to attendees. [2] Without that history the sport could easily fall victim to any number of fates. It could become lost in the information stream of the world-wide-web, misplaced, forgotten, or, in extreme cases, it could even be rewritten or erased.

 

Haunting Lessons from Women’s Football in Britain

One of the most standout things that Harrison talked about in her LRR interview with Rebel Rebel was how a conversation with Adele Patrick and Sue John, two of the women who founded the Glasgow Women’s Library, proved a strong catalyst for getting the National Museum of Roller Derby off the ground. “They told me a shocking story about early women’s football, which made me realise how easily history can be erased or rewritten by those in power,” said Harrison in the LRR interview. [3]

Women’s Football was actually hugely successful across the UK in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Come Boxing Day in 1920, Goodison Park in Liverpool completely filled up to its 53,000 spectator capacity, with over 10,000 people being turned away, for a match between the Dick, Kerr Ladies Football Club and their long time rivals the St. Helen’s Ladies. While this was easily the largest attended Women’s Football match of all time, other events managed to regularly attracted fans numbering in the tens of thousands as well. In fact, many sources cite that Women’s Football often drew significantly bigger crowds than any men’s matches did. A big part of this was likely due to Women’s Football matches not just being about the sport. Events regularly focused on raising money for a variety of causes that often linked to World War I. With so many wanting to support their brothers, fathers and sons on the front lines, it is not surprising that the populace was quick to buy tickets for matches that gave a portion of its funds to the aid of British soldiers. [8]

Dick, Kerr Ladies FC 01

Unfortunately, the male dominated Football Association (FA) had taken note of this success and they were not very happy about it. The organization had already tried to stifle Women’s Football in such ways as prohibiting mixed gender play in 1906 (lasting until 2001), but this proved the final straw. On December 5, 1921, the FA banned women from playing on all Football League grounds, effectively locking them out of play in any spectator friendly arena in the country. Though women continued to play in Rugby pitches or wherever else they could, they never fully recovered and gone were the days of sold out venues and national support for their game.

So, what was the official reason for the ban? A particularly sexist and misogynistic assertion from the FA stated “the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and should not be encouraged.” [8] Shelley Alexander expands upon this in a BBC Sport article entitled Trail-Blazers who pioneered women’s football, by saying that “not only did many at the Football Association think that the women’s game was becoming ‘too showbiz’, there were also mutterings of the rough and tumble not being good for lasses.” [4] Anna Kessel, while perpetuating similar concepts, also offers speculation of the ban being driven by greed and envy in her article English football: when women ruled that pitch. She writes; “it is hard not to suspect this was, at least in part, a defensive move made by male officials who felt threatened by the success of their female counterparts. And so the women’s game was allowed to wither on the vine, missing out on half a century of development while the men’s leagues established ever stronger roots.” [5]

Though the ban finally lifted in 1971, near irreparable damage had already been done to Women’s Football over the 51-years that it was in place including a tremendous loss of the sport’s early history. Some information has been recovered through personal accounts from female footballers, photographs and surviving documentation but the complete, exact history of Women’s Football is likely gone forever.

Not a lot remains outside of some newspaper clippings and photographs like this one of an 1900s "Unidentified Ladies Football Soccer Club."

Not a lot remains outside of some newspaper clippings and photographs like this one of an 1900s “Unidentified Ladies Football Soccer Club.”

What happened to Women’s Football is something that Harrison was particularly conscious of when planning for the NMRD got underway. “This is a dramatic comparison to make, but as men begin to train and play Roller Derby too, we need to ensure that all the pioneering work done by women in bringing the sport to the UK and making it thrive is properly documented and celebrated,” she explained. [3]

Of course, that is not to suggest that the Men’s Roller Derby Association (MRDA) or any other governing body for the sport would ever do what the FA did to Women’s Football. In fact, evidence points to the contrary in roller derby. The MRDA and Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) have both fostered each other’s growth throughout the years and on July 3, 2014, they formally united  to “collaborate and develop a number of areas of joint interest, moving into 2015.” [6]

Yet, the harsh reality is that women’s sports in general still face an uphill battle when it comes to issues of ignorance, sexism, and acceptance as legitimate competition in the public eye and roller derby is no exception. Furthermore, history can easily become lost or forgotten simply by not documenting it properly and the National Museum of Roller Derby has gone through great efforts to ensure that this does not happen to the sport in the UK. Though roller derby likely won’t experience the same mistreatment that Women’s Football and its athletes did, nevertheless, preserving the history of the flat track in the UK is an invaluable undertaking for the benefit of all.

 

A Need for Preservation

As the game continues to grow and evolve, hopefully for generations still to come, I sincerely hope that other derby communities around the world recognize the significance of documenting their own histories as well. Like Women’s Football in the UK, I can think of no fate worse for roller derby than having existed before slipping into obscurity and being forgotten. What better way to prevent that than developing a partnership similar to that of GWL and NMRD with an organization in your region aimed toward empowering women of all ages through the exhibition and collection of the accomplishments of strong, female athletes on the flat track?

Personally, this is something I once planned to do in my home province of Saskatchewan, Canada some time ago and although that door has now closed for me, I would be thrilled to see Canadian’s elsewhere find the inspiration to tackle similar projects themselves.

Coming up in Part Two is an exclusive interview with Catherine Hemelryk, aka Rebel Rebel, Artistic Director at NN Contemporary Art and a skater with London Rockin’ Rollers, about the upcoming launch of an NMRD exhibit at her art gallery in Northampton on July 25, 2014.

 

Sources

1. Alexander, Shelley. “Trail-blazers who pioneered women’s football.” Online article. BBC, 3 June, 2005. Web.

2. Harrison, Ellie. “National Museum of Roller Derby.” Online video recording. vimeo. vimeo, 14 June, 2012. Web.

3. Hemelryk, Catherine. “Creating a cultural legacy: the National Museum of Roller Derby.” Online article. London Rockin Rollers. 24 Aug. 2012. Web.

4. Kay, Tess and Welford, Jo. “Negotiating Barriers to Entering and Participating in Football: Strategies Employed by Female Footballers in the United Kingdom.” Women, Football and Europe: Histories, Equity and Experience. Macgee, Culdwell, Liston, and Scraton. Oxford: Meyer and Meyer Sport (UK) Ltd., 2007. Pg 151-152. Print.

5. Kessel, Anna. “English football: when women ruled the pitch.” Online article. The Guardian. 10 Sept, 2009. Web.

6. “Roller Derby Associations Sign Collaborative Agreement.” Online press release. WFTDA. 3 July, 2014. Web.

7. Snow, D. A., Soule, S. A., and Kriesi, H. “Mapping the Terrain.” The Blackwell Companion to Social Movements. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell. 2004. Pg 11. Print.

8. Woods, Craig. “A call for the end of women’s football.” Online article. Nerve Issue 19. Catalyst Media. 2011. Web.

 

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