Forgotten South Tyneside hero's life commemorated after being buried in an unmarked grave
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In Jarrow Cemetery, one of South Tyneside’s forgotten heroes has finally been commemorated in honour of her incredible achievements.
Mary Lyons (1902-79) made her England debut at 15 in front of 20,000 people at St James’ Park in 1918, getting herself onto the scoresheet during a 3-2 win over Scotland. She is the youngest-ever England international and scorer. Despite this, the star player was buried in an unmarked grave until last month, when her life was finally marked by Friends of Jarrow Cemetery.
Stewart Hill, a volunteer at the cemetery, came across a story in the Jarrow Express (which ran until 1920) about women’s football in 1917, which mentioned Mary. A keen historian, Stewart regularly researches the lives of those buried at Jarrow.
“I like to think of the cemetery as a book, and every headstone is a different page,” said Stewart. “Every single headstone has got a story, but it’s finding the story which is the real interesting and difficult bit. But if you’re retired and you’ve got time to do it, why not?”
The youngest of eight children, Mary was born to Irish parents on September 2 1902 at 120 Queens Road, Jarrow. Her father, Patrick, and brothers all worked at Palmers shipyard and, after leaving school at 14 in 1916, Mary joined Palmers Munitions Factory.
During dinner time she would join in and kick a football around, quickly she was asked to play for Palmers Girls. In 1918, she was poached by Blyth Spartans Ladies- the best women’s team in the region at the time- for The Munitionettes’ Cup against Bolckow, Vaughan & Co., Ltd. at Ayresome Park, Middlesbrough.
Mary led Blyth Spartans Ladies to victory, scoring in their 5-0 victory, and winning "Woman of the Match". She then went back to Palmers, taking them from a scratch side to the best in the region, bringing The Munitionettes' Cup to Jarrow a year later in 1919.
After going through South Tyneside’s births, deaths and marriages, Stewart realised Mary must be buried at Jarrow, but couldn’t find her headstone in the cemetery book.
“This book tells you every single headstone in the cemetery. But out of 60,000 people buried there, there are only around 10,000 headstones,” said Stewart.
“So, I knew straight away she was in an unmarked grave.”
From burial records kept at The Word, Stewart was able to find the plot in which Mary was buried and was able to discover her resting place.
And last month Stewart and Jarrow Cemetery were able to finally mark Mary Lyons’ grave with a wooden cross after gaining permission from family members.
“Can you imagine? At 15 she was playing for England,” said Stewart.
“I’m sure half of the Palmers Munitionettes football team are buried here, I’ll get around to doing them too.”
This is not the end of Mary’s story either.
Mary and her Blyth Spartans teammates will be featured in the latest play from South Shields’ own Ed Waugh. Wor Bella tells the story of Mary’s teammate, Bella, who managed to score an incredible 133 goals in 30 matches; the Alan Shearer of her day.
And so it made sense to get the Newcastle United legend on board with the project. Shearer will make his theatrical debut in Wor Bella and has filmed a piece to camera talking about Bella Reay which will be featured in the production.
“The story of the munitionettes who saved the WW1 war effort - working 60 hours a week in dangerous and physically demanding conditions - and still found time to play football for wartime charities, is both incredible and inspirational,” said the Newcastle United legend. From the team behind Carrying David, Hadaway Harry, The Great Joe Wilson and Mr Corvan’s Music Hall, Wor Bella is coming to the Theatre Royal 27th & 28th April 2024 and tickets can be purchased here.