The former Felixstowe College girl who became Britain’s first woman football reporter
PUBLISHED: 17:20 23 September 2020 | UPDATED: 17:36 23 September 2020
Julie Welch is a passionate Spurs fan, journalist, film and TV writer. Read how she credits her years at Felixstowe College for giving her the guts to succeed in a tough male dominated world
Sport was all that interested six-year-old Julie Welch in the 1950s. Pony-mad, and desperate to win the attention of her emotionally distant father, her television viewing turned to horseracing on BBC’s Grandstand rather than Muffin the Mule.
She memorised the bloodlines of thoroughbred stallions, studied the form in the Racing Post and devoured the results in The Daily Telegraph.
“I think my father was amused that he had this rather interesting daughter who could actually talk about horseracing,” she says of their subsequent bond. And for the five years Julie was at boarding school at Felixstowe College on the Suffolk coast, instead of receiving a letter from home, her father sent her his copy of The Daily Telegraph.
With sport and newspapers such formative elements of her life, it’s no surprise that Julie chose to forge a career in the field. Yet Fleet Street was a male preserve, and the world of sports reporting particularly so.
“It seemed illogical that women weren’t supposed to be interested in football,” Julie says, of what subsequently became her obsession, tracking the fortunes of Tottenham Hotspur. “If you follow football, you experience all the emotions from utter rapture to the depths of despair and, of course, women do emotional stuff, so why not?”
After university, Julie was working as a secretary for the sports department at The Observer when a conversation with colleagues in the pub one night led to her being given the chance to report on a game, something that had never previously been offered to a woman.
She stepped into the press box as Fleet Street’s first female football reporter in 1973. “I don’t think I was daunted,” she says, “because I’d had such good schooling.”
Felixstowe College was the highly respected public school for girls, on the Suffolk coast, where lessons included etiquette, dance and horseriding, as well as Maths and English.
“It had given me a lot of social confidence,” she says. “And it was enormously helpful to me to have been one of ‘Jonah’s girls’, to have seen a woman [headmistress Miss Ruth Jones] as such a confident leader.”
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Julie experienced all the high jinks that are commonly associated with boarding schools – eating sardines with Nestlé milk and drinking orange squash with a hint of mint from toothpaste glasses, leaving a bicycle on the roof and putting a scarecrow in the teacher’s bed, and observing the science teacher and headmistress racing each other on public roads in their sports cars.
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Her memories and those of other ‘old girls’ are recalled in her highly entertaining memoir Too Marvellous for Words, which she has now followed up with a new book, The Fleet Street Girls.
“It was interesting to collect everybody’s stories so I thought I might like to do it again,” she says. “The most exciting thing that happened to me when I was young was actually getting to Fleet Street. I’d always wanted to be a writer and I achieved my ambition quite quickly, so I thought what about everybody else?”
In The Fleet Street Girls Julie has shared her memories and those of other women journalists who recall the highs and lows of forging careers in the heyday of journalism, when newspapers were a men’s club.
“It was a time of huge social change and development for women,” she says, “most of us felt like pioneers. We wanted to write about things that didn’t just interest the whole world, but things that interested us as women.” Among those Julie interviewed about their experiences are columnists Katharine Whitehorn, Lynn Barber, Emma Lee Potter and Valerie Grove, war correspondent Wendy Holden and photographer Clare Arron.
“I thought I was brave being a football reporter, but these women were really up against it,” she says. “It was such a male world, and I wanted to shed a light on how difficult it was for women to make their names, make progress.” But it wasn’t all angst and chauvinism. Julie recalls many men who were kind and supportive, and acknowledges that it was a tremendous privilege to be working at that time.
“The book is about the fun as well as the fighting to make our way and have our voices heard,” she says. “It was just the most marvellous thing to be able to do.
“We all loved work. For most of us that was the main thing in our lives. And we were very lucky to work in that place at that time. We were very well paid and met all sorts of interesting and celebrated people. But everybody was really committed to doing what they did to the best of their ability.”
In researching the book, Julie also discovered another Felixstowe College ‘old girl’, Sue Peart, who rose to executive positions on the Daily Express and The Times before becoming editor of the You magazine for the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday for many years. “She was there a few years after me,” says Julie, “but it’s such a bond. These girls, they’re like my family.”
During lockdown Julie formed a WhatsApp group to keep in regular contact with old friends who she still refers to using their nicknames and school houses. “We’ve told each other about the cakes we’ve made, the ducklings in the pond, the flowers that we’re growing.” They all think of Suffolk fondly, too. And while the school is no longer there, Julie loves returning to Felixstowe to think back on her time there.
“Suffolk has always been part of my history. I like long distance running and walking, and I often do events in Suffolk just to revisit the countryside. The most wonderful 50 mile event I did was two years ago when I took part in the Shotley Peninsula Fifty. The last stages of it are in the middle of the night and take you along the Orwell. You can see Felixstowe port lit up, noisy. It’s wonderful for me to walk past this place which was so important to me.”
The Fleet Street Girls: The women who broke down the doors of the gentlemen’s club is published by Trapeze