Rugby League gave a young Julia Lee a sense of belonging, and so began a life-long love affair with the game that included being a pioneering and prominent referee. Now she is giving something back by helping young girls find their place in life. Liz Byrnes hears her story
When Julia Lee was growing up in Hull she lived and breathed rugby league. Despite barriers put in her way, that affiliation continued into adulthood and she went on to become the first female referee in the 13-man game, officiating up to professional and international levels.
After injury curtailed her refereeing career, Lee went on to work for the Rugby Football League (RFL) for more than 20 years, implementing many grassroots and participation schemes as well as delivering a £29 million Sport England award. Now focusing on inspiring youth, Lee’s story has inspired a play called ‘Ref!’ by Sarah-Jane Dickenson, which will premiere at Hull KR this Thursday.
Julia was born in 1968 in a city that has always had rugby league as its heartbeat, with the rivalry between Hull and Hull KR a constant thread. After losing her father when she was three years old, her uncle Arthur took Julia under his wing. He was torn, though, over her love of rugby league, thinking the terraces with its beer culture and swearing were not the right place for a girl.
At school the boys would not allow her to take part in their games, but she was not to be stopped and instead, at the age of 10, became a self-appointed referee. Lee attended her first game in 1980 when Hull FC and Hull KR met in the Challenge Cup final at Wembley; from that point she was hooked, particularly as her beloved Red and Whites lifted the trophy. “The city was buzzing and I think I found somewhere I belonged,” she says.
“I wouldn’t have known at the time but I would track it to my dad’s death. I was a very lonely child and I didn’t have a lot in common with dressing up nicely. I played with Action Man if I had to play with dolls. I didn’t like to follow the crowd and I suddenly belonged on the terraces. I was also coming into my teenage years and you are allowed to swear on the terraces.
“It was a great way of verbalising things and I found a niche group of people with whom I suddenly had something in common. It’s that belonging. I do a lot of work with kids now around that because I think it’s really key. If you can find where you belong then you have a chance in life, whatever group it may be, it’s really important.
“I always say that from 12 I could have gone in different directions. I think finding RL at that point was important because some friends [were] pregnant at 14, [suffered] alcohol addiction, drugs, those sort of things at very early ages.
“They didn’t find where they belonged really and although I picked up alcohol on the terraces, because it went with it, it was in a controlled environment with safe people rather than out on the streets and things like that.”
At 17, and fuelled by a few pale ales and a bet from a friend, Lee answered an advertisement for a referee and received a reply addressed to Mr Lee. Shocked a girl would want to be a referee, she persuaded them she could cope with any amount of brawling an under-11 clash would throw at her. She allayed their fears about where she would change and was given the job.
Her first match was not auspicious as she forgot various signals, but in the end common sense took over. She moved to London at the age of 18 to nanny, and while there set up her own team as well as refereeing men’s open-age fixtures.
“It was fortunate because I don’t think they would ever have taken me off the kids, I don’t think they would ever have had the courage to move me into open age,” she says. “But when I went to London that is all there was. I went straight from doing under-11 games to refereeing men’s rugby in London, equally with no skills and no techniques.
“I was given a laws of the games exam when I was in London, but I just had to go and referee, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing really. I would say probably the first three years I made it up because nobody really coached or trained me, nobody watched me. I cried off the pitch once because they started fighting and I didn’t know how to stop them. They reminded me of that years later.”
A trip to Australia in 1988 to follow the Great Britain tour turned into an opportunity to get more refereeing experience in Sydney. On her return Lee started moving up the ranks and was awarded bigger games, right up to national conference and A teams. She was awarded women’s – though not men’s – finals as well as the Oxford versus Cambridge game. Her first professional game was at Keighley when Cougar-mania was at its peak in 1993-94.
There were, of course, some testing times: she abandoned a game in the Yorkshire Premier Men’s Division in March 1993 when the Batley coach refused to let her replace the referee after he had fallen ill ahead of a game against Featherstone Rovers. Instead he ran up and down abusing her with no apparent thought of consequence: the club subsequently missed out on funding for the following three years. Apart from that, she rarely experienced ill-discipline. The players would always address her as ‘sir’.
There was another trip to officiate in Australia in 1998, where Lee took charge of a women’s clash with New Zealand, before injury and retirement led her to work for the RFL. Now she is looking to help young people through an organisation she set up called Common Sense Initiative (CSI). She is able to use the skills she has learnt through her career to help make a difference.
The play ‘Ref’, directed by Rod Dixon of Red Ladder Theatre, is part of a larger Space2 project called ‘Crossing the Line’, which aims to uncover and share the stories of women connected to rugby league. The project will work in partnership with rugby league clubs and foundations, taking the theatre performance and interactive workshops into communities. All the stories and memories shared will be part of a wider collection of artefacts and archives at Hull KR and the National Rugby League Museum, due to open in Bradford in 2021.
In addition, Lee will work directly with a group of local women who will receive workshops and one-to-one coaching and help to record stories for the museum collection. She says: “Confidence, self-esteem, all the tools they need to be able to move on in life. It’s a tough old life out there.
“The idea behind CSI and Crossing the Line is that we leave them with the tools that, when there is another bump in the road, they have the skills to be able to deal with them, or they have somewhere to go back to.
“There are no youth services now, there is nothing for these young girls. If we can do it around sport for a starter, and then look at arts projects, so they find that belonging that is really key. And it’s really close to my heart because that is what I found as a young kid.”
‘Ref’ is the fictional story of a girl called Alex as she tackles the status quo in order to prove she is as good as, if not better than, the men she works alongside. It will have two performances at the home of Hull KR on July 5 and 12 (7pm kick-offs) before going on tour in West Yorkshire in the autumn
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Liz Byrnes. After an early career in PR and marketing, Liz changed her focus to what she had always really wanted and re-trained as a journalist in Sheffield. She spent 12 years at PA where she covered football, athletics and swimming before going freelance in January 2014. She now works for a number of organisations including The Guardian, BBC, Sheffield Star, Wardles, SwimVortex, AFP and Arena. Liz’s latest articles