Scottish Women's Football

My personal blog on Scottish Women's Football

British Ladies Football Club’s First Match

I have started a research project to discover more about the history of Women’s Football in Scotland. This is my first blog, looking at the British Ladies Football Club’s first match and how it was reported.

There is a record of an all-women football match long before the first recorded match with association rules. Church documents show this first happened at Carstairs in 1628. The first official women’s international match in Britain took place on the 7th May 1881 in Edinburgh when a team from Scotland took on a team from England. The Scots won 3-0, with the Glasgow Herald describing the Scottish players wearing:

The Scotch team wore blue jerseys, white knickerbockers, red stockings, a red belt, high heeled boots and blue and white cowl.

The game was replayed in Glasgow on the 16th May 1881, which was watched by 5,000 spectators. But this went badly as the game was abandoned after 55 minutes. The Nottinghamshire Guardian reported:

What will probably be the first and last exhibition of a female football match in Glasgow took place on Monday evening on Shawfield Grounds….At last a few roughs broke into the enclosure, and as these were followed by hundreds soon after, the players were roughly jostled, and had prematurely to take refuge in the omnibus which had conveyed them to the ground. Their troubles were not, however, yet ended, for the crowd tore up the stakes and threw them at the departing vehicle, and but for the presence of the police some bodily injury to the females might have occurred.

There were six more internationals between England and Scotland, with one more match abandoned due to riotous behaviour. But it seemed like Women’s Football was dead. That was of course, until the British Ladies’ Football Club. The President of the British Ladies’ Football Club was the feminist aristocrat Lady Florence Dixie who was caught up in Oscar Wilde’s trial; their secretary was Nettie Honeyball (her real name was Mary Hutson). An interview with Honeyball appeared in the Tamworth Herald on the 12th January 1895 (although under the name of Miss Hettie Honeyball due to a typo). In the interview, she stated:

We have been very hard at work. You see, we practice twice a week, and the girls can never get enough of it, though we generally go on from about one o’clock to dusk. It’s delightful sport and every member is enthusiastic. We’ve had one little trial, and the result was eight goals to six. As for the costume, Lady Florence Dixie stipulated before becoming president that she didn’t want to see the sport ridiculed with long skirts and balloon shoulders. Practically speaking, we wear blue serge knickers of the divided skirt pattern, and the teams will be in cardinal and pale blue blouses respectively. Then, of course, caps are to be worn, and special boots have been made.

She mentions that the club had 26 members, aged between 15 and 26 and three of them were married. The interview is her making clear that they are capable and excited to play football, because their existence was met with a hostile environment. She boasts about their skill, and she even mentioned that they had received lessons from Millwall players. She also says that their first game would be North v South, and would be played near the end of February – and the game would be made up of 30 minute halves and played with a smaller ball than the men’s game. They had tried to play at the Oval, but their committee had ruled that females could not play there, so they would play at the Crouch End Ground. She ends the interview with a powerful statement:

This is no girlish folly. The British Ladies’ Football club is a stern reality.

The President Lady Florence Dixie wrote to the Pall Mall Gazette, as reported in the Cheltenham Chronicle on the 16th February 1895. She uses it to emphasise her desire for women’s footballers to be appropriately attired.

There is no reason why football should not be played by women, and played well, too, provided they dress rationally and relegate to Limbo the straight-jacket attire in which fashion delights to clothe them.

She makes the point that men would struggle just as much if they were forced to play sport in skirts. Both Honeyball and Dixie in these comments are trying to enforce the point that women are suited to football. The end of the letter sees her state she believes that if hunting is the sport of men, football is the sport of women –  and it would help destroy “that hydra-headed monster, the present dress of women.”

The interest in women’s football was growing, with a club being formed in London. The British Ladies Football Club also had received a challenge from Aberdeen in 25th February 1895 as reported in the Yorkshire Evening Post – although under an unusual headline “A Chicago butcher keeps a tame fox. It keeps his place clear of rats”. This challenge was followed up in a report in the Sheffield Evening Telegraph two days later, which Honeyball said that their first game would be on the 16th March, with Mrs Minnie Lloyd captaining the South team, whilst Nettie Honeyball would captain the North. Honeyball said of the reaction to them:

I have had letters from all parts of the country – some very nice and flattering, and some very disagreeable, and one so very offensive that I have been obliged to hand it over to the police. We had one challenge from Aberdeen, in which the writer said that club was composed of very gentlemanly fellows, and that there would be no rough play; but we have declined the honour.

Women’s football was trying to develop under harsh media reporting. There was a dress rehearsal for the British Ladies Football Club in Birmingham on the 4th March 1895. This was reported in the Lancashire Evening Post:

The entertainment was ample, judging from the remarks of the onlookers. We (“The Sportsman”) have seen much football in our time, but never football like this. The reds scored heavily in the first half, but it was largely from the feet of the blues.

But this was the not the harshest comment in this newspaper’s edition. Just two sections above this reporting in the Football Notes was this quote:

This is what “Woman: A Paper for Gentlewomen,” says of the captain of the ladies’ football team: – “Judging from a photo in ‘Sketch,’ it would appear that the ‘lady’ who has undertaken to captain a team of women football players is of a class known as ‘pit’s mouth women’ – women whose womanhood, by reason of their hard, unnatural lives, is a vanishing, if not vanished, quantity.

Responding to the news that a Ladies Football Club had been founded in London, The London Daily News wrote a scathing report on the 5th March 1895. They did praise the women for playing in tough conditions of “muddy thaw” in their practice matches, and even praised their perseverance. But that is far as the positives went. They mention that the female pastimes had changed from embroidery to croquet and tennis and now golf and cycling over the past century. But they point out that these activities allow women to have the chance of healthy exercise that had no risk of injury. Despite claiming that English girls have had their physique improved by these activities, they said:

Medical journals have frequently declaimed against its dangers for any but strong athletes. They do not merely consider the chances of sprained wrist or broken ankle, but they refer to the serious after effects too often ending in weakened heart or lung……..only by strong young men can it with any safety be regularly played.

The Graphic 30 March 1895

The Graphic 30 March 1895

Eventually the first match played by the British Ladies’ Football Club took place on the 23rd March 1895, and a picture from it appeared on weekly illustrated newspaper The Graphic’s third page. At half-time, the score was North 2-1 South, but the North had a superb second half and ended up winning 7-1. On the 30th March 1895, the Grantham Journal reported on the game, saying it did nothing to prove the athletic capabilities of women. They said the game was watched by “could not have been fewer than 10,000 spectators”, which they claimed they had turned up because of the novelty. The players’ appearances were compared to looking “like members of that famous piratical band…” – the players wore blouses and fishermen’s caps and knickerbockers.

The newspaper went on to complain that their kicking was done with their side of their feet instead of their toes, so the ball never travelled further than six yards. They complained about the South’s goalkeepers efforts for the North’s first and second goals as:

In neither case did the South goalkeeper make the slightest attempt to stop the ball as it rolled gently into the net, but immediately it had got there she pounced upon it like a kitten upon a reel of cotton.

It finished the report by saying Nettie Honeyball had sent letters to several Lancashire and Midland clubs to play matches at their grounds. A few were considering the offer, but it claims the majority treated “the subject with ridicule.” The Lancashire Evening Post’s report criticised the keeping standards even more, as well as the girls ignorance of the rules.

The goalkeeper on one side had, on one occasion, a goal kick to take, and calmly kicked it through her own goal. Then she innocently asked the referee whether it was a goal to her.

They also reported that there was one player whom the spectators believed was a boy, and called ‘Tommy’ – her real name Miss Gilbert. Tommy was of “diminutive stature” and “was the pick of the forwards.” The Shields Daily Gazette’s reporting of the match said the game was a farce, and claimed that spectators were leaving even before the first half had ended. They did praise the North’s keeper Mrs Graham, saying she “saved, kicked and punted in beautiful style”. Their reporting revealed the keeper who had kicked the ball into her own net was the South’s keeper. Miss Gilbert (Tommy) was praised for her “tricky style of play” caused spectators to declare that he was a boy. They finish their report by saying:

At the close of the match the ladies were escorted to their dressing-rooms by an enthusiastic crowd, and it was with difficult that they gained seclusion.

The Wells Journal reported on the match continued the critical narrative of their ability, stating:

They danced round the ball when they reached it as if uncertain what to do with it, much after the manner of a lapdog which has accidentally laid hold of the cat he has made elaborate show of pursuing.

Their journalist quoted a correspondent from the Manchester Guardian who said that the women were not ungraceful and it was pleasant to watch “the girls chasing each other up and down the ground.” They also reported the crowd’s belief Miss Gilbert was a boy. The article reported a quote from one of the players who said:

We are all most enthusiastic…and we play for the sake of pure sport only: and that reminds me that I must tell you that the clubs is constituted solely for the enjoyment of amateurs. I hope eventually to be able to pay the members’ travelling expenses, but many of the girls declare that they will not accept a penny for fear of being dubbed professionals.

Unlike the rest, The Lincolnshire Chronicle were more positive about a woman’s game to be played at Sincil Bank on the 28th March 1895.

…the costumes are in perfect good taste, and would disarm the criticism of the most bigotted opponent of rational dress. The event is so unique and of such an attractive character that we shall be greatly disappointed if the crowd on the Sincil Bank ground on Saturday is not numbered by several thousands.

Frustratingly, the majority of the reporting of this game was dedicated to the clothing the women wore, rather than the game itself. None of the reports gave the names of the players beyond the ones they praised or named as captain.

If you want me to discover anything in particular regarding the history of women’s football, please comment below. And if you liked this blog, please share with your friends. 

My next blog will look at the reporting as the British Ladies Football Club toured the country, including the first games to be played in Scotland.

All the newspapers mentioned here were found under the British Library’s ‘British Newspapers Archive‘. If you are a member of the National Library of Scotland and are able to access their reading rooms, you can view as many newspapers as you like for free.

Other Sources:


One comment on “British Ladies Football Club’s First Match

  1. Pingback: In Praise of “Tommy” The First Female Football Star | Scottish Women's Football

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