Scottish Women's Football

My personal blog on Scottish Women's Football

In Praise of “Tommy” The First Female Football Star

I have started a research project to discover more about the history of Women’s Football in Scotland. This is my second blog, looking at the British Ladies Football Club expanded after their first match and how this was reported. If you want to read my first blog, it is here.

The next piece of reporting I have been able to find so far on the British Ladies Football Club comes on the 19th April 1895. Both the Dundee Evening Telegraph and the Yorkshire Post And Leeds Intelligencer report about the cancellation of a match. Whilst the Dundee Evening Telegraph gave no reason for the game’s cancellation that was due to be watched by between 3,000 and 4000 (apart from mentioning a telegram), the Yorkshire Post gives more information. The match was due to be played at Royal Ordnance FC’s ground in Greenwich, and it reports that a special committee of the club was convened. A unanimous resolution was passed stating:

That letters be sent to the press regretting that the fixture between the British Ladies’ F.C. for to-day was cancelled by a telegram as follows – ‘Crouch End, 5.13 p.m. Storm raging here ; must scratch.–Honeyball.’

The article then goes onto state that the club wanted to rearrange the fixture as soon as possible, and if the British Ladies Football Club failed to do so, they could possibly face sanctions. It is also of interest (at least to me) that the Yorkshire Post also reported on a chess tournament, as well as both newspapers continued coverage of Oscar Wilde’s trial. One of the themes that was reflected throughout the newspaper’s reporting of the first British Ladies Football Club match was the praise of a player called ‘Tommy’, a nickname seemingly given by the crowd to a player who they believed was possibly a boy. Although it had been reported that ‘Tommy’ was actually a girl called Miss Gilbert, on the 25th April 1895, the Edinburgh Evening News reported speculation on ‘Tommy’s’ gender. Underneath a report on some alleged bank robbers, they simply wrote:

“Tommy,” who played so well in the first ladies’ football match, is not a genuine lady player. One of the ladies said: “Tommy” is a boy of 13. His name is Richardson. He is the son of one of the players.

Given the lack of team names reported from these early matches, it is impossible for this claim to be proven or disproven, although I suspect it to be false due to the majority of newspapers referring to ‘Tommy’ as female. By the 1st May 1895 (exact date unknown), the tour of the British Ladies Football Club had arrived in Scotland. Underneath a curious report from an annual student meeting at the Glasgow Anthenaeum, where Sir John Stirling Maxwell told the students to protest against “the use of long words for scientific and other purposes” – the Dundee Evening Telegraph  reported that the match at St Mirren’s ground in Paisley was attended by 6,000 spectators, which the South beat the North 3-0. Unfortunately, the reporting was very negative:

The play from commencement to finish was the occasion of continuous and hearty laughter. The players had an unfortunate knack of getting in each other’s way, occasionally pushed with their hands, and paid little regard to off-side.

They were also derogative about the players’ movements, saying that their “rational attire” did not help at all. At full-time, the spectators entered the pitch, meaning the players needed a police escort, but they were “greeted with cheers and laughter” by the fans. The next day, the Dundee Evening Telegraph reported on another game played in Scotland – this time at East Stirlingshire’s ground Merchiston Park, in Falkirk. The match, watched by 4,000 people, had been the talk of the town. Despite saying the spectators laughed at the players, the journalist did praise the Blues’ (North) goalkeeper who:

…the Blues goalkeeper seemed to know her business, and kept out some likely shots.

Once again, ‘Tommy’ was praised, even stating:

Little “Tommy” was the heroine of the night, and her dodging and dribbling and running elicited much cheering. Just on half-time “Tommy,” after beating four of her opponents, scrambled the ball through –one for the Reds…

‘Tommy’ was key to the South’s second, less spectacular goal, coming from from a “comical scrimmage” which brought “roars of laughter” from the stands. The game ended with a 2-1 win for the South (these games are being reported as Blue vs Reds, but Blues are North and Reds are South). Once again, fans broke onto the pitch, but nothing happened. It also mentions that they are to play on Saturday at Cowlairs. On the 10th May 1895, The Yorkshire Evening Post reported on a match in Leeds with the subtitle –” “Tommy” v. The Rest.” They reported it as a game between Blues and Reds, and to call the reporting negative would require a redefinition of the word:

Dressed in coloured blouses and voluminous knickers, the teams comprised all shapes and ages of women, from the redoubtable Tommy, a slim child of great activity, to a fat lady or two who would have been better minding the baby or wringing out the family washing.

They comment that the ladies could not kick a ball or run, and they then go onto make what seems to be a deliberate typo, referring in the rest of the article to ‘Tommy’ as ‘him’ or ‘he’. They praise ‘Tommy’ further saying:

…but for him it would have been less cheerful than a funeral procession.

They even say that the only time the women looked serious was at half-time when they were allowed to eat oranges. Because of this ritual, some newspapers referred to half-time as “orange time”. And the final sentence sums up their opinion:

Lest there should be many misconceptions we had better add that the Association game was played.

The Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer reported the same match, saying that about 1,000 people saw the game that was drawn 2-2. The reporting was still negative, but in a less sarcastic tone. They summed up the game as:

The spectacle was a failure, being altogether too slow, though here and there a good run was made, while one or two of the ladies plucked up courage to attempt a “header,” one being all but successful in getting past Mrs. Graham [The Blues’ goalkeeper]. The crowd gave “Tommy” an ovation after the match, when the teams drove off in a waggonette, watched by large numbers of people along the length of Meanwood Road.

They also claim the identity of ‘Tommy’ was actually a girl called Miss Vernon. The Exeter and Plymouth Gazette reported on a British Ladies Football Club match on the 14th May 1895, and they were not complimentary. They began with saying:

If one of the objects of those who boast that they are engaged in the emancipation of women is to produce a team of ladies–capable exponents of Association football, it cannot be said that they have so far succeeded.

They went onto say that there were better methods which were “more graceful” in improving the physique of women. They also state that they believe the British public would conclude that the club’s President Lady Florence Dixie:

…might assist in discovering some more useful and congenial occupation for 20 women than touring about the country and going through extreme athletic performances in summer weather.

The match was watched by 2,000 people, which leads them to suggest it was a financial success. They praised ‘Tommy’ and give her a different identity – one of Miss Daisy Allen. They said:

Miss Daisy Allen, who has distinguished herself in previous matches and won the name of “Tommy,” quickly made herself conspicuous, being undoubtedly the best exponent of the game on the field. She is small, and being always in the thick of the “fray” her popularity did not wane throughout.

Concluding, they say the game was played between Red and Blue or North and South, and mention whilst the Reds had ten players, the Blues only had 9. The Reds won 3-2. They also mention that the British Ladies Football Club intended to be playing football next summer (1896). Across from a bizarre headline “Exciting Fire”, The Hartlepool Mail reported on a match played in West Hartlepool. Their reporting was more positive, and they note the game was attended by 4,000 people who were mainly women, and was played at Victoria Ground. They are pleased to report that the crowd was polite, and therefore the players were not subjected to abuse. ‘Tommy’ was once again praised and noted to be a daughter of one of the Reds’ players – and it was ‘Tommy’ who scored the winner. The most positive part was:

The game (Association) was considered by some of the members of the West committee present to be a very fair exposition.

However, the negative reporting continued with the Dundee Evening Telegraph on the 25th May 1895. The paper’s ‘Sporting Editor’ interviewed their ‘Our Lady Correspondent’, and it begins with the introduction:

At first she was rather diffident about giving an opinion, being wholly ignorant of the game; but finally his pertinacity succeeded…

I’ve selected some dialogue from this interview, and I identify the Sporting Editor with SE, and the Our Lady Correspondent as LC:

LC: “You should have seen Mrs Graham, the ‘Red’ goalkeeper. It was a pleasure to see her kick-off. Made the ball travel have the length of the field, and did it so easily and so gracefully. Never missed a point. The crowd cheered her tremendously.” SE: “Then you liked it?” LC: “Who said I liked it?…..Some of the others couldn’t kick a ball.” SE: “And what did you think of ‘Tommy’?” LC: “Oh, she was ubiquitous. A plucky little monkey, looking like a pugnacious small boy. Did you know that the crowd dubbed another little girl ‘Willie,’ and always encouraged her by that name?” SE: “And the dress?” LC: “….The red blouse weren’t so bad, but the half-and-half blue ones –ugh! they just look like convicts or something.” SE: “The knickers? You have not mentioned them.” LC: “They were not a gain in any sense. The baggy ones were ungraceful, and the tight ones horrid. The best players wore skirts.” (with a glance at once roguish and triumphant). SE: “Then you think it unfeminine?” LC: “Don’t you? How would you like your sister or your sweetheart running madly over a field after a ball and getting herself all red and blurry, and kicking wildly at nothing, and tumbling and shoving her neighbours about, and being cheered and laughed at by a crowd of all sorts of men, and called ‘Tommy?”

Underneath what seems to be describing a prescription drug vending machine, on the 31st May 1895, the Dundee Evening Telegraph explains what happened at the match played at Cowlairs earlier in the month:

Yesterday, in the Glasgow Small Debt Court, Mr A. B. Lennox, of Newcastle, manager of the British Ladies’ Football Club, sued the office-bearers of the Cowlairs F.C. for £15, restricted to £12, as repayment of money withheld on the occasion of the match played by the lady players on the Cowlairs field, Springfield Park, on Saturday afternoon, 4th inst. After a conference, the defenders agreed to pay half the sum sued for, and an amicable arrangement was come to.

On the 12th November 1895, the Gloucester Citizen continued the scathing reporting. It began:

“When lovely woman stoops to folly” there is no telling where she will end. We do not suggest that she has reached the nethermost depth of her possible degradation upon the football field. It may be argued that the line we have quoted about does not apply to the females who disported themselves on the Kingsholm Ground on Monday afternoon because they are not love– but, no matter!

They criticised the slow pace and the players lack of desire to hurt each other, and a “disinclination to fall in the mud.” The women’s dress was criticised, stating that it did not aid their movements. ‘Tommy’ was praised as an exception compared to the “ludicrous incompetence”.

A noticeable one was the lady rejoicing in the sobriquet  of “Tommy.” She was really clever with some of her dribbles, and was much more agile and fast–if we may use the term without reproach in this connection–than her comrades….

I aim in my next blog to see if the identity of ‘Tommy’ is ever solved, because she seems to have been the first female football superstar in Britain. 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.

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