A game of two halves: the history of women's football

Sara Tor introduces the pioneers of women's football long before Who Do You Think You Are? star Alex Scott laced up her boots

Dick, Kerr Ladies football team
Getty
Published: July 7, 2022 at 11:39 am
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"The members of the club do not play in fashion’s dress, but in knickers and blouses. They actually allow the calves of their legs to be seen, and wear caps and football boots! Terrible! Is it not? ‘Quite too shocking!’ as an old society dame remarked to me with a shudder, adding squeakily, ‘And I certainly should never allow dear Mynie to so demean herself!’… I wondered which looked most decent, my lithe, agile football teams, in their dark blue knickers and cardinal and pale blue blouses, [or] this old slave of fashion and her unnaturally attired charge, with their naked shoulders and arms, pinched in waists, high-heeled shoes, and grotesque balloon-like shoulders hunched and blown out for all the world like huge tumours?”

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So wrote Lady Florence Dixie in her essay about football for women, published in the Pall Mall Gazette on 8 February 1895. This well-known campaigner for women’s rights had just become the president of the newly formed British Ladies’ Football Club. Though her words create the impression that women’s football was a revolutionary sport for avant-garde ladies, newspaper reports tell a different story.

Nearly 170 years earlier, in 1726, a mention of ladies playing football appeared in the Ipswich Journal: “A new and extraordinary Entertainment was set on Foot for the Divertion of our polite Gentry… a Match at Foot-Ball, play’d by six young Women of a Side, at the Bowling Green.” And “polite Gentry” were not the only ones playing it – so were women of the lower classes. From at least the late 18th century, a yearly football match was played on Shrove Tuesday between married and unmarried fisherwomen in the Scottish town of Musselburgh.

However, football of the early years had a very different image. Rules varied, team numbers could be unlimited, handballs weren’t officially outlawed and even the penalty – or the ‘kick of death’, as it was first known – hadn’t been invented. It was only in 1863 that formal Laws of the Game were adopted by the newly formed Football Association (FA). Some two decades later, organised women’s football emerged.

The first recorded women's football match

The first recorded women’s match took place in 1881 in Edinburgh, at the home of the Scottish club Hibernian. Theatre entrepreneur Alec Gordon and theatre magnate Charles Scholes, together with Scholes’ wife Nancy and theatre manager George Frederick Charles, recruited teams representing England and Scotland. These ‘Lady Players’ were mainly dancers or performers of another ilk: Lizzie Gilbert’s Juvenile Ballet Company provided the English side, Glasgow’s Royal Princess’s Theatre house company the Scottish. The Lady Players’ first match kicked off at 3pm on 7 May 1881; Scots player Lily St Clare became the first recorded goalscorer in the history of women’s football, followed by Louise Cole and Maud Rimeford, giving Scotland a 3–0 victory.

The newspapers were far from pleasant about the tour that followed. Women’s sport had previously been subjected to scorn and ridicule, because of the clothing worn and concerns over women’s reproductive health. Satirical magazine Punch joked in 1873 that “Irrepressible woman is again in the field. ‘Ladies’ Cricket’ is advertised, to be followed… by Ladies’ Fives, Ladies’ Football, Ladies’ Golf… It is all over with men. They had better make up their minds to rest contented with croquet, and afternoon tea, and sewing machines…”

Unfortunately a riot that broke out at the Lady Players’ second match in 1881 confirmed the press in their opinion. “Disgraceful Scenes At Women’s Football Match” declared the Glasgow Evening Times. Among the spectators, it was said, “were certainly not many of the class of people who usually patronise the game”. What’s more, “the most shocking imprecations and vulgarities [were] audible”; no goals had been scored by the 55th minute, so the match “could hardly be of interest”.

Full of rude ruffians with no captivating play and followed by an almighty riot, in which police utilised their batons after a pitch invasion, the match demonstrated that football was no place for a woman.

Yet, despite the media’s opinion, the Lady Players completed their tour, and their next match drew a 4,000-strong crowd. Over the following 15 years, other amateur women’s clubs would appear on the scene – one of which used the newspapers to its advantage.

The arrival of the British Ladies' Football Club

The British Ladies’ Football Club was formed in 1895 by Nettie Honeyball, thought to be the pseudonym of Mary Hutson. Placing advertisements in various newspapers, she sought female players for the club and publicised its first match. A number of women answered the call, many from poorer, theatrical backgrounds – the reason Lady Florence Dixie soon left her post as president. Dividing into ‘North’ and ‘South’, British Ladies’ FC drew a crowd of 10,000 to their debut match at Crouch End on 23 March 1895.

British Ladies' Football Club 1895
The British Ladies' Football Club played their first match in 1895 Getty Images

Again, the papers mocked the women, with the Penny Illustrated Paper claiming that spectators had come only to watch a curiosity “akin to a dog walking on its forelegs with its hind legs in the air”.

After the outbreak of the First World War, women’s lives changed – not least their recreational activities. Women in munitions factories were offered morale-boosting leisure pursuits, including football. Nearly every munitions factory had its own female football team, and by 1917 those in north-east England had created their own competition: the Munitionettes Cup.

WW1 factory football and the Dick, Kerr Ladies

One of the most famous factory sides was founded at the Dick, Kerr & Co Ltd factory in Preston in 1917, after munitions girl Grace Sibbert teased the men’s side about their recent defeats – and the men challenged the women to try the game themselves. Managed by factory clerk Alfred Frankland, the Dick, Kerr Ladies team produced brilliant footballers including Lily Parr, Alice Kell and Florrie Redford, whose talent shone first at a charity match against the women of Arundel Coulthard Foundry on Christmas Day 1917. Playing in front of 10,000 spectators, Dick, Kerr Ladies stormed to a 4–0 victory, raising £600 for wounded soldiers. On Boxing Day 1920 the team staged their biggest charity match, at Everton’s Goodison Park. Drawing a crowd of 53,000 – plus perhaps 14,000 turned away – the match raised £3,115.

Dick, Kerr ladies football team , 1921
A Scottish team play Dick, Kerr Ladies, during a fundraising match in aid of former servicemen, held at Tynecastle in Edinburgh, Scotland, 2nd March 1921 Getty Images/Hulton Archive

By 1921, the negative discourse surrounding women’s football had swollen. Arguments were put forward that football was dangerous for women’s health, along with claims that funds raised were not reaching charities, and worries that expenses were getting out of hand – women footballers and clubs were always amateur, receiving only expenses rather than proper wages. So on 5 December 1921 the FA banned women’s football. As a result, FA member clubs no longer allowed women’s sides to play on their grounds; matches could not be overseen by FA-qualified referees; and women’s teams could not be officially recognised. The ban – a massive blow – remained in place for almost 50 years, yet the estimated 150 amateur women’s teams did not give up.

As a response, the English Ladies Football Association (ELFA) was created to enable women’s football and charity matches to continue. Functioning until 1931, the ELFA aimed to counteract the complaints made by overseeing funds raised and recommending the use of a lighter ball.
The Second World War produced another mini boom for the game. With a greater number of smaller factories across the country, the number of factory women’s football teams grew. Furthermore, women’s auxiliary forces included football on their recreation programmes.
In the 1950s, female factory footballers regrouped. Attitudes to women’s football were slowly changing, occasionally reflected by press coverage. One report on a match between Penzance and St Just Women’s teams summed up the feelings of the crowd and of society in a sentence: “Came to jeer, stayed to cheer.”

The birth of the Women's Football Association

In 1967, Arthur Hobbs organised a tournament that would eventually lead to the creation of the Women’s Football Association. Eight teams participated in the first Deal Tournament; by 1969, the Deal Tournament had gone international, with Austrian and Czech teams competing.

Following this success, the Women’s Football Association (WFA) was formed, bringing together 44 British ladies’ amateur teams. In 1969, coinciding with the creation of the WFA, the men’s FA finally lifted its ban on women’s football.

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Women’s sides could now become official, playing on FA-affiliated grounds with FA-qualified referees. By 1971, the WFA had become the official body for women’s football – a deal that lasted until 1993. The first WFA Mitre Trophy competition, later the Women’s FA Cup, was also held that year.
There were bumps in the road. For example, after manager Harry Batt took an independent ‘England’ side to the 1971 Women’s World Cup in Mexico, he was banned for life by the WFA; the players each received a six-month ban. And as recently as 1980, the Mitre Cup was organised by volunteers, with matches often played on the grounds of smaller, less well-known clubs. Yet the teams persevered – laying the groundwork for the popularity women’s football enjoys today.

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