‘So it has come at last!’ cried the Bell’s Life newspaper. ‘What next?’ The event that had the paper so agitated was a women’s football match, played in May 1881 at Easter Road, Edinburgh.
‘Several years ago there was a rage for silly displays of certain kinds of athletics by women, but we thought the time had passed,’ said Bell’s. ‘To give the arrangement the semblance of an international event the girls had the cheek to designate the farce England v Scotland.’
The 22 women, who had practised in a Glasgow hall ahead of the match, were all aged between 18 and 24. Scotland lined up with Ethel Hay in goal, Rose Rayman at half-back, and Lilly St Clair up front. England had May Goodwin in goal, Mabel Bradbury at full-back, and Maud Starling at half-back.
It was noted that the players dressed very suitably, and from a distance could not be distinguished from men. The Scotland team wore blue jerseys, white knickerbockers, red sashes, blue and white stockings, and blue and white cowls. England wore red jerseys, blue sashes, white knickerbockers, red and white stockings, and red and white cowls. The Glasgow Herald said both teams played in ‘high-heeled boots’.
Scotland won 3-0, but the Bell’s match report was so dismissive it didn't even mention the score. ‘The football shown was of the most primitive order,’ it said, calling the match ‘a humiliating spectacle’. The event had, however, attracted a large crowd, and a second match was arranged for the following week, this time in Glasgow, at Shawfield. Around 5,000 spectators turned up, and it was noted that none of them were ‘of the fair sex’.
The rowdy crowd made uncomplimentary remarks throughout the first half. Then, in the second half, hundreds of spectators charged onto the pitch and ‘roughly jostled’ the women, sending them fleeing back to their horse-drawn omnibus. Pitch invaders pulled up marker stakes and threw them at the bus, jeering as it made a hasty retreat. The players escaped with ‘nothing more than serious fright’.
Thankfully, the unpleasant incident didn't put an end to women’s football in the Victorian era, although it would be almost 15 years before the emergence of the first high-profile women's club.
‘There was an astonishing sight in the neighbourhood of the Nightingale Lane Ground, Crouch End, on Saturday afternoon,’ reported the Sketch in March 1895. ‘Crouch End itself rubbed its eyes and pinched its arms. All through the afternoon train-loads of excited people journeyed over from all parts, and the respectable array of carriages, cabs, and other vehicles marked a record in the history of football.’
The event was the first public match of the British Ladies’ Football Club, which had been formed a few months earlier by Miss Nettie Honeyball (pictured right). Advertisements attracted around 30 female footballers, who trained twice-weekly under the tutelage of Tottenham Hotspur wing-half Bill Julian.
Honeyball explained that she and her teammates had gained their knowledge and love of football ‘from frequent on-looking’. But the formation of the club brought disdain and derision. The ladies were prevented from practising at the Oval, and were mocked in newspapers.
Once again, great interest surrounded the players’ outfits, at a time when it was unheard of for women to wear trousers, never mind football shorts. However, the club’s baggy blouses and long knickerbockers, tall stockings and fishermen’s caps were very modest, and left everything to the imagination. The players also wore shin guards and football boots – with high-heels having been deemed impractical.
The match saw the club divided into two teams representing North and South London. ‘It would be idle to attempt any description of the play,’ said the Sketch. ‘The first few minutes were sufficient to show that football by women is totally out of the question. A footballer requires speed, judgement, skill, and pluck. Not one of these four qualities was apparent on Saturday.’
The players were jeered, and many of the spectators had left by the time the final whistle blew – with North London winning 7-1. Commercially, however, the match had been a huge success – so much so that Honeyball took her team on a lengthy tour that saw them play around 100 exhibition matches over the next two years.
This is an edited extract from The Victorian Football Miscellany by Paul Brown.
An account of the 1881 'Match by Women in Edinburgh' can be found in Goal-Post Vol 2.
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