It is widely known that the British Ladies‘ Football Club was founded in England in the 1890s by Nettie Honeyball. What is less well known, however, is that at times it existed twice.
But first things first: In the rural form of football, which still exists today in Shrovetide Football, for example, women naturally also played.
English and Scottish women’s football in the 1880s and early 1890s
One of the first women’s football matches (in modern understanding) took place in Scotland in 1881. Helen Matthews, who we will meet again in a moment, founded a football team under her pseudonym that year. On 7 May 1881, an unofficial women’s international football match was held at Easter Road in Edinburgh, which was attended by 400 to over 1000 spectators.
Depending on the source, the figures given vary considerably. An English team (from London) played against „Graham XI“ as the Scottish team (from Glasgow). According to a newspaper report in Scotland’s most famous daily newspaper, Glasgow Herald, the players were about 18 to 24 years old and showed that they could play football, the journalist’s benevolent verdict.
A rather novel football match took place at Easter Road, Edinburgh on Saturday between teams of lady players representing England and Scotland – the former hailing from London and the latter, it is said, from Glasgow. A considerable amount of curiosity was evinced in the event, and upwards of a thousand persons witnessed it. The young ladies‘ ages appeared to range from eighteen to four-and-twenty, and they were very smartly dressed. The Scotch team wore blue jerseys, white knickerbockers, red stockings, a red belt, high heeled boots and blue and white cowl; while their English sisters were dressed in blue and white jerseys, blue stockings and belt, high-heeled boots, and red and white cowl. The game, judged from a player’s point of view, was a failure, but some of the individual members of the teams showed that they had a fair idea of the game. During the first half the Scotch team, playing against the wind, scored a goal, and in the second half they added other two, making a total of three goals against their opponents‘ nothing. Misses St Clair and Cole scored the first two, and the third was due to Misses Stevenson and Wright.
– Glasgow Herald, May 9, 1881
So, he specifically mentions the women’s clothing and describes them as „very smartly dressed“ with jerseys, a belt, a cowl, stockings and knickerbockers and high-heeled boots. Both played in blue-white-red, but the colours of the clothes were different. Just by the blue-white cowl of the Scottish women and the red-white cowl of the English women it was not too difficult to distinguish.
The game was not entirely played according to the rules in force in Scotland or England at the time and also ended after 55 minutes in an open protest and pelvic attack by the mostly male spectators. Obviously the spectators were not progressive or tolerant like the journalist.
„Hence the fear of women taking up sport, and the derision and hostility it aroused. How could men be men if women adopted the very activities through which masculinity was defined?“
– Holt, Richard: Sport and the British. Oxford 1990. p. 117.
This is how Richard Holt summed up the fear very succinctly.
There were four more games of the two women’s football teams in May 1881, but only one of them had to be abandoned…
Around 1890, there were a few more women’s football clubs, both by women workers and by schoolgirls.
The foundation of the British Ladies‘ Football Club
The British Ladies‘ FC, on the other hand, was a purely civic undertaking. In 1894, the weekly British magazine Daily Graphic published an advertisement for the unknown Nettie Honeyball. She was looking for women interested in starting a football club. 50 women applied, 30 of whom also wanted to play actively and 20 wanted to be supportive. Thus, at the turn of the year 1894/1895, the British Ladies‘ Football Club was founded, in which the Scottish „Mrs. Graham“ was also involved with Nettie Honeyball and played as a goalkeeper.
The first training sessions were anything but good, but they found a coach in the Tottenham Hotspur’s outside midfielder, William Julian, who was able to quickly improve the players‘ knowledge and skills. Alfred Hewitt Smith was also involved as manager of the club. The biggest supporter of the British Ladies was Lady Florence Dixie, the youngest daughter of the Marquess of Queensbury from Scotland. She was not only an aristocrat but also an author, journalist and feminist. She campaigned for more women’s rights and healthy clothing for women, as the corset and petticoat were still very much in fashion. Lady Dixie became chairwoman of the British Ladies‘ Football Club and supported the club with full conviction. Her condition was that the players were as passionate about the game as she was.
British Ladies in Action
The club’s first match was played on 23 April 1895 at 4:45 pm in front of about 10,000 spectators and, unlike the first unofficial international match between Scotland and England in 1881, the players were paid respect and sympathy by the spectators at the end. The two teams were called „North“ and „South“, but this did not correspond to the geographical origin of the ladies. They played in voluminous blouses as jerseys, in knickerbockers or divided skirts and with a fisherman’s cap with a tassel as a bonnet. (Men also wore hats in this period, although mostly not in this form). North played in dark red, south in blue and white. Some drawings of games also show two men in uniform as goalkeepers.
Afterwards the British Ladies‘ Football Club went on tour through England, supported by Lady Dixie. They kept part of the proceeds as an expense allowance for travel and accommodation (this was reproached negatively by critics) and donated it to charity. The tour served both to improve their skills and to raise awareness of the club. The star of the team was 1895 eleven-year-old Daisy Allen, who was also called Tommy in the British press. It was rumoured that she was a boy because a young girl could hardly play football so well.
The end of the British Ladies‘ Football Club
Helen Matthews, goalkeeper of the Blues, then founded a new club of her own in September 1895. As co-founder of the British Ladies‘ Football Club, she claimed the same name for this club. What was the reason for this split or separation has not yet been discovered by research.
In any case, two British Ladies‘ Football Clubs existed for several months, both claiming to be the original club. Lady Dixie withdrew her support more and more in the course of this discussion. Soon after, after almost 50 games, the last game of one of the two British Ladies‘ Football Clubs took place in Dublin on 23 May 1896. A detailed overview of the games is given at the end of this page, which contains an equally detailed summary of the history of the two British Ladies‘ FC.
Football & Feminism… in the 19th century
The two founders of the British Ladies‘ Football Club were both feminists. „Mrs Graham“ was the alias of Helen Matthews and there are indications that Nettie Honeyball was also an alias. For in November 1895, one Jessy Allen was the secretary of the Honeyball team of the British Ladies‘ Football Club. She lived from 1870 to 1922 and was with Frederick Smith, the brother of BLFC manager Alfred Hewitt Smith. These assumptions are based on research by Patrick Brennan ) and John Simkin.
In any case, she was very committed to the political emancipation of women. As did Lady Dixie and Helen Graham, who was a very committed feminist. According to sports historian Derek Birley, one of the great aims of this woman was to destroy „that hydra-headed monster, the present dress of women“ with the club.
„Aren’t women as good as men? We ladies have too long borne the degradation of presumed inferiority to the other sex. If men can play football, so can women.“
– Jackson, N. L.: Sporting Days and Sporting Ways. London 1932, pp. 134-135.