How Suffragettes Formed The First Women’s Football Team


On 7 May 1881 the first ever women’s international
took place in Edinburgh’s Easter Road stadium. Organised by suffragette Helen Matthews, two
teams representing Scotland and England played out a 3-0 win for the home side in front of
a crowd of just over 1,000. This was long before women’s football clubs,
and was the first organised fixture of its kind for any of these players. The event gained the attention of popular
Scottish newspaper the Glasgow Herald, who printed a match report in which it praised
“some individual members of the teams” for their play. But the newspaper’s coverage was not without
its problems. For example, it gave a detailed description
of the clothing of the female players before even providing the reader with the final score. Commentary on what female players wore, usually
with much disdain, would become a fixation for the media and socially conservative opponents
throughout the sport’s history. Aware that what they were doing would not
go down well with the wider public, Helen Matthews and other players created pseudonyms
for the team sheets, printed in the paper, to protect their identities. Precautions like this would prove well justified. Just one week later the teams played again
in Glasgow. Word had spread quickly, and this time around 5,000 spectators came to watch. A largely male crowd taunted both sides in
the first half before turning violent in the second. Hundreds invaded the pitch, pushing
the players, who fled to the minibus they had arrived in. The Nottinghamshire Guardian
reported that members of the crowd “tore up the stakes” of the surrounding fence
and “threw them at the departing vehicle”. A repeat of this match had been arranged in
Kilmarnock for the next day, but was cancelled in the wake of the riots. In the days that followed, the mainstream
press attacked what they described as the “unsuitability” of female players for
football. But Matthews and her team acted quickly in
defiance of their opposition. Within five days they had organised another match, this
time moving south to Blackburn and playing in front of a crowd of 4,000. The team then travelled to Manchester and
Liverpool, set to play four more scheduled fixtures in June. But a forced cancellation,
the experience of a second riotous pitch invasion within a month, and further attacks even in
the liberal press of the time saw their playing attempts abruptly end. Women’s football took 14 years to recover.
But when it did, it was once again led by its earliest pioneer. In 1895 Helen Matthews joined forces with
Nettie J Honeyball, a fellow suffragette who in late 1894 had founded the British Ladies
Football Club in Crouch End in North London. Together, the two set about building the UK’s
first ever women’s football club completely from scratch, mostly attracting middle class
women whose families were rich enough to support them while they trained. Rejecting the heavy criticism from newspapers
around the country, Honeyball stood by her principles. On 6th February 1895 she told
reporters: “I founded the association late last year,
with the fixed resolve of proving to the world that women are not the ‘ornamental’ and
‘useless’ creatures men have pictured. I must confess, my convictions on all matters,
where the sexes are so wildly divided, are all on the side of emancipation”. And it was from the radical circles of the
time that Honeyball, both club captain and secretary, looked to secure support. For the club’s president, she recruited
Lady Florence Dixie. Despite a history of supporting the British
establishment in the first Anglo-Boer war of 1880-1881, in the 1890s Florence Dixie
had established herself as a leader of a radical movement to end the requirement that women
wear dresses when playing sport, calling it ‘ridiculous’. During this time, she developed many new and
more efficient clothing ideas for pursuits like cycling, and also spoke out publicly
for girls to receive equal rights to education as boys. She fully committed her support to Helen Matthews’
and Nettie Honeyball’s project, and in February 1895 wrote in campaigning London newspaper
the Pall Mal Gazette: “There is no reason why football should
not be played by women, and played well too […] looking ahead, I see arising on the
golden hilltops of progress above the mists of prejudice, football will be considered
as natural a game for girls as boys.” Ahead of the first ever British Ladies’
Football Club match in Crouch End on 23 March the same year, Honeyball set about sowing
all the strips herself, spurned on both by necessity and inspired by the clothing designs
of Lady Florence Dixie. The match was a success, as 11,000 witnessed
a 7-1 victory for North over South London. Reports of the game in the press show the
progress made since Matthews’ first attempts 14 years before. While the reaction of many
newspapers, and indeed players’ families, was highly critical, this was not universally
the case. Unlike before, some of the radical press rallied
around the club, which even received support from mainstream sports newspaper the Sporting
Man. The British Ladies’ Football club was breaking
boundaries in other ways too. Their opening match featured the first ever black women’s
footballer, Emma Clarke. Clarke was born in 1876 in Liverpool and was one of the few players
from a working class background in the team. Her sister, Jane Clarke, would also go on
to join in the months that followed. It is both a devastating indictment of the
widespread racism in football and society in the 19th century, and a testament to the
progressive nature of the British Ladies’ Football Club, that within a year of its beginning
at club level women’s football had the same number of black players as the much more established
and widespread men’s game. From March to September 1895 the team went
on to play 34 games across England, Scotland and Ireland. This was the heyday of the first era of women’s
football, which regularly attracted crowds of thousands and, not without difficulty,
played through a first “season” with an even more demanding fixture list than the
men’s game at the time. Sadly, it did not last. For reasons which
are now lost to history, Honeyball and Matthews parted ways in late 1895. The two founders continued to organise teams
independently, but both sides claimed to be the original British Ladies’ Football Club,
to be fielding some of the same famous players, and to have backing from Lady Florence Dixie. In the wake of the split, Lady Florence Dixie
pulled her significant financial support from the project and would not back either team. On a shoestring budget, further matches were
organised by both sides in 1896. But with dwindling funds and players, and in the face
of even more bad press and a further riot at one of the games, the teams ultimately
petered out. Despite its early promise, women’s football
was then largely forgotten until it burst into a mass sport after World War One. But we should always remember Helen Matthews,
Nettie Honeyball, Emma Clarke and the other players involved in these first great steps.

7 thoughts on “How Suffragettes Formed The First Women’s Football Team

  1. When you see how the 19th century was socially …..It's hardly any surprise that when the 20th century started we saw a massive global war ….. Thank god weve evolved ….well some of us.

  2. Please do one about Gian Piero Gasperini's Atalanta that got recently to the champions league and his tactics

  3. TIFO history is definitely one of my favourite series on the whole of YouTube, keep up the great work lads 😊

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