The football season with all its celebrity and passion kicks off in a few weeks time. Supporters of all teams will look forward to the new season with either a sense of anticipation. It was perhaps another form of anticipation that led a few thousand supporters to turn up for a very unusual game in Leek in the autumn of 1895. We tend to think of women’s football as modern trend. In fact women’s football has almost as long a history as the Football League itself, which was established in 1888. In delving amongst the archive at the Post and Times offices I discovered a report of a game of women’s football in Leek in October 1895. The creator of the first women’s football Nettie Honeyball had founded the British Ladies Football team a year earlier. The principal purpose of establishing the team was political and the women who were involved were ardent supporters of the fight to get women the vote- a right denied them for another 23 years.
The team had played in many different venues prior to the Leek game and comprised of a squad of 30 players who were drawn from the middle and upper classes and were based in London. All had been privately educated. JW Julian, centre half of Tottenham Hotspur, coached the team and the opening game was played at Crouch End in North London on March 23rd 1895. The teams were divided between North London and South London teams the sides that played at Leek 6 months later.
The president of the club was Lady Florence Dixie a redoubtable figure in her own right- travel writer, archaeologist and war correspondent who had survived assassination attempts. One website described her as an Indiana Jones character an ardent feminist and crack shot! The team went on a national tour culminating in playing at St James Park the home of Newcastle United on the 20th April before a gate of 8,000. Many of the reports of the games focused on the kit the women were wearing which was a compromise between the need to maintain Victorian propriety and to wear a strip that was comfortably fitting. At the Leek game the women wore black knickerbockers and roomy red and white blouses for the North team and a blue blouse for the South team. This rather ungainly outfit was topped off with a fisherman’s cap with a tassel.
The match at Leek took place on the 25th October 1895. The women changed for the game in the Red Lion Hotel. A cheering and curious crowd assembled in the market square as the women embarked in a brake to take them to the game, which took place at the Broad Bridge ground. There was a great deal of enthusiasm for the match locally and over 400 people rushed the ground and got in without paying, maddened one would like to think, of the prospect of a flash of late Victorian thigh. The reporter estimated that the gate was around 3,000 and around half were women. The teams however were low on numbers and were augmented with local men the Red team having 8 players while the Blues had 9. Two men Mr H Redfern for the North and Mr Lavington for the South agreed to be goalkeepers for the afternoon.
The teams were
North team: Nellie Hudson, Nellie Clarke, Russell, Sundall, Newton, Oliphant, Ivy Hudson, Anderson
South team: Bird, Vernon, Wilson, Hodge, Potter, Holloway, Oliver, Young, Hoferon.
Nellie Hudson captained for the north and Miss Hoferon for the south.
Mr A Lee acted as referee. The match was 30 minutes a half.
The star player was the right winger for the north Ivy Hudson a 14 year old was encouraged on by the crowd shouting " Goo it Little Un" and the North seemed to dominate the play in the opening moments of the game. The match was won early in the second half when Miss Bird for the South crossed from the right for Miss Hoferon to shoot past a diving Mr Redfern in goal. There is a suggestion that the male goalkeepers tried very hard not to be beaten. The account of the match concentrates on the novelty of the match and the reaction of the crowd who felt the quality of play was very inferior and began to drift away long before the end of the match. The gate money was estimated at around £30 although a high proportion of the gate had got in for nothing. The reported rather acidly had thought the experiment a failure. After the match report a Leek Times carried a long poem I will quote only three verses to give the modern reader a flavour of the sentiments of the author, Tom Stafford
Oh spare us this our winter game
-We don’t mind a blue stocking
But in the football field! For Shame
Miss Honeyball tis shocking
Don’t flatter your abandoned souls
Those thousands went for pleasure
Or went to watch you score goals
There’s were but lewdest leisure.
Your pretty ankles look so thick
Your baggy breeks ungainly
And then when you attempt to kick
Nine times in ten tis vanity.
The paper also covered another football story in that edition which serves as a reminder that football hooliganism did not begin in the 1960s. Mr Armitt of Leek referred a match between Wolverhampton and Everton at Wolves in October 1895. He disallowed a Wolves goal and as a consequence of this decision was attacked by the home supporters. The Directors of the Club were fined and the ground closed for a number of home matches after this outrage.
As for women’s football that particular experiment of Miss Honeyball failed by 1897 although football as a working class women’s activity really began to become popular during the First World War where women working in the munitions factory took up the sport. The high water mark of the women’s game was in the 1920s when attendances were as high as 50,000 and in 1922 Stoke Ladies beat Doncaster Ladies in the first Ladies FA Challenge Cup. At this time the Football League stepped in to deny facilities to women and women’s football had to wait to the 70s before being re-stablished. Even today the game struggles. Recently it has been announced that a number of clubs including Manchester United have closed their women’s teams at a time when football amongst girls has never been more popular.