Trust Curator Tom Wright details the events of the first ever women's international football match, the occasion played between Scotland and England at Easter Road.
For many years now women’s football has been accepted throughout the world. Played in over 200 countries, it is believed that in Britain alone there are now more than 5,000 sides of all ages.
The successful Hibernian Ladies Football Club was formed in 1997 as Preston Athletic before changing their name to the present Hibernian a couple of years later and quickly became one of the top sides in the country. The Club has now expanded to cater for all ages from under 11’s to the open age Premier League side. However, most of the present day players will probably be completely unaware of the struggle for acceptance faced by the pioneers of the women’s game in the late 19th century.
The origins of the women’s game are obscure but it is believed to have been played in China during the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD). The earliest mention of the game in Scotland is in church records at Carstairs dating back to 1628. There are reports of an annual game between married and single women taking place at Inverness in the early 1700s, although these games would have been played under completely different rules to those of today.
The world’s first women’s international football match took place at Easter Road between sides representing Scotland and England on Saturday 7th May 1881. The players of the Scottish side led by Helen Graham Matthews, a well known women’s activist, had organised themselves into an association for the purpose of promoting the game as a pastime for females and planned to play a series of games throughout the country.
The Mrs Grahams XI team in 1895
Reported as an ‘athletic novelty presented to the Edinburgh public’, the game attracted a crowd of almost 2,000 who were mainly curious onlookers, although it was noticeable that not many ladies were present. The players of both sides, all aged between 18 and 24 and ‘most of them well built athletic looking girls’, had arrived at the ground shortly before the kick-off in a horse drawn omnibus already stripped for action. The Scottish side were dressed in blue tunics and white knickerbockers with red stockings, their opponents in blue and white jerseys with white knickerbockers and blue stockings. The players of both sides wore what appeared to be high-heeled boots.
REPORTED AS AN 'ATHLETIC NOVELTY PRESENTED TO THE EDINBURGH PUBLIC', THE GAME ATTRACTED A CROWD OF ALMOST 2,000 WHO WERE MAINLY CURIOUS ONLOOKERS, ALTHOUGH IT WAS NOTICEABLE THAT NOT MANY LADIES WERE PRESENT.
Scotland kicked off playing into a strong wind as both teams entered the fray with all the enthusiasm of their male counterparts. Taking advantage of the blustery conditions, the English side seemed to have much the better of the early play but on the half hour mark, Miss Lilly St Clair opened the scoring for Scotland, credited as the first ever goal scorer in women’s football. From then on the game became a tense match, with Scotland dominating as England rarely threatened the home goal. Towards the end of the contest, the home side scored twice to secure a comfortable 3-0 victory.
A newspaper match review of the Scotland versus England Ladies International in 1881
In the later stages of the game, the play was occasionally reduced to roughness with frequent skirmishes and the occasional tumble, incidents that seemed to be enjoyed by the spectators. However, it would appear that the entertainment on display had not met the approval of the majority of the audience, with the various incidents in the game met by sarcastic comments and loud guffaws from a mainly good-humoured crowd, but it was noticeable that more than half the spectators had left well before the end. Overall, the general consensus had been that the entire episode had been a most unfeminine affair and that only a rash person would predict that Ladies football would become popular in Scotland.
Two weeks later, the sides met again at Shawfield in Glasgow, a game that would prove a major blow for the promotion of the women’s game in this country. Watched by a curious crowd numbering at around 5,000, it was evident that once again the ‘fair sex’ was noticeably absent. Scoreless at the interval, the Scots were looking likely to take control of the proceedings when in the 55th minute a few ‘roughs’ broke onto the field of play and were soon followed by several hundreds more who began jostling and pushing the players, who were forced to make a hurried exit towards the safety of the waiting omnibus.
A huge crowd that began throwing missiles closely followed the players, and only the arrival of the police with batons drawn had prevented the situation from escalating even further. The horse drawn omnibus was seen driven rapidly from the ground amid the jeers of the crowd. The Sporting Times the next morning had been highly critical not only at the girls ‘almost ignorance of the game but also of the male umpires who in their opinion had been even more ignorant of the rules.’
After the farce at Shawfield, a rematch that had been scheduled to take place at Kilmarnock was cancelled a short while later. Although some newspapers were supportive of the women’s innovative enterprise, the game was widely condemned by the male establishment and would soon be banned in Scotland. The women’s game however, continued to be played but denied the use of any of the senior grounds. The players were be forced to look elsewhere, often using rugby fields as an alternative.
After the suspension of football in Scotland, the Montrose born Helen Graham Matthews, an avid member of the Suffrage movement which was particularly strong in Edinburgh at that time, had become fascinated by the game after watching Scotland defeat England 6-1 at the Oval in 1881. She would eventually move to England where she established the Lady Footballers, which was said to be the first of its kind in the country. Later, Mary Hutson, another well-known activist for women’s rights who also went under the poetic name of Nettie Honeyball, would form the British Ladies Football Club, or the Honeyballer’s as they were affectionately known. However, it would be almost 20 years before the emergence of the first high profile female sides.
By this time however, the game had grown in popularity. In a bid to curb the riotous behaviour of some of their supporters, the famous English side Preston North End admitted ladies in free to the matches, a move that was soon followed by other English teams. The practice however would soon be abandoned when around 2,000 women started to regularly attend the games.
By the turn of the new century, there was still resistance to the women’s game along with ludicrous claims by the medical profession that women’s bodies, particularly their reproductive organs, were not equipped for the rigours of football. The Suffragette movement was founded in 1903, but it would not come into its own until the First World War when not only were women taking on men’s jobs, but there was a great upsurge in the women’s game.
The Dick, Kerr Ladies team consisting of eleven factory workers from Preston had been formed in 1917 to raise money for the war effort and they quickly became national celebrities and the biggest draw in women’s football. They remain today the most successful women’s side of all time. A crowd of over 10,000 attended their first game, but their match against St Helens at Goodison on Boxing Day 1920 was watched by over 53,000, dwarfing the 39,000 that had attended Everton’s then biggest gate of the season. In December 1921 the FA, who claimed that football was unsuitable for females, banned the game, the action driving the women’s game underground.
The Dick, Kerr's Ladies team in 1921
In 1937 and 1938, the Dick, Kerr Ladies team defeated the Edinburgh City Ladies 5-1 on both occasions to claim the Championship of Great Britain and the World. The following year however, now more organised after defeating their previous year’s opponents 5-2 in the Scottish capital, the Edinburgh City side would demolish the Glasgow Ladies 7-1 at Falkirk to take the title.
The ban on the women’s game was finally lifted in 1971, with Scotland losing 3-2 to England in the first official international in 1972. After a slow start, woman’s football has developed out of all recognition into the game we know today, but there is little doubt that the modern female footballers owe a tremendous gratitude to their 19th century counterparts, whose struggle for acceptance paved the way all those years before.
Written by Tom Wright