"England" v "Scotland" - 1881

First attempt to establish women's football disrupted by soccer hooligans

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The increasing urbanisation of Britain during the second half of the 19th century led to the development and rapid growth of organised sport. Both the working- and middle class sectors of society were affected by this phenomenon, and many of the sports familiar to us today were codified during this period. The 1880's in particular saw an explosion of interest in Association football. Organised leagues still lay some distance in the future, and the new clubs which sprang up almost daily resorted to local newspaper notices to contact potential opponents. Most of these were simple in format, for example: "Newtown Rovers have free dates on February 24th and March 11th - contact secretary at...." Sometimes a specific challenge to a named opponent would be issued.

Women too were bitten by the football bug. The remarkable story of the British Ladies' Football Club, which staged a match at Crouch End, London in March 1895, and then went on to tour the country, is widely-known. They were not, however, the first women's football club to tour in this way. Fourteen years earlier, in 1881, another group of women staged a series of supposed international matches, some of which met with a very unpleasant reception. Their story, as related below, is possibly the earliest record of women playing association football on an organised basis in the United Kingdom.

On Monday, 9th May 1881, the following report appeared in the Glasgow Herald:

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Glasgow Herald - 9th May 1881

The Dunfermline Journal gave a similar account of the proceedings, and some additional information, claiming that the English team had already appeared in public on the other side of the border.

These reports, and a similar account in the Aberdeen Weekly Journal were remarkably sympathetic for the age, and it would appear that the event had gone off without incident, although the Dunfermline Journal observed that more than half the spectators had left the ground before the close. Things went badly wrong however when the ladies played their next game in Glasgow on 16th May 1881. The report in the Nottinghamshire Guardian makes disturbing reading:

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Nottinghamshire Guardian - 20th May 1881

Further details of the event and its aftermath were revealed in the Glasgow Herald, which reported that the pitch invasion had taken place in the 55th minute with the score still 0-0, and that the police in attendance had been forced to draw their batons and charge the mob. The extravagantly-named Bell's Life in London and Sporting Times criticised not only "the girls' utmost ignorance of the game," but also the men assigned to act as umpires, who were "even more ignorant of the simple rudiments of the Association rules.....there was never such a thing as a corner-flag kick allowed, although the leather was repeatedly sent behind the goal line by the defending side." The teams had planned to stage a further match on the following evening at Kilmarnock Portland FC, but after hearing of the events of Monday night the club refused to allow the use of their ground.

The Leeds Mercury commented; "Ladies' football has had an exceedingly short life, and not a very merry one.....Public feeling has demonstrated against the unseemly exhibition in such a manner that the authorities are now frowning down the innovation." This seeming obituary for women's football turned out to be premature. The lady footballers were not yet ready to give up, and on Saturday 21st May - only four days after their ordeal at Shawfields, they took the field at Hole-i'th'-wall - the home ground of Blackburn Olympic. The format was the same as in the previous two games; the teams were billed as England and Scotland, though according to the Blackburn Standard all the players came from Glasgow. The first half was goalless, and although each team managed to score early in the second half both goals were disallowed. Towards the end of the game a scrimmage took place in front of the Scottish goal, and the ball was forced into the net, giving a 1-0 victory to "England." A crowd of about 4,000 turned out to watch the encounter, and although one might expect there to have been a fair amount of heckling, there was no repetition of the violent scenes in Glasgow.

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Blackburn Standard - 28th May 1881

A match was scheduled at the Fairfield Athletic Grounds, Liverpool for the following Saturday, 28th May, but the few spectators who attended had to return home disappointed as the teams failed to turn up. The next report of their progress is dated 18th June - this time in Windhill, Bradford.

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Leeds Times - 18th June 1881

On 20th June 1881 the following notice appeared in the Manchester Guardian:

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Manchester Guardian - 20th June 1881

Whitsunday in 1881 had fallen on 5th June; it would seem that the teams' tour had been cut short, in view of the cancellation of this event and the earlier one in Liverpool. The Manchester Evening News gave a short account on the game which took place on Monday 20th June, which appeared to have been a re-enactment of the Shawfields fiasco.

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Manchester Evening News - 21st June 1881

The Tuesday night match appears to have incited even more riotous behaviour, to judge by the account in the Manchester Guardian.

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Manchester Guardian - 22nd June 1881

It is not known whether or not the match planned for Wednesday evening went ahead, but in view of the above report it seems unlikely. Furthermore, on this occasion it was not only the players' dignity which suffered, but their purses too, as the gate keeper at the match allegedly made off with the proceeds. Meanwhile, the Cheetham FC had distanced itself from the affair, a letter from the club Secretary having appeared in the Manchester Courier pointing out that the club only leased the ground, and had no connection whatsoever with the ladies' matches.

After a second near-riot one might have expected the lady footballers to call it a day, but once again they demonstrated their resolve, travelling straight from Manchester to Liverpool for two exhibition matches at the Cattle Market Athletic Grounds, Stanley. The games were scheduled for 25th and 27th June. The visit was advertised in the press as a return visit, which was rather disingenuous as they had failed to arrive for their earlier fixture on 28th May. This point was made in the report of the game in the Liverpool Mercury, which ascribed the small attendance to "the disappointment caused a few weeks ago by their failure to keep an engagement." The admission fee of one shilling would have played a large part too - this was far more than one would expect to pay to watch a top-class men's team at any time during the next forty years or so!

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Liverpool Mercury - 25th June 1881

The first match kicked off at 5pm on Saturday 25th June, and "Scotland" had by far the better of play, spending nearly the whole of the first period in their opponents' half of the pitch. They succeeded in making "several touchdowns and one goal." This is interesting; it is the first indication that the ladies played to anything other than association rules. In the second half the Scots made several more touchdowns, but the English, "by a spirited dash, managed to get the ball through and make a goal." Towards the end of the game the Scots scored a second goal and emerged 2-1 victors.

The second game, played on the following Monday, attracted a larger number of spectators, and at times "the feeling of nationality was strongly manifested by the onlookers," (who presumably did not realise that all the players came from Scotland). "Scotland" won once, this time by 2 goals to nil. It was announced that a further and final match would be played on Tuesday 28th June, but this was not reported in the press.

What became of these footballing pioneers thereafter remains to be discovered. It is quite likely that one or two further matches were played, but tracking down newspaper references to them is like hunting for a needle in a haystack, with the additional complication that no reports may actually exist. Many of the major newspapers simply ignored women footballers - and maintained this attitude well into the twentieth century. We can be fairly certain however that the involvement of these ladies in the game ceased with the end of their tour - the time was not yet right for regular women's soccer.

© Patrick Brennan - January 2008, December 2011

Summary of matches

1881-05-07Scotland 3
England 0
Played at Easter Road, Edinburgh
Scotland: Ethel Hay, Bella Osborne, Georgina Wright, Rose Rayman, Isa Stevenson, Emma Wright, Louise Cole, Lily St Clair, Maud Riweford, Carrie Balliol, Minnie Brymner
England: May Goodwin, Mabel Hopewell, Maud Hopewell, Maud Starling, Ada Everston, Geraldine Vintner, Mabel Vance, Eva Davenport, Minnie Hopewell, Kate Mellon, Nelly Sherwood.
1881-05-16Scotland 0
England 0
Played at Shawfields, Glasgow. (match abandoned after 55 minutes)
Scotland: Ethel Hay, Bella Osborne, Georgina Wright, Rose Raynham, Isa Stevenson, Louise Cole, Carrie Baliol, Emma Wright, Lily St Clare, Maud Riverford, Minnie Brymner
England: May Godwin, Mabel Bradbury, Maude Hopewell, Maude Starling, Ada Everston, Mabel Vance, Kate Mellor, Geraldine Ventnor, Eva Davenport, Minnie Hopewell, Nellie Sherwood.
1881-05-21Scotland 0
England 1
Played at Blackburn Olympic
1881-06-13Scotland 3
England 2
Played at Windhill, Bradford
1881-06-20score not reportedPlayed at Cheetham FC, Manchester
1881-06-21score not reportedPlayed at Cheetham FC, Manchester (match abandoned after 60 minutes)
1881-06-25Scotland 2
England 1
Played at the Cattle Market Inn Athletic Grounds, Stanley, Liverpool
1881-06-27Scotland 2
England 0
Played at the Cattle Market Inn Athletic Grounds, Stanley, Liverpool

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