It was under the grand portico of Exeter’s Guild Hall, a 16-century edifice supported by four granite Italianate columns, that the dreams of the British Ladies Football Club (BLFC) came to an end. 

Tired, hungry, longing for home, the players had reached the end of the line. A match at Newton Abbott days earlier had failed to attract a crowd. Whether this poor turn out was linked to a ban made that summer by the Devon FA under “section GL of English Laws” (whatever that might be) to the women playing games in the county is not clear. Two guineas had been spent securing a pitch in Exeter, but when their train was delayed the assembled crowd thought the match was off and went on their way. Coming on the back of a financially ruinous tour of Ireland the funds had run out in Devon.  At the police court an application for financial assistance to send six of the players home to London was rejected. While acknowledging their late train had caused their predicament, Great Western Railways refused to offer a reduced rate for the team to travel back.  The mayor was sympathetic to their plight but could offer no help: the Poor Box was intended for citizens, not outsiders, and other funds would only support the return of two players.

It was October 1896, the end of the advent of women’s football in Britain. BLFC had come a great distance in their short existence but had fallen as far as they had risen. Theirs had been a story of huge crowds, lavish media profiles, and great excitement, followed by crowd violence, sexism and now penury.

The players were spared the indignity of a jail cell: the Guildhall’s women’s prison had closed nine years earlier and were put up at a local tavern with the help of the YWCA. The press were scathing in their reaction. “This folly seems pretty well played out,” one paper, recorded, capturing a mood shared by several of other publications. “Such antics in petticoats only attract for a moment by reason of their novelty or expected impropriety, and when the novelty has gone and the impropriety fails to come, the business is off.” Another paper suggested that the ladies play another game against railwaymen to fund their fare home; another published a verse mocking their plight, entitled “Go Dribble No More”. 

The denizens of Exeter were, nevertheless, more sympathetic to the footballers’ plight than their mayor or the local press. A subscription was raised among locals and enough money raised to send them on their way. The short life of the BLFC was all but at an end, but their reputation would live on.

In an age in which female athletes are household names, deified, immortalised and sometimes even paid like their male counterparts, it is hard to imagine the status of women in sport in the late 19th century. Back then physical activities for women were recreational, non-competitive and informal, emphasising physical activity rather than competition. Notions of competitive sport were undermined by the idealisation of a woman’s modesty and ‘scientific reason’ that was fixated by the idea that physical exertion was a threat to female fertility. There were no female athletes at the first modern Olympics in Athens in 1896. When women started to encroach on male team sports, such as hockey, basketball and cricket, women’s dress and rules were created that differed from the norm of men’s games. Although cycling for leisure was becoming fashionable among the middle- and upper-classes by the 1890s, sport, as it existed for women, was the domain of well-to-do ladies: tennis, badminton, croquet and hockey. 

Cricket was the one exception. Women’s teams had played since the mid-18th century, particularly in Surrey and Sussex, where they drew large crowds and attracted heavy betting. Inter-village and even inter-county games were not uncommon and by the 1880s many girls schools had incorporated cricket into their curriculum. In the early 1890s two entrepreneurs formed The Original English Lady Cricketers, which initially generated enormous interest, at one point drawing a crowd of 15,000 to a match in Liverpool, before fading into obscurity in its second season of touring. 

Women’s football was not entirely unknown in Britain. In her history of women’s football, Professor Jean Williams of De Montfort University writes of women partaking in the footballing free-for-alls that came before the birth of the association game in 1863. There was a series of England v Scotland women’s games in Scotland, Blackburn and Liverpool in 1881-82 and later matches recorded in Inverness in 1888 and Glasgow in 1892. There had also been an attempt to start a women’s team in Plumstead, then the home of Woolwich Arsenal, in 1892, but that seemingly came to nothing too. But on a competitive basis? To make money? The idea was an alien notion, until the intervention of one Nettie Honeyball in October 1894.

It is not entirely clear who Nettie Honeyball was, or indeed whether she was a real person or simply – like many of her teammates – a pseudonym. The version put forward by the US academic James F Lee is that she was born in 1873, the daughter of an upwardly mobile Pimlico upholsterer. Little is known about her childhood, but it seems as if she and her elder siblings were able to complete their education rather than be called to help with the family business. By the early 1890s, Nettie was living in Weston Park, a middle-class enclave in the rapidly expanding north London suburb of Crouch End. It is not known if she followed her family, but the move was in keeping with the late Victorian suburbanisation of London. 

She first emerges into public consciousness in October 1894, placing advertisements in London newspapers asking women to play for a newly formed women’s club. This wasn’t about leisure, this was about making money. From the outset the club had a business manager, who sometimes doubled up as a referee, named Alfred Hewitt Smith. Honeyball’s brother was the tour organiser. Honeyball described herself as the “organiser”. Because of an absence of teams to play against, the BLFC was divided into the North and the South. There was a serious approach to the club as indicated by the decision to hire a professional trainer. John William Julian was a former professional with Woolwich Arsenal and the first player also to play for Tottenham. He coached Luton and had a business as a football and athletic outfitter.

Honeyball comes across as a forthright and determined advocate of women in sport and society. She was, recorded one interviewer, “a thoughtful-looking young lady, with a strong personality” who immediately “dispelled the notion of burlesque.” 

“There is nothing of the farcical nature about the British Ladies’ Football Club,” Honeyball told an interviewer from the Sketch in February 1895. “I founded the association late last year with the fixed resolve of proving to the world that women are not ‘ornamental and useless’ creatures men have pictured.” She went on to discuss her belief in political emancipation of women so that they may all sit in parliament. She and her teammates hadn’t previously played organised football, she confessed “but like myself had gained all their experience and love of football from frequent onlooking.” 

Perhaps Nettie Honeyball’s political convictions were strengthened by Lady Florence Dixie, a member of one of the most newsworthy and notorious aristocratic families of the Victorian era, who had accepted the invitation – probably from Honeyball – to be the BLFC’s president. Dixie was the younger sister of the ninth Marquess of Queensbury, soon to be forever entwined with Oscar Wilde in one of the most notorious trials of the era – of which more later. 

Dixie was no stranger to controversy herself and was well known for her advocacy of a number of political viewpoints considered radical in Victorian Britain: from family planning to animal rights and Irish Home Rule to the rights of Zulus in South Africa. At the same time she enjoyed popularity as a novelist and travel writer and had served as a war correspondent during the First Boer War. She was forthright that the acceptance of the BLFC presidency was “predicated upon the principles of the club [coinciding] with my publicly expressed ideas and well known advocacy of rational dress for women.”  

“Straight-jacket attire in which fashions delight to clothe [women]” – such as corsets, long skirts and hats – should be “relegated to limbo” she believed. “If the British public will only give encouragement to the idea, which is now being put into practice, of football for women it would soon take hold and become an approved custom,” she wrote.

Because of her prominence as a public figure and writer, Dixie brought significant public attention to the BLFC. At times that could be a double-edged sword. Plans to play a match in early 1895 were repeatedly confounded by the weather which, according to the Met Office, in January that year was “very cold and changeable with frequent falls of snow and temperatures considerably below normal”. February, meanwhile, was “intensely cold, with frequent snow showers”. This didn’t stop the BLFC’s failure to kick off from being lampooned in the press. “The Ladies Football Club have been defeated – we make haste to add by the weather” sniped the Daily Graphic. Punch published its alternative “Rules of the LFC: “Matches shall under no circumstances be played between the months of September and May” was one of the 16 dictats. “The goals shall consist of two large marquees, in which the respective captains, assisted by other lady-members, shall preside over afternoon tea and ices,” was another. A Pall Mall correspondent wrote, “Before you can get to the football you must run and it is certainly necessary to learn to run before you can play football…. Has any ever seen a woman run gracefully or fast?”  

If the mantra of all publicity being good publicity appealed to Honeyball’s entrepreneurial spirit, such negative attitudes went counter to her and Dixie’s determination to convince people that women could play football. “The Husbands? What have they got to do with it?” asked Honeyball when pressed on this particular point by the Westminster Gazette. “Why shouldn’t ladies play football as well as men? I may tell you we are all homely girls… We play the game in the proper spirit.” In the future Dixie believed “football will be considered as natural a game for girls as for boys… Football is the sport for women, the pastime of all others which will ensure health and assist in destroying the hydra-headed monster, the present dress of women.” 

‘Rational dressing’ was a cause célèbre for feminists of the day. Everyday life for women in a hat, skirt or corset as fashion demanded was restrictive and difficult.  But playing football – or just about any sport - was just about impossible. Women cricketers were faced with the regular dilemma of whether to go for the ball or hold onto their hat. Hockey games ground to a halt because balls would be lost up skirts. The BLFC, by contrast, wanted no “la di da” members. Its “lithe, agile football teams”, would, wrote Dixie, “play in dark blue knickers and cardinal and pale blue blouses”. Their kits would be a statement of intent – practical, sensible, even ‘masculine’ when compared to the outfits other sportswomen wore – and challenge gender norms off the sporting field. They might have ultimately represented a small victory in challenging restrictive clothing, but they were a step on the path to more radical change in how women dressed. 

On 23 March 1895, after months of delays and postponements and a practice game on the Aston Lower Grounds in Birmingham, the BLFC finally played their inaugural match. The venue was Alexandra Park, Crouch End, a short distance from Nettie Honeyball’s home; a request to play at Kennington Oval, home of Surrey County Cricket Club but also the venue of the FA Cup final until earlier in the decade, had been turned down by Charles Alcock, the FA’s secretary. Their North versus South encounter was the second game of a double header. At 3pm a men’s match between Crouch End Athletic and the Third Grenadier Guards was played. Entrance to the two matches was a shilling, but there was no question what the main attraction was.

“From three o’clock onwards they came and came,” the Westminster Budget noted. “The procession,” between 3 and 4pm, reported the Hornsey and Finsbury Park Journal, “was close to continuous.” By kick-off, spectators were crowded around the pitch in swarms, with some climbing trees to gain a vantage point. Estimates varied on the turn out: one newspaper put it as low as 5-6000, another as high as 11,000; most put it at around 10,000 – a crowd that far exceeded the hoped-for attendance of 2000. They watched as Nettie Honeyball, playing at right-back, led the North out as captain to “a roar of cheering which would have done no discredit to an international or cup final encounter.”  

What the assembled crowd saw initially bore more than a hint of farce. At half-time the score was 2-1 to the North, but all three goals were own goals. Alice Hicks, a South forward, scored the opener and Misses Lewis (South) and Thiere (North) followed her by putting into their own net. The South’s goalkeeper “stood musing over the unreasonableness of it all, and overlooked the trifling fact that she was a goalkeeper.” As the second half got underway there were signs of fatigue among the South team. Miss Clarence, the South goalkeeper, scored a fourth own goal and asked the referee if it still counted. Mrs Graham, the North goalkeeper, attracted praise from the watching reporters, suggesting it wasn’t the quite the one-way traffic the final 7-1 score suggested. 

The game was a qualified success; the vast crowd and the estimated £500 receipts pointing to the commercial potential of women’s football. Nettie Honeyball had spoken in the lead up to the match of her hope that the players expenses up to then would be recouped and that had patently been realised. After the first game the players received a timepiece and a copy of Florence Dixie’s book about a feminist utopia, Gloriana. Miss Fenn, one of the players, kept hers until she died in 1933. 

But at a time when there were very active debates on professionalism in football, with some sneering at it as encroaching upon the De Coubertin ethos of sport, the idea of playing for financial gain was anathema to many among the middle class. That the participants would be of the same social class and were women as well was almost unspeakable. 

Yet many of those spectators had abandoned the game before the end and one paper expressed sympathy for the ladies among them because some of the remarks “were of a horrifying character”. It wasn’t just the paying public had decided the women weren’t up to the task, the press waded in with criticism. The standard of play was a “joke”, a “farce”, no more than a “novelty” evoking “shrieks of laughter”, played out by players who “had not the slightest qualification to take to the field.” 

“To say football was played would be stating more than the real truth,” reported The Standard. “The match was little more than a burlesque.” 

In the run up to this first match there had been an inordinate amount of attention placed on the physique of the women players. Women alternatively “waddled like a duck or like a chicken” wrote the pseudonymous ‘No Goal’. Honeyball was asked about the players’ weights (“I scale 11 stone, the average is 10.”) and size. Those players who cycled were naturally “more nimble”, another player from Woolwich “could kick like a Corinthian.”

But the game did raise the BLFC’s profile. News of the Crouch End match spread far beyond London. Capitalising on this interest, Honeyball, who described herself as “captain and promoter”, embarked upon a lengthy and what must have at times been an exhausting tour of Britain. North and South met again in Brighton a fortnight after the inaugural match; this time 6,000 people saw the North prevail 8-3. When BLFC met again as Reds v Blues in Bury on April 13, they drew 3-3. Over the following three weeks the BLFC played 15 times in places as far and wide as Reading, Walsall, Darwen and Greenwich. 8,000 saw them play at St James’ Park in Newcastle, but just 1,000 turned out in Paisley, where they played 24 hours after a game in south London. 

The touring team was treated as something of a circus. Some of the host clubs scheduled preliminary warm-up matches or hired brass bands to entertain the crowds. They had separate entrance fees for women and children – usually around 3d versus the 6d a man would pay to enter – to lift the attendance. Reporters would frequently remark on the number of female spectators; in Falkirk, for example, “never was there such a large turnout of the fair sex at a football match in the country.” After the game, the clubs often provided entertainment for the players: the Doncaster Rovers’ committee took them out for a night at the theatre; in Paisley they were taken to a burlesque show. Where it was recorded, the take for the touring club was anything between £20 and £54, although the financial arrangements for some of the larger matches were not disclosed. Each player was given the grand sum of 5 shillings per appearance. 

The role of Lady Florence Dixie, beyond lending her name to the team and writing a few editorials, is not clear but it is certain that her fame and notoriety attracted media interest and never was she or her family more in the public eye than the spring of 1895. The British press have always loved stories about aristocratic skulduggery and no story about British bluebloods was bigger in the late Victorian era than that involving her nephew, Alfred Douglas, better known as ‘Bosie’ – Oscar Wilde’s lover. 

Douglas’s father, the Marquess of Queensbury, had been enraged by the men’s affair and in February that year had left a calling card at Wilde’s London club reading, “For Oscar Wilde, posing as Somdomite [sic]”. Wilde foolishly sued for criminal libel, a case that he lost and which left him bankrupt. He was then prosecuted and imprisoned for gross indecency. The cases – and all the various subplots involving the extended Douglas family – were played out over the spring of 1895, the high tide of the BLFC. Dixie, of course, had been born a Douglas and any of her public pronouncements, even those on football, were considered newsworthy.

Wherever they went, the BLFC attracted significant local newspaper interest. This, of course, was a boon ahead of their matches and something Honeyball capitalised on. But the post-match response was invariably dismissive, reeking of sexism and complaints about the women’s lack of athleticism. “The game is not a womanly game and it will not catch on,” said the Paisley and Renfrewshire Gazette. “Let them look to their hop-scotch and skipping ropes, and leave cricket and football to the boys,” wrote the Blackburn Times. In Newcastle a reporter bemoaned the lack of running and an inability “to kick the ball every time they attempted to do so.” 

The reporters echoed – in a politer way – discord from parts of the crowds. At Walsall there was “profane and disgusting” language, in Paisley the “good-natured” criticisms were “quite unfit for publication”. In Maidenhead, Honeyball complained that the players were insulted by youths and boys on leaving the ground, while in Paisley and Edinburgh the police were forced to intervene to hold back exuberant supporters at the end of the game. Indeed, this appeared to be the high point of the BLFC. Around the May Day Bank Holiday there appear to have been four teams, one pair playing at St Mirren, another at Turf Moor. The combined attendance for the two games was 10,000. 

Once the novelty had worn off, interest in the women footballers started to peter out. When the BLFC played at South Shields on 18 May, just 500 turned up to see them play. The 8,000 who had attended down the road at Newcastle four weeks earlier seemed a long way away. Few of those, it would seem, were repeat customers. “Knickers don’t necessarily make kickers,” sniped one local newspaper.

And yet, whenever they went to new territories they attracted large numbers. A match in Belfast in June 1895 was said to have attracted 10,000 spectators and afterwards the women were “dragged in triumph through the principal streets of the town.” “Probably the most original and most daring specimen of the New Woman is the lady footballers,” said the Belfast Newsletter. Playing football, reported its correspondent, was a declaration of her rights by choosing whatever sport she wishes and “taste in costume she wears even should that be in antagonism of prevalent taste and the traditions of female proprietary.” An invitation came for them to play in Paris, which Honeyball’s brother, who was acting as tour manager, told reporters they would probably accept. No record, though, exists of any such game. 

Some time over the summer of 1895 there appears to have been a split in the BLFC. Was the pressure of such an intense schedule and diminishing attendances at the heart of the dispute, or was it something else? Were players suddenly asking hard questions about where the money was going?

In July 1895, with funds running low, a poor attendance at a game in Lancaster saw their manager leave with the gate money and the players were left “absolutely penniless in a strange town” and forced to walk to their next match in Kendal, a distance of some 20 miles. The manager, it would appear, was Nettie Honeyball’s brother. Nettie herself disappears from view here. Whether she retired her pseudonym or simply quit women’s football altogether is not clear, but it seems most likely that she reinvented herself under another nom de guerre – perhaps because of what had happened in Lancashire or maybe because she was fed up with the criticism she faced under her old name. At the same time Lady Florence Dixie withdrew her support from women’s football.

In the autumn of 1895, two rival clubs toured Britain, both claiming to be “The Original Lady Footballers.”  They were led by Mrs Graham – the BLFC’s goalkeeper – and a new name, Miss Nellie Hudson. Was Nellie Hudson the reincarnation of Nettie Honeyball? When speaking to the press, Mrs Graham always referred to their rivals as “Miss Honeyball’s team” indicating that Nettie was still involved despite not being mentioned in pre-publicity or match line ups. Newspapers sometimes hinted that the true identities of some of the players would “surprise” their fans, which adds credence to the idea that she was still involved.

Indeed, the mystery of Nettie Honeyball’s identity was probably quite prosaic.  In November 1895, after receiving criticism from the Archdeacon of Manchester while playing in Rochdale, a Miss Jessie Allen, claiming to be the secretary of the British Ladies’ Football Club, sent a riposte to the Manchester Courier from 27 Weston Park, Crouch End – the home of ‘Nettie Honeyball’.

As the women’s football historian Patrick Brennan writes: “Frederick Smith, Arthur’s brother, and Jessie Mary Ann Allen were married on 26 August 1893 at St Jude’s Church, Islington. Jessie, born in 1870, was the daughter of Samuel Allen, a Wine Cooper of 12 Canterbury Road, Islington. Many of the Lady Footballers performed under pseudonyms, and it would appear that ‘Nettie Honeyball’ was the pseudonym adopted by Jessie Smith (née Allen). It is quite possible that ‘Miss Nellie Hudson’ was another of her aliases, but this cannot at this point in time be proven… During the ladies’ tour of Wales in November 1895 Jessie Allen was reported as being the secretary pro tem of the club, due to the illness of Miss Honeyball. My opinion is that Jessie had simply decided to dispense with the Honeyball alias due to the trolling (not a modern phenomenon) she had been receiving from ‘Mrs Graham’.”

The divided teams continued to play, initially with some success.  In November they appeared in Wales for the first time, beginning a tour in Cardiff. 2000 saw them the same month in Ipswich. The following month there were games in Lancashire and Nottinghamshire. Even as late as December that year they were able to rent out Nottingham’s Trent Bridge for one of their exhibitions. 

Honeyball’s replacement as the leading light in women’s football was Mrs Graham, who had performed ably as a goalkeeper and outfield player on these early tours and then led the breakaway team. She was quick to draw a distinction between her leadership and that of her predecessor. “We have nothing to do with Miss Honeyball or Mr Smith her manager,” she told the Bedfordshire Advertiser in a tone of “indignant denial” in November 1895. Graham, who was the daughter of a Scottish sea captain, had been born at sea and settled in Liverpool. Her real name was Helen Mathew and she and her sister reported on and illustrated matches for the Liverpool and Preston newspapers under pseudonym ‘Lothian Lasses’. She had a brother who was a reserve for Preston North End and subsequently played for Liverpool South End and her cousins played as halves for Millwall. Even in their journalistic career they attracted disdain for “disliking Everton so much” and being so “gushing” in their praise of Preston that one wit pondered whether the pair would end up playing centre-forward for the Lilywhites.

The star player of Mrs Graham’s XI was Daisy Allen who, it was frequently alleged, was a boy and was universally known as ‘Tommy’. Mrs Graham claimed that she was the 14-year-old daughter of another player, Mrs Richardson. After the split, Graham accused the rival team of having a fake Tommy to attract crowds.

Where there had been largely if somewhat condescending goodwill, by 1896 this had dissipated. Mrs Graham’s XI consisted of a single XI that would play a variety of opponents. Often this was a London XI, who were thought to be remnants of the old squad, but sometimes included male teams that they met on tour. Did this affect the quality on offer? Certainly the tenor of the reports offered harsher judgement as time went on. 

A scan of reports of some of their fixtures in Scotland that year reveals: “poor playing” in Perth, “an amusing game but not much skill” in Falkirk and “a miserable exhibition” at Tollcross. The Archdeacon of Manchester called their match “a disgrace to the town”. 

Nevertheless, it was the reaction of opponents and crowds that elicited the biggest change. The sexism and jokes of the past had become something more insidious, with opponents and spectators increasingly turning to violence. In Birmingham in April an England v France Ladies game set up by the Midlands Football Association was abandoned after locals stormed the gates. 

When the promoter refused to refund those who had paid to come in there was violence and jostling of the players. In Irvine one of the players received a black eye from a male opponent and fans later invaded the pitch. When they would not leave the game was abandoned. 

Nine days later, in Glasgow, a mob attacked the women as they were returning to their hotel post-match. The “Glasgow half-breeds,” one of the outraged players wrote, were a “disgrace to civilisation.”  

In Edinburgh, the Evening Dispatch reported “a mob, numbering several thousands, attacked the cabs conveying the women from the field, smashing the windows.” Police charged the crowd with truncheons and were bombarded with stones and other missiles. 

“The cabmen who drove us to the station came in for several serious blows,” a player, writing as ‘One of the Lady Footballers’ in the same paper recorded. “Three windows were smashed, two of the ladies, including Mrs Graham, were injured by stones – Mrs Graham being stunned – and then, in protecting the face of one of the players from a couple of sharp flints, she received a badly cut and bruised hand and arm in addition.” She blamed the groundsman for opening the gates before the end of the game and “letting in the rabble – gathered presumably from the slums.” 

There were increasing problems off the field too. On 25 June Mrs Graham was successfully sued in the Wishaw small-debt court by J W McMillan of Largs, for £7 of butcher meat, and by John Paton of Skelmorlie, for £1 1s 9d representing 29 mornings milk at 9d per morning.  On 16 July 1896 the Belfast Newsletter reported that “the lady football team is at Gourock in a destitute condition, where Mrs Graham, their captain, is down with scarlet fever.”

Worse was to come for the rival BLFC team that toured the West Country: a match at Wellington, Somerset, on 19 September, was described as “a complete fiasco”, By the time they reached Exeter a couple of weeks later they were out of money and out of luck: a succession of bad weather, late trains and diminishing interest had caused matches to be abandoned, missed or badly attended. Forced to go the mayor for charity, it was the kindness of the people of Exeter that finally saw them sent on their way to London.  

Periodically there were talks of a reunion, but like an old rock band that had fallen out these events were sparsely attended or failed to materialise. There were rumours of a joint “tour of the colonies” but no evidence exists to suggest that it ever happened. In 1900 Helen Graham, under her real name, Helen Matthew, appeared in court in Liverpool over an unpaid debt to a sports outfitter dating back four years.  

With the lingering whiff of financial impropriety and the volatile tour of 1896, the BLFC slid into obscurity. Nevertheless, what happened next was surprising. On 25 October 1902, the FA Council passed a motion brought by J Albert of the London FA forbidding all affiliated associations to permit their players to participate in matches against lady football teams. The timing is a mystery: Florence Dixie had retreated from football and, to a large extent, public view; Nettie Honeyball and her various pseudonyms had not been heard from for years and the BLFC had played just a single game in five years.

The ban killed any lingering hopes of a revival. When there was a Gents v Ladies game under the BLFC banner at Biggleswade in 1903, the Bedfordshire club did everything they could to show that they didn’t support the game – including refusing to put up the goal nets – lest they face sanction by the FA. There was a game recorded in 1905 in Kings Lynn, the year of Dixie’s death, with some of the original players still in the team, but thereafter the trail goes cold. 

There was a resurgence of interest in women’s football during the First World War and in its aftermath Dick, Kerr Ladies played out to crowds often in tens of thousands on both sides of the Atlantic. The FA took similarly dim view of their endeavours as they had the BLFC though this time moved more swiftly. On 5 December 1921, the FA banned its members from allowing women’s football to be played at their grounds and also forbade them from officiating women’s games, creating another major hurdle. Effectively they killed the women’s game overnight. 

Explaining their decision, the FA released a statement in which it concluded that football was “quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged.” Some medical professionals spoke on their behalf and claimed the sport posed a serious physical risk to women. But perhaps the real reason lay further down their statement. “An excessive proportion of the [gate] receipts are absorbed in expenses and an inadequate percentage devoted to charitable objects” – in essence they didn’t like women making money from playing the game. No male teams ever underwent such scrutiny of how their gate receipts were spent.

As always, the FA councillors saw their roles on the body as something of a job for life and some had sat on the council some quarter of a century earlier when the BLFC had been at their peak. Their negative attitudes to the women’s game would have hardened with Dick, Kerr Ladies, but would have extended back to the days of BLFC. Back then, the Honeyballs and Grahams and Smiths and ‘Tommy’s had all faced the same conundrum: if a woman excelled at football and played with skill, energy and agility she was a freak, and even had her sex questioned; but if she played as expected, that is poorly, then she conformed to the stereotype as weak and feminine while at the same time “diminishing” the game. Alas, such attitudes would linger.