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From the Archive: The Turbulent History of Women’s Football in The Illustrated London News

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Authored by Alice Broome
Published on 5th October, 2023 16 min read

From the Archive: The Turbulent History of Women’s Football in The Illustrated London News

It must be clear to everybody that girls are totally unfitted for the rough work of the football-field.[1]

Founded in 1842, The Illustrated London News (ILN) became a pioneer in global print media. It was the first illustrated magazine in the world and in 1855 it printed the first colour newspaper. The ILN later acquired and launched several other publications (such as The Graphic and The Sphere), producing some of the most remarkable media content of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These publications documented key events and developments in British and world history. British Online Archives hosts the archives of the The Illustrated London News, containing over one million images and over 20,000 issues. This article delves into the archives of the ILN in order to chart the development of attitudes towards women’s football. It showcases material drawn from the following collections: The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 1874–1970, The Sketch, 1893–1958, and Illustrated War News, 1914–1918 & 1939.

Women’s football is currently experiencing a much anticipated revival. According to Sky Sports, the Women’s Super League, the highest league in England, attracted sixteen million unique viewers in 2022.[2] This was a fourteen per cent increase on the previous high recorded in 2021.[3] Yet these developments make up just a small part of the long and turbulent history of women’s football in England.

The Sketch, 24 October 1894.

Evidence of women playing football can be found as far back as the 1500s. Yet the first officially recorded game occurred in 1881 at Easter Road in Edinburgh, the home of Hibernian F. C.[4] The game was contested by “Scotland” and “England”. The nationalities of the players have since been questioned, however, and some theories suggest that the event was akin to a theatre show, with the players acting out the game.[5] It took more than ten years after this match before a formal ladies football team was established.[6] Print media at the time took an interest in the sport and chose to report on women’s football. Somewhat unsurprisingly, articles focused predominantly on the players’ appearances[7]. The extract above, taken from The Sketch in 1894, shows drawings of various key moments within a match. The drawings, however, show very little football being played. Instead, they focus on the outfits and appearance of the players — take, for instance, the “Good Looking Goal-Keeper” in the bottom left illustration. This source is indicative of the disparity that existed at that time in terms of the levels of respect that existed towards the men’s game in contrast to the women’s game. Women were routinely subject to aesthetic scrutiny. Their skills or tactics were deemed either incidental or non-existent.

In 1894 the first formal ladies team, the British Ladies’ Football Club (BLFC), was formed in London. It was managed by Alfred Hewitt Smith and captained by Nettie J. Honeyball.[8] The initial response was fairly positive, with The Sketch running a “Feminine Footballers” article in February 1895. The team was described as “the sporting sensation of the hour’.[9] If “energy and enthusiasm can command success”, the article continued, “then surely is the association already preassured of victory”.[10] As is evident in the article, women’s determination to play football went hand in hand with their campaigning and desire for other rights. Miss Honeyball confessed to looking forward to the day “when ladies may sit in Parliament”.[11] Football, then, was just another arena where women were battling for equality.

The Sketch, 6 February 1895.

As mentioned in The Sketch, the British Ladies’ Football Club were training hard ahead of their exhibition match “North vs. South”, held at the Crouch End ground. The same S. D. B. who penned the above article attended the match and followed-up with a post-match analysis article, which is reproduced below. The reporter’s opinion took a drastic shift after watching the match. They described the event as a “huge farce”.[12] Indeed, the author fell into the trap of focusing on the appearances of the players: “they certainly made a pretty picture”.[13] The language and tone deployed in this article once again evidences a lack of understanding of the history of women’s football and, moreover, of the pioneering nature of this event. The British Ladies’ Football Club players had only started playing the game just months before this match. Yet their skill and strength was compared to that of male players, who had been playing for much of their lives. This comparison is unfair and disregards the effort expended by the female team in order to improve their football through training. The match was deemed abysmal by the reporter. “Let not the British Ladies misconstrue the enormous attendance into a sign of public approval”, this journalist wrote. They went on to argue that

people had attended out of curiosity. Now that the novelty has worn off — its only charm — it would not attract tens where on Saturday it drew thousands. It must be clear to everybody that girls are totally unfitted for the rough work of the football-field.[14]

The Sketch, 27 March 1895

The Sketch, 27 March 1895

The condescending attitude adopted by the reporter who attended the “North vs. South” match was replicated across other ILN publications. Just three days after The Sketch ran it’s article on the match, The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News likewise published a post-match analysis. Exhibiting the same general lack of understanding of the pioneering nature of the match as did S. D. B. at The Sketch, the author wrote that the “so-called football match played on Saturday last at Crouch End by the British Ladies’ Football Club (or what-ever they style themselves) was a most pitiable exhibition”.[15] “It had about as much resemblance to football”, they continued, “as the first lesson to a child of six playing with a fifteen-inch bat and a squash ball in the nursery bears to the cricket of Grace or Stoddart.”[16] Again, the writer failed to appreciate the context of the match and held the players to the same standards as men, despite the latter having considerable advantages given the popularity of men’s football at the time. This negative publicity no doubt harmed the development of the women’s game, which prior to the match had generated much anticipation and excitement.

The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 30 March 1895.

Although the match occurred in March, this did not stop the ridicule continuing throughout the remainder of the year. The extract below, published in September 1895, still criticised and mocked women’s football on the basis of the same match. According to the author of the article, the exhibition match was proof that “ladies cannot play football, never will be able to, and would do themselves no good if they could.”[17] So once again we can identify a trend whereby commentators attempted to push women out of sports deemed to be designed for men. The blatant bias of reporters with regard to men makes it difficult to ascertain what really happened during the match. For example, there were reports that the players did not know the rules, despite the captain Honeyball stressing the amount of training and preparation that had preceded the match, a process that was aided by professional male players from Millwall.[18]

The Sketch, 11 September 1895.

Despite this ridicule, women continued to play football. Their determination was rewarded during the First World War. Women’s football in the 1910s and 1920s hardly seems significant, especially when considering the response to women’s football in the 1890s and the cultural context of women’s perceived social role in this era. Yet the First World War prompted a questioning of these norms. With men fighting at the front, women stepped into “men’s roles” to keep the country moving, thus proving that women were as capable as men. This applied to football too.

The Illustrated War News, 4 April 1917.

Sport and factory work became inseparable during the Industrial Revolution — football was encouraged to promote health and wellbeing, as well as to develop comradery and to boost morale.[19] Football teams were centred upon workplaces. As women entered factories during the First World War, they too joined factory-based football teams. The above extract, lifted from The Illustrated War News, shows a football match between the fuse-making department and the “Mechanicals” from the same munitions factory. In the same way as it had for men, football proved an enjoyable respite from the hard and often dangerous work in a factory. It is estimated that around 150 women’s teams were up and running by 1921.[20]

The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 10 November 1917.

In stark contrast to the reporting on women’s football discussed previously, the presentation of women’s football in print media took a positive turn during the First World War. The above extract from The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News describes women’s football as coming along “leaps and bounds”.[21] The team pictured — one of many women’s teams that flourished in this period — were regarded as playing “serious football”[22], a significant departure from earlier descriptions of women’s football that featured in the same publication.

The Sketch, 3 November 1920.

In the post-war period, women’s football continued to increase in popularity up and down the country. Attendance levels and support likewise began to rival that of the men’s game. The above article proclaimed that there “is no doubt that the number of “fans” of the game will soon increase enormously when the new Association becomes as well known as the more old-fashioned, manly form of Soccer”.[23] Despite the insistence on women’s football being less “manly”, print media did recognise the shift in support towards women’s football and predicted that this popularity would only increase as the sport became more established. Arguably, the most popular factory-based team from this period was Dick, Kerr’s Ladies F.C., based in Preston.[24] By 1920 the club were internationally renowned and, on Boxing Day of the same year, their game against St. Helens was played in front of 53,000 spectators at Goodison Park, with a further 14,000 people locked outside the gate.[25] This was an attendance record that stood until the London 2012 Olympics when 70,584 people watched Team GB beat Brazil at Wembley.[26] The current English women’s football attendance record stands at 87,192.[27] This was set when England beat Germany at Wembley to win the Euros in 2022.[28]

Up until the 1920s women’s football primarily took the form of charity matches, raising money for the war effort.[29] Because these were irregular, they did not appear to pose any threat to the men’s game. Yet as women’s football became more popular and the games more regular, the Football Association (F.A.) declared that “the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged.”[30] It would seem that this ban was a knee-jerk reaction to the rising popularity of women’s football. Moreover, the decision highlights the determination of the F.A. to prevent women from challenging gender norms. As such, it prohibited women’s teams from playing in the same stadiums as the men’s teams and from using their training facilities.[31] Women’s football was therefore effectively banned in 1921. While some teams continued to play on rugby grounds and the England Ladies’ F.A. was formed for amateur teams, the ban by the F.A. proved fatal. Women’s football lost much, if not all, of the support it had garnered during and after the war.

It was fifty years before the ban was lifted (in 1971). The argument could be made that women’s football is still recovering.[32] Looking back, women certainly had the talent, determination, and support to grow the game. The imposition of the F.A. ban, however, meant that women’s teams faced an uphill battle. Similar to the 1890s, being constantly compared to men’s football, which has had a significant head start, does not help the situation.

Despite historical setbacks, women’s football has experienced significant growth over the past twenty years. There are ever more young players, female coaches, and wider support. This trend is predicted to continue, following on from the success of the 2019 World Cup. The England Women’s Team (Lionesses) finished fourth and inspired 850,000 more women to sign up to play the sport in England.[33] The Lionesses have since gone on to win the 2022 Euros and to reach the final of this year’s World Cup (2023). These successes will almost certainly encourage more people to support women’s football in England.

Supporters are certainly turning to women’s football in droves. An increase in the accessibility of the sport has catalysed this trend. Women’s games are now being shown on television regularly. 2021/22 was the first year that Sky Sports held a domestic broadcast deal for the Women’s Super League, resulting in a 171% increase in viewing figures.[34] Following on from the Lionesses’ 2022 Euros victory, this success has continued with an audience growth of 70% for the Women’s Super League this season.[35] Following it’s (overdue) apology for banning the game that was issued in 2008, the F.A. are now doing more to support women’s football. For example, in January 2020 it started paying the national teams the same wages.[36]

Yet there is still much to do. The increasing number of supporters and young female players is admirable and exciting. That said, comparable growth is also needed with regard to infrastructure, coaching staff, pay, and, moreover, general respect for the game if women’s football is to reach the heights that it deserves.

 

[1] The Sketch, 27 March 1895.

[2] “WSL main driving force behind rise in viewing time for women's sport in 2022”, Sky Sports, 2 February 2023, https://www.skysports.com/more-sports/football/news/29876/12805971/wsl-main-driving-force-behind-rise-in-viewing-time-for-womens-sport-in-2022#:~:text=The%20WSL%20was%20the%20main,of%2032.9m%20in%202021. 

[3] Ibid. 

[4] The F.A., “The Story of Women’s Football in England”, The F.A., n.d., Kicking Down Barriers - The story of women's football in England (thefa.com).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Eleanor Dickens, “The history of women's football in the UK”, British Library, 23 October 2020, The history of women's football in the UK | The British Library (bl.uk).

[7] Ibid.

[8] The F.A., “The Story of Women’s Football in England”.

[9] The Sketch, 6 February 1895.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] The Sketch, 27 March 1895.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 30 March 1895.

[16] Ibid.

[17] The Sketch, 11 September 1895.

[18] Eleanor Dickens, “The history of women's football in the UK”.

[19] The F.A., “The Story of Women’s Football in England”. 

[20] Izzie Jones, “The forgotten history of women’s football”, Evening Standard, 29 July 2022.

[21] The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 10 November 1917.

[22] Ibid.

[23] The Sketch, 3 November 1920.

[24] The F.A., “The Story of Women’s Football in England”.

[25] Sky History, “When Women’s Football was Bigger than men’s”, n.d., https://www.history.co.uk/articles/when-womens-football-was-bigger-than-mens; Jenny Coleman, “The Boxing Day game that changed women’s football”, BBC, 26 December 2020, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-merseyside-55429876.

[26]  Suzanne Wrack, “How the FA banned women’s football in 1921 and tried to justify it”, The Guardian, 13 June 2022.

[27] Jessy Parker Humphreys, “Ranked! The 14 biggest women's football attendances ever”, Four Four Two, 15 May 2023, https://www.fourfourtwo.com/features/the-5-biggest-attendances-in-womens-football. 

[28] Ibid.

[29] Sky History, “When Women’s Football was Bigger than men’s”.

[30] The F.A., “The Story of Women’s Football in England”.

[31] Izzie Jones, “The forgotten history of women’s football”.

[32] Ibid.

[33] BBC, “England's Women's World Cup run inspires growth in football participation”, BBC, 5 November 2019, https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/50300768.

[34] Josh Sim, “Sky Sports sees 70% increase in TV audiences for Women’s Super League”, SportsPro, 1 December 2022, https://www.sportspromedia.com/news/sky-sports-womens-super-league-soccer-increase-tv-audiences/?zephr_sso_ott=LxNGrA. 

[35] Ibid.

[36] Tony Leighton, “FA apologies for 1921 ban”, The Guardian, 11 February 2008; Louise Taylor, “England women's and men's teams receive same pay, FA reveals”, The Guardian, 3 September 2020.


Authored by Alice Broome

Alice Broome

Alice Broome is an Editorial Assistant at British Online Archives. She is a Philosophy, Politics, and Economics graduate from the University of York.


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The British Online Archives blog is a platform for scholars to present their research to students and the general public. The posts cover a range of historical themes and debates from around the world. The opinions expressed represent those of the authors, not British Online Archives or Microform.

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