The 1925 Dick Kerr Ladies football team stood in a line in front of a goal net and goal posts
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The History of Women’s Football in England

From playing in bloomers and boots to the Lionesses' Euros victory, discover how women's football in England has changed over the centuries.

Following England’s win at the UEFA Women’s Euro final in 2022, and the number of tickets sold for the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup hitting a record-breaking 1.5 million, women’s football is more popular than ever.

However, this hasn’t always been the case. While records show women have been keen footballers for centuries, there has been significant resistance to women’s football throughout history.

Here we explore the origins and struggles for women’s rights to play ‘the beautiful game’ in England.

When did women’s football start?

References to football in England can be traced back to the reign of King Edward II, where large crowds would gather to play on roads and fields across the country.

A few centuries later, the sport began to appear in literature, with Shakespeare mentioning it in ‘The Comedy of Errors’ (1594) and ‘King Lear’ (1608).

A black and white photograph of 11 women standing behind one another on a beach with their arms in the air. One woman is holding a football in the air.
Plymouth Ladies Football Team training on the beach, 1920. © Firebird / Alamy Stock Photo.

In Sir Philip Sidney’s poem, ‘A Dialogue Between Two Shepherds’ (around 1580), he features women playing football:

A tyme there is for all, my mother often sayes,
When she, with skirts tuckt very hy, with girles at football playes.

Extract from ‘A Dialogue Between Two Shepherds’ by Sir Philip Sidney, around 1580

While football was a popular pastime for many, by the 19th century it had become a more formalised sport. The Football Association (FA) was established in 1863, and the game’s official rules were agreed upon.

A black and white photograph of a team of women in Victorian football kit sitting and standing in front of a building.
The British Ladies Football Team, 1895. Source: Public Domain.

By the 1890s, women were establishing their own teams and leagues in England. However, the press was reluctant to support women’s football, with many publishing satirical illustrations arguing that the sport was inelegant and too physical for women to take part in.

A woman’s right to play

Despite the negative press, the demand for women’s football continued. In 1895, the first known women’s association football team, the British Ladies Football Club, was formed in London. Nettie Honeyball was the team’s captain, and Lady Florence Dixie (a Scottish aristocrat, writer and feminist) was the club’s patron.

A black and white photograph of Nettie Honeyball standing in football kit.
Nettie Honeyball, the captain of the British Ladies Football Club. Source: Public Domain.

When advertising for players to join, Honeyball was asked why she was setting up the team. She responded:

Why not? Aren’t women as good as men? We ladies have too long borne the degradation of presumed inferiority to the other sex. The subject has been in my mind for years. If men can play football, so can women.

Nettie Honeyball, the captain of the British Ladies Football Club, around 1895

In 1895, the first public women’s football match was held at the base of Alexandra Palace in London. More than 11,000 fans travelled to watch the game between ‘North’ and ‘South’.

Watch the re-enactment of this historic match with the present-day local women’s team.

A sepia toned photograph of a football game in progress with a large crowd surrounding the pitch.
A women’s football match being watched by a large crowd, possibly in Winslow, Buckinghamshire around the 1910s / 1920s. © SocialHistoryImages / Alamy Stock Photo.

The press continued to belittle the players, leaving some outraged by the idea of women charging for tickets and possibly making money from the sport.

While the British Ladies Football Club played several other matches to huge crowds, the team faced financial difficulties and had to disband in 1896.

Gaining momentum

As more women entered the workforce during the First World War (1914 to 1918), especially in munitions factories, football and other sports became a helpful outlet away from the dirt and hardship of wartime work. It was also a successful way to boost morale.

In 1915 the FA suspended the men’s football leagues, and women’s matches became increasingly popular. Around 150 local women’s football teams were established during the war, and their games became a successful way of fundraising for the war effort.

A black and white photograph of women working on seaplane wings in a factory.
Women working at Dick, Kerr & Company, Preston, in 1918. Source: Historic England Archive. View image BL24281/025.

The female factory workers of Dick, Kerr & Company in Preston set up a football team in 1917. They became one of the era’s most successful women’s teams and were crowned the unofficial World Champions.

Their Boxing Day match in 1920 is even believed to have drawn a much larger crowd than their male counterparts, consequently bringing in the biggest income to any English football game in history at the time.

A black and white photograph of Dick, Kerr football players standing on a car float with a sign saying 'Raised over £70,000 for ex-service men, hospitals and poor children. Winners of 7 silver cups and 3 sets of gold medals.'
The Dick, Kerr Ladies Football Team celebrating their numerous years of sporting success and the enormous amount of money they raised for charity during the First World War. © Firebird / Alamy Stock Photo.

The team’s most famous player was LGBTQ+ icon Lily Parr, whose attacking ability drew in crowds of more than 45,000. She became the first woman to be inducted into the National Football Museum’s Hall of Fame in 2002, and the first female player to be honoured with a statue at the museum in 2019.

Why was women’s football banned?

Although the demand for women’s football did not fade after the end of the war, some saw it as a threat to men’s football. The FA banned women from playing the sport at FA affiliated grounds between 1921 and 1971, with the governing body stating: “…the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and should not be encouraged”.

A black and white photograph of a row of footballers walking arm in arm with their coach on a snow-covered pitch.
The Fairey team with their coach, Mr O’Conner, following their 6-0 win over the AV Roe team on the snow-covered Manchester Athletic Club ground at Fallowfield, Manchester, in 1944. © IWM D 23522.

Women could no longer play in stadiums, use the same facilities as male players, and registered referees lost work. They were now watching from the sidelines, as men’s professional football grew in popularity throughout the 20th century.

However, some were determined to keep women’s football alive. Taking to public parks, small rugby grounds, and venues that couldn’t host great numbers of the public, the English Ladies Football Association (formally established in 1921) featured around 30 teams and continued to play throughout the 1930s to 1960s.

A black and white photograph of a group of footballers standing and kneeling on a pitch.
Despite the ban, women continued to play for local, non-league clubs such as the Bath City women’s team, photographed in 1952. Source: Public Domain.

A new era

Things started to change in the 1960s. Representatives from 44 women’s clubs joined together in 1969 for the first meeting of the Women’s Football Association. After continued pressure on the FA, the ban was lifted in 1971 . Women’s teams could now play on the same grounds as men’s teams, and official league matches were back.

This began a seismic change to the women’s game, but the 50-year ban had left a significant scar on women’s facilities and funding opportunities, and grassroots football suffered.

A team of footballers standing in a line stretching, standing beside their manager.
Players from Southampton Ladies Football Club limber up with their manager Norman Holloway, 1971. © Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Stock Photo.

In 1991, FIFA launched the first women’s football World Cup in China, with the USA winning the trophy.

The Women’s Premier League was established in 1992, before the league system was transformed in 2011 into the Women’s Super League. It wasn’t until 7 years later, however, that the league became fully professional, with all 11 top-flight teams featuring full-time players.

It’s coming home

In recent years the popularity of women’s football in England has grown significantly. At the UEFA Women’s Euro 2022 final, England beat Germany 2-1 at Wembley Stadium in front of a record-breaking 87,000 spectators, with a peak of 17.4 million people watching on BBC One at home. 50 million people worldwide watched the final. This made it the most-watched women’s football game in English history.

An aerial photograph of the top of Wembley Stadium with views over London in the distance.
Wembley Stadium in London, where England’s Lionesses beat Germany 2-1 in the 2022 Euros final in front of a record-breaking crowd of 87,000 fans. © Historic England Archive. 26612/018.

After more than 50 years since the ban on women playing football was lifted, many hailed the success of the Euros as a momentous change to women’s football in England and worldwide.

As a result, season tickets to the Women’s Super League clubs have seen significant sales increases, and 1.9 million women and 1 million girls (aged 5 to 15) are now playing football and joining local teams across the country.

Further reading

1 comment on “The History of Women’s Football in England

  1. Charles Kightly

    Excellent stuff and wonderful photos

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