1895: Women’s Football Makes its Official Debut in Hornsey

The following article was first published on the HHS website in June 2019 to coincide with the FIFA Women’s World Cup. With the interest generated by the current UEFA Women’s EURO championship, we thought it worth reposting in case you missed it.

With the current interest in women’s football, it is satisfying to know that Hornsey hosted the first official women’s football match attended by an enthusiastic crowd of 10,000 spectators. The 23rd March match was between North and South, the North winning 7-1. One of the South team, Emma Clarke, was the first recorded black woman football player.

Miss Nettie Honeyball, captain of the North team, was interviewed by The Daily Graphic on 2nd March 1895. She explained that she saw no reason, “why women should be excluded from athletic sport,” so she advertised for enough girls to play, “one manly game and show that it might be womanly as well”. Replies had been plentiful. Very soon there were 50 members in the British Ladies’ Football Club.

A sketch of women playing football on the club ground at Hornsey
“The Lady footballers at play : sketches on the club ground at Hornsey”

Nettie had enough players to pick two teams, eleven in each, to represent the North and the South. Some ladies weighed over eleven stone including Nettie. One woman, smaller than the rest, was assumed to be a boy.

The Clarke sisters

One of the 22 players was Emma Clarke, born in 1876 to William and Wilhelmina Clarke in Bootle, a few miles north of Liverpool. She had a sister Jane who was also one of the earliest known black women footballers in Britain. Emma worked as a confectioner’s apprentice and started playing football in the streets around her home. This was close to where Scottish suffragist Helen Graham Matthews lived. In the early 20th century Emma played for the women’s team named after Helen’s pseudonym – Mrs Graham’s XI.

Miss Honeyball was asked by The Daily Graphic interviewer if ladies could kick.

“Oh, yes we have no fault to find with the kicking. We have one young lady who comes from Woolwich (where the Arsenal plays) who can kick like a Corinthian. But some are not expert in moving about as others. We find that the girls who have gone in for cycling are the most nimble”.

Asked if they were being taught the game, Nettie replied, “We are being coached by the centre half-back of the Tottenham Hotspurs and we practice regularly at Hornsey”.

Great enthusiasm

The game proved a great success. Both teams wore similar kit consisting of loose blouses, full black knickerbockers, black stockings, brown leather boots, leg pads and beretta caps. Kit for the North team was in red whilst the South wore blue. Some wore white gloves. This kit was called Rational Dress after the movement opposing tight corsets, high heels, and unwieldy skirts. The Manchester Guardian reported that the teams were ‘pretty becoming, graceful and irreproachable from the point of good taste’, meaning they were totally covered up!

The newspaper went on to say that the teams’ footballing technique was a little undeveloped but they played with great enthusiasm. There was a lot of violent elbow action and they had a tendency to dance around the ball a little unsure what to do with it. They forgot the rules and forgot to change ends at half time. Nevertheless, everyone thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle with much shouting and cries of encouragement from the crowd. A much more positive view of this new public sport than can be read in The Hornsey Journal’s scathing comments. (See Hornsey Journal ‘Comments and Pencillings’ by Phoenix, 30 March 1895)

The location of the game

So where in Hornsey did this memorable game take place? Nettie Honeyball explained to The Daily Graphic interviewer that the teams had practiced during a very wet and muddy winter and that “our ground is a shockingly bad one. It lies just underneath the Alexandra Park racecourse. It is a clayey soil and I have never known it free from water”.  Householders today who live next to the lowest slopes of Ally Pally Park know just what she meant!

Nettie did not specify the exact location of this waterlogged land. Studying the 1894 OS maps of Hornsey and Muswell Hill (surveyed probably a year or so prior to publication) shows that the racecourse came very close to the fields just south of it. In most places this was only a narrow strip, far too small to host a football match let alone 10,000 spectators.

Phoenix in his Hornsey Journal ‘Comments and Pencillings’ for 30th March refers to “the procession along Park Road to Nightingale Lane…”. In his 9th March ‘Comments’ column he had mentioned that the ladies practiced in Crouch End. It is possible that some football practice sessions were held on one of the newly created Crouch End Playing Fields.

Campsbourne Field

As to the match taking place in the vicinity of Nightingale Lane, the 1894 OS map provides useful clues. Immediately beyond Nightingale Lane (which stopped at The Nightingale Tavern) lay fields stretching to the racecourse. The one at the end of Nightingale Lane was known as Campsbourne Field. These fields were owned by Samuel Sugden who sold the greater part to Hornsey Urban District Council in July 1896. This for the building of well designed, well built municipal workmen’s dwellings for some of Hornsey’s working classes. North View, South View, Hawthorn and Beechwood Roads were the result. Concurrently, Sugden sold the eastern portion of land to Hornsey School Board for the erection of Campsbourne School. Building work on both projects started in 1897. The land on which the houses stood was referred to as Campsbourne Field.

So this is the most likely location where Miss Nettie Honeyball and her women players made history. Of the other contenders, Newland Road Field was occupied by a racecourse stand and other buildings, accessed through the Campsbourne Estate. Redston Road Field was accessed by a narrow footpath only. If definitive evidence emerges, we’ll let you know.

Image credits

Image of the Daily Sketch illustration from the HHS archive

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