Just A Ball Game?- Interview with Women’s Football Association’s (WFA) Patricia Gregory.
Our good friend and former Women’s Football Association (WFA) Hon. Secretary and Hon. Life Vice- President Patricia Gregory took some time out to speak to us about the history of the women’s game and what things were like before Football Association’s (FA) involvement.
Often there is a misconception that until the last 3-4 decades football has only ever been a male spectator sport, with the females few and far between turning out to watch matches. However even as far back as the first ever ‘War Of The Roses’ game in 1870 a significant number of spectators cheering both Yorkshire and Lancashire sides were female.
Then, as the popularity of the game increased, women became an integral part of football crowds.Well before the FA were formed in1863 and they took over the regulation of the modern day sport we know of today it is documented that women played the game in a 6-a-side format on Bath’s bowling green as far back as October 1726. Women’s football is a popular participatory and spectator sport across the globe, but in England, football’s country of origin, women and girls have been discouraged from playing the game for many years.
This has not always been the case, female football matches are on record from the late 19th century, and, during the First World War female munitions workers and other factory workers, and even some suffragettes famously organised many games for the purpose of raising money for war charities. These were extremely well attended to the extent that at one point the women’s game looked likely to become even more popular than the men’s game.
A couple of years back JBG? founder Lindsay England and BBC’s Shelley Alexander convinced Patricia to archive the documents and memorabilia that Patricia had hold of and others belonging to colleagues for safe keeping and future reference, Thankfully these items are now with the British Library and the hard work and dedication of these pioneers of the women’s game can now be examined in those archives.
Looking ahead to this year’s FIFA Women’s world Cup in France Patricia Gregory says, “It’s over 50 years on since I started a women’s football team, and I am amazed at the progress of this modern form of the sport which we created in the mid-1960s.”
Gregory grew up a Tottenham Hotspur supporter. Watching Spurs’ cup victory celebrations alongside her dad in the mid 1960s, Patricia began to wonder why it was that women didn't play football, and then she decided to write a letter, which was subsequently published in her local newspaper, asking this very question.In reply, Patricia, who didn't even play at that time, was inundated with a number of replies and letters back from young girls/women asking if they could join her team. There was no team available to play for but the idea of starting one sounded appealing and a team was formed by Gregory and named White Ribbon.
There was a stumbling block first off as the team found that because of the Football Association (FA) ban which had been imposed in 1921, they were therefore partaking in unaffiliated football matches and they were unable to hire pitches in parks or from football clubs, or use qualified FA registered referees. The ban had been stringently applied for 50 years, and the prohibition was only lifted in December 1969.This made it almost impossible to locate other girls teams so initially the White Ribbon team played young men’s teams, on their pitches, as this was the only way any females could actively enjoy the sport.
The 1966 England World Cup win had driven public enthusiasm for all forms of the game. Using this propulsion, a group of eager and enthusiastic female footballers along with the help of a number of supportive men decided to form a women’s game association.
Reminiscing those early years Gregory says, “Eventually the handful of women’s teams began to organise leagues and by 1969 the Women’s F.A. came into being and the first ever meeting took place. It initially started out as the Ladies Football Association of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. No less than 51 affiliated clubs signed up, 38 were represented at the inaugural meeting under the guidance of Arthur Hobbs the first Hon. Secretary. As I could type I was Hon. Asst. Secretary.”
“In the 25 years of its existence the WFA really established the sport in England, we created the National Cup competition (still existing today). We also formed the first official England team, oversaw a network of nationwide leagues, fought for the registration of women referees and coaches and much, much more.”
“The FA agreed in 1969 that we could use referees and also their affiliated grounds. However, The FA were not the only ones responsible for the alienation of the women’s game at that time. The Football League (FL, now EFL) didn't lift their objections to our using their grounds until we played an International match against The Netherlands in November 1973 (a game played at Reading FC).”Gregory continued: "The Union Of European Association Football (UEFA) voted in late 1971 that their member associations should take control of women's football but they left the associations to choose how they would control this."
“Following on from the UEFA acceptance, on Leap Year Day 1972 The FA recognised the Women’s Football Association (WFA) as the sole governing body of women's football in England at the present time. While most of Europe integrated women's football into their associations, the FA simply recognised the WFA as the sole governing body.”
“The FA formed a Joint Consultative Committee along with the Women’s Football Association in 1972 and it met in July of that year for the first time. The very same year the Scots formed the Scottish Women’s Football Association (SWFA).”
“Arthur Hobbs, stood down at the AGM in June 1972. He was made an Hon. Life Member of the WFA Council. Sadly Arthur died in 1975 so never lived to see how much the game progressed to what we know it is today with a fully professional elite league and players not only able to earn some sort of a wage, but also supported with a whole team of backroom staff.”
“Another significant male ally for the women’s game was David Hunt. He started off as Treasurer of the WFA from the early 70's and became Chairman in 1977. He was in that position for several years. He hailed from Buckinghamshire and he became an Hon. Life Vice-President of the WFA when he stepped down from the Chair. He was with me on the South East of England League and in 1969 we took a league rep side to the old Czechoslovakia when the Russians were still in Prague having earlier invaded the country.”
Recalling more on that first decade of existence Gregory says, “The WFA office opened at the end of 1980, the office was initially based in central London but was then relocated to Manchester in1990.
“In 1984 we saw a new structure for the WFA with affiliation to The FA on the same basis as a County. Our first Council representative was the then Chairman, Tim Stearn.”
“In 1992 the WFA had 373 clubs competing, but that topped 400 very quickly. In that same 92/93 season 151 clubs entered the WFA Cup The WFA then handed the organisation of the game over to The FA in 1993.”
“The first women's committee was formed and a women's football coordinator was established at this time. It was called the Women's Football Alliance, the first meeting took place on 18th July 1993.
“We knew the time was right to hand it over as we could not afford to keep it going and didn't have the possibility of raising the sort of money which it needed to take the game to the next level in all respects handing over in excess of 400 clubs to The FA in 1993 was the natural progression as we knew that we could not fund the sport in the way it needed in order to flourish.”Gregory added: “With no real financial backing it was always a struggle for the WFA, come 1993, the right thing to do was to allow The FA to take over responsibility.
"We weren't pushing for them to take us over before that because we knew that there wasn't the appetite there - they hadn't embraced the game in the way that, say, the Germans had. But in 1993 we knew we couldn't continue anymore. We'd done all the spadework and they bailed us out."
But Gregory did feel that the FA's "20 years of women's football" celebrations in 2013 ignored those who dedicated their lives to women's football in previous decades.
She wrote a letter to the then outgoing FA chairman David Bernstein, asking him to acknowledge the longer history of the game.
"It's a bit sad and disappointing that what the WFA did for so many years has just disappeared into the ether," she said. "Things evolve and it was probably the right time to stop being involved, but what I find hard to accept is that we are whitewashed out."
“In the 25 years of its existence the WFA really established the sport in England, we created the National Cup competition (still existing today), formed the first official England team, oversaw a network of nationwide leagues, fought for the registration of women referees and coaches and much, much more.”
“It ‘s a long way women’s football has come since those early pioneers first kicked a football in 1895!” says Gregory.
We chatted more with Patricia and between us followed up leads and research but often this has only resulted in more questions than answers with very little documentation on female football ever being taken let alone archived.
Here are a few more stats and notes of early pioneering days of the women’s game:
It’s possible that women were playing the game on a regular basis as early as the 1830’s, though the game would have only been 5. 6 and 7-a-side matches.
A picture has been found which depicts a female game in1869 and if established as being correctly dated this could well be one of the first pictures of women playing football.
For some time a game played in an 1895 match at Crouch End, North London was considered to be the earliest official women’s match in the world which was billed as North v South but then information surfaced of an earlier set of fixtures claiming similar. Those being Scotland v England matches in 1881 were reported in the Glasgow Herald. There were also games in Blackburn, Liverpool and Manchester going under the title England v Scotland but there is reasonable doubt that they were as billed an actual international. Early newspaper reports were not particularly generous on these games, a Manchester Guardian reporter suggesting the following, “When the novelty has worn off, I do not think women’s football will attract the crowds”.
A Sketch article of 6th Feb 1895 refers to the ‘British Ladies FC match’ North v South, which seems to be the North of England reference. Their team had a "custodian", a lady from Glasgow and the result was 7-1 to the North. The match lasted 60 minutes and had a crowd of 10,000. The article finishes "it must be clear to everybody that girls are totally unfitted for the rough work of the football field".
Information is also unclear as to the names of some of the players for instance was Nettie J. Honeyball a pseudonym as she wasn't listed on the 1891 census, and was her real name Nellie Hudson as some reports say? Here's a puzzle. The name Nellie Honeyball in London appears on the 1911, 1901, 1891 and 1881 censuses. Family research isn’t straight forward and often the problem is names change. She seems the most likely candidate for Nettie. But, there is also a Harriet Honeyball on the 1901 census living in Camberwell, London but born in Coggleshall, Essex. Take your pick… was she Nettie, Harriet or Nellie?
The first official international fixture (and quite possibly the first ever women’s international in the world) between Scotland v England was played at Greenock on 18th November 1972. Final score being Scotland 2 England 3. First blood going the way of the England side. The return match result was England 8 Scotland 0, a game played in June 1973 at Nuneaton FC.
The North West’s famous Dick, Kerr’s Ladies travelled across the channel to play a select French side in 1921 on a small tour across the country with games taking place in Paris, Roubaix, Le Havre and Rouen. They had formed a few years earlier after the suspension of the Football League at the end of the 1914-15 season. A number of women working in factories began to play informal games of football during their lunch breaks. At Dick, Kerr & Co, a Preston-based locomotive and tramcar manufacturer, the female workers showed a particular aptitude for the game. Watching from a window above the yard where they played an office worker Alfred Frankland spotted their talent and set about forming a team. The team was led on the pitch by founding player Grace Sibbert and under Frankland’s management, they soon drew significant crowds to see their games. They beat rival factory Arundel Coulthard 4–0 on Christmas Day 1917, with 10,000 watching at Preston North End’s Deepdale stadium.
Even after the FA ban of 1921 a number of teams kept playing for some years. In the 1950’s Manchester Corinthians was the most well known Manchester club. Fodens were around in the 50's too although they came from nearby Crewe.
Sheila Parker, who was the first England women’s captain (England 1972-1984) said,“ When the FA ban was finally lifted I was about 24 years old. I was asked to captain England in the first official Women’s FA match, against Scotland in 1972, which we won 3-2. A little known fact also accompanies the back story of this fixture in the following context in that the first Scotland v England men's match was also played in Glasgow exactly 100 years before - a pure coincidence!”
Looking at the players internationally (i.e. officially playing for England) during the seventies, eighties and early nineties and finding out ages is also still unclear, which makes records of youngest ever player and/or goal scorer hard to pinpoint. We have found documentation of a Linda J. Curl being born in Norwich in the first quarter of 1962 but can't be absolutely sure she is the England player. Curl was in the England squad from mid-1976. If the information is correct you could say Linda was certainly one of the youngest England players at that time if not thee youngest.
Likewise Jeannie Allott also played for England. Again, looking up her birth you can find a Jeannie C. Allott being born in Crewe in the first quarter of 1957. Allott was in the first England squad in 1972 and is listed as 16 years. If it's the right one she would have been under 16 in November 1972 when she scored England's third goal, possibly being one of the youngest scorers of the Lionesses team.
Other notable questions can be asked about female referees during these mid to late 20th century years. Pat Dunn, the first Chairman of the WFA, who hailed from Dorset was also one of the first ever female referees, Pat died in 1999. Joan Briggs is another name which crops up a few times was a female referee, but again little more is known about her involvement.
The history of the Women’s FA can be viewed on the website : https://wfahistory.wordpress.com/