The Women’s Football World Cup is now well underway. With England v Scotland attracting a peak of 6.1 million BBC TV viewers, becoming the UK’s most watched women’s football match of all time, it’s a far cry from the sport’s early days.
The first women’s international match took place on Saturday 7 May 1881 between Scotland and England at Hibernian Road, Easter Park in front of about 2,000. According to some reports the teams had only trained for about a fortnight for this game, the first in a series of rather chaotic, public exhibition matches to be played in both countries.
The England team, including (according to some press reports) women from London , which took the field comprised of May Goodwin (goal); Mabel Bradbury, Maude Hopewell, Maude Starling, Ada Everstone, Geraldine Ventner, Mabel Vance, Eva Davenport, Minnie Hopewell, Kate Mellor and Nellie Sherwood. The Scotland team, from Glasgow and the surrounding area, was Ethel Hay (goal); Bella Oswald, Georgina Wright, Rose Raynham, Isa Stevenson, Emma Wright, Louise/Louisa Cole, Lily St Clair, Maude Riverford, Carrie Baliol and Minnie Brymner. Some spellings vary depending on newspaper.
It is possible some of the names were stage names to disguise real identities. Interestingly two ‘actors,’ 18-year-old Louisa Cole (born in Greenock, Renfrewshire) and 19-year-old English-born Carrie H Baliol, were lodging in the home of Margaret Henderson in Campbeltown, Argyllshire . Both these names featured amongst the Scotland forwards. Their presence adds to this game owing as much to theatre and entertainment as a sporting contest.
The game took place against the backdrop of the early years of the suffrage movement and advancement of women’s rights. In fact, the games were part of the pushing back of the long-established boundaries confining and defining women and their place in society. Indeed, a piece in The Jedburgh Gazette described it as ‘women’s rights with a vengeance.’ 
To put in some kind of context, it was only in 1870 that any money which a married woman earned could be treated as her own property and not her husband’s, with the introduction of the 1870 Married Women’s Property Act. And it was not until after the Internationals, in 1882, that the right was extended to allow married women to have complete personal control over all of their property.
The attitudes towards women and ideas around their expected behaviours were instrumental to most of the reporting. The game was variously described as a ‘most disappointing spectacle…football is not a game for women,’  ‘an athletic novelty’  and ‘a general feeling was apparent…to make fun of the match.’  although the players were described as being ‘of excellent physique in most cases’ . It was claimed ‘before the match was concluded more than half the spectators had gone. The general feeling seemed to be that the whole affair was a most unfeminine exhibition…’ .
An inordinate amount of attention was paid to the players’ attire and hair, with some retaining
…such feminine ornaments as frilling, bracelets, &c., but others, with arms bare to the shoulder, entered into the game with all the enthusiasm of boys. 
The kit was essentially similar to their male counterparts. Scotland sported blue jerseys, a badge with two Union Jacks, a crimson waist sash, knickerbockers and blue and white hose. The English team’s jersey was crimson, with a blue sash and a lion rampant badge. They had white knickerbockers and crimson and white hose. Both teams wore crimson and white woollen cowls and high-laced boots.
Scotland ran out 3-0 victors. The Fife Herald typified the waspish type of reporting. Their take on the women was:
They were slow in all their movements except, perhaps, when they were within a few feet of the goal, when their tongues were in full swing…
Although they did grudgingly conclude:
Misses Maude Hopewell and Bella Oswald as backs, and several of the forwards played well. 
They went on to quote the Glasgow News saying:
Football is not a game for women and the spectacle of a score of girls careering about the field in knickerbockers is not to be defended on any ground of public utility.
The teams struggled to get a venue for the next game, it being eventually played on 16 May 1881 at the Shawfield Ground, Rutherglen Bridge, Glasgow. It resulted in what was termed as a scandalous exhibition, disgraceful scenes and a display of ruffianism from ‘Glasgow Roughs’ with fighting and a pitch invasion.
Around 400 paid to watch the game but others burst the gates despite police efforts to prevent them. This swelled the crowd to what some newspapers estimated to be as many as 5,000. Mainly men, they hooted, hissed and laughed at the women and ‘after 55 minutes of play of the most amateurish description’  a contingent cut the ropes and stormed the pitch.
A police baton charge was required to rescue the players, some who were badly treated by the mob. With difficulty the women managed to get to their horse-drawn omnibus, one (or two, depending on newspaper report) fainting in the process. The four grey horses pulling the omnibus galloped away, with the accompanying jeers and hisses from the mob ringing in the women’s ears.
A further attempt to play a game at Kilmarnock was halted by the intervention of magistrates. The Ayr Advertiser’s take on this read:
The “LADY” FOOTBALL PLAYERS – Kilmarnock was saved the scandal of a visit from the “Lady Football players” on Tuesday night, by the intervention of the magistrates whose representations caused the club who had granted the use of their field to cancel the engagement. The managers of the female teams being advised of this decision by telegraph, they did not put in an appearance. And the disgraceful exhibition was accordingly prevented. 
The teams now moved over the border to England. They played their next game in front of a crowd of about 4,000 at the Olympic Club, Blackburn on the afternoon of Saturday, 21 May 1881.
I can find no details of the team sheets but curiously a couple of reports stated ‘The players hail from Glasgow’ 
This is backed up by a report in the Athletic News of 25 May which stated:
The fair performers were unmercifully chaffed by the spectators but as the remarks were passed in the coarsest Lancashire, and the girls are as Scotch as they can find in Glasgow, the talk did not hurt them much for want of being understood. 
Both teams had second half goals disallowed, but a few minutes before the game ended the ‘English representatives’ scrambled the ball over to finish 1-0 winners.
The ad hoc nature of the matches is illustrated by the report of what appears to be the next game which took place on 3 June:
The female football players not being able to find a ground in Manchester, wandered to Liverpool, and on Friday last they managed to bring off a match at a running ground in the outskirts of the city. The following report of what the “ladies” are pleased to call “football” has been sent in to me for publication:- On Friday evening the lady football players gave an exhibition of their powers to the Liverpool public at Stanley Athletic Grounds. The young ladies appeared on the field at 7.30 p.m., and were loudly cheered by the spectators. The Scotch captain won the toss and selected to play with the wind. The match, from the players point of view, was very good. About 15 minutes from the start the English secured the first goal through a piece of good dribbling on the part of Miss Eva Davenport. Thereafter the Scotch pressed their opponents very hard, Miss Louisa Cole making several fine runs but failed to score before half-time was called. On ends being changed, the Scotch scored their first goal, Miss Louisa Cole doing the needful just before time was called. For the English Miss May Goodwin at goal stopped several dangerous shots. Misses Geraldine Vintner, Eva Davenport, and Minnie Hopewell as forwards dribbled well and made some splendid runs. For the Scotch, Miss Georgia Wright at back played a good defensive game. Misses Louisa Cole and Maud Rimeford, as forwards, played a good combined game. Altogether the match was a great success although the attendance was not so large as might have been expected to witness such a novelty. 
The team appeared to be based in Manchester. From there on 13 June they travelled by rail to Windhill, Bradford to play another game. The Leeds Times reported:
They are not a prepossessing band of females, and generally are composed of young girls, a few of them being between twenty and thirty years of age. A large number of people witnessed the game, which was well played. The competitors were frequently and uproariously cheered by spectators. The match ended in a victory for Scotland by three goals to two. 
They did eventually get to play in Manchester, but once more confusion reigned. The Athletic News of 22 June 1881 reported that the team had arrived in Manchester a month ago but initially had not found a ground to play on. They finally arranged to play on the field of Salford FC but this fell through when their cashier absconded with the money needed for the ground rent. It was then announced they would play at Cheetham Football Club’s Tetlow Fold, and a 3,000- strong crowd turned up for the game on 20 June.
The report continued:
Unfortunately, there was some other hitch in the proceedings, and the game did not come off, but I am informed that all the difficulties have been cleared away, and that these matches would duly be played last evening [21 June] and to-night (Wednesday). 
Cheetham FC were at pains to distance themselves from the event. They even advertised to this effect in an open letter dated 21 June from Edwin Smales, the Club Secretary, which was published in the Manchester Courier. 
The game on 21 June proved another debacle. The Huddersfield Chronicle of 23 June carried a full report about the ‘Scene at a Football Match’:
The players attired in a costume which is neither graceful nor very becoming, were driven to the ground in a wagonette, and, as was to be expected, were followed by a crowd largely composed of youths eager to avail themselves of the opportunity presented for a little boisterous amusement…Very few persons paid for admission to the grounds, but a great multitude assembled in the road and struggled for a sight of what was going on within the enclosure, whilst an equally large number gathered in the higher ground on the other side of the field for a similar purpose. A number of police constables were present to maintain order and prevent anyone entering without paying, and for about an hour, whilst the so-called match was being played they succeeded. There were frequent attempts, however, to elude the constables. At length a great rush was made by those occupying the higher land, and the football ground was speedily taken possession by the mob. Apprehending a repetition of the rough treatment they have met with in other parts of the country, the women no sooner heard the clamour which accompanied the rush than they also took to their heels and ran to where their wagonette was standing. This they reached before the crowd could overtake them, and amid the jeers of the multitude and much disorder they were immediately driven away. 
So, another abandoned match. But the ladies did not give in. These pioneers of the women’s game returned to Liverpool. There, as advertised in the Liverpool Mercury of 25 June 1881, the International Lady Football Players played two more games on the 25 and 27 June at the Cattle Market Inn Athletic Ground, Stanley. Admission was 1s.
In yet another curious newspaper report, reference was made to the disappointingly small attendance:
Owing, probably, to the disappointment caused a few weeks ago by their failure to keep an engagement to play at the same grounds… 
The report went on to discuss the women’s ‘modest and picturesque’ costume, and half-time refreshments of oranges. Scotland won the game 2-1.
The second game on 27 June was better attended:
The play was very spirited, and at times the feeling of nationality was strongly manifested by the onlookers, the efforts of the players on both sides being encouraged and rewarded by cheers. 
Scotland proved the stronger side, winning 2-0. The report made mention of a further match to be played that night, 28 June. Indeed, the newspaper even carried an advert for the game. I’ve not found any report of the result yet.
This typified the chaos surrounding these first so-called internationals with cancelled and abandoned games, uncertainty about identities (and nationalities) of those playing or even scorers, and all this taking place in the face of the prevailing attitude about the role of women in society. The fact that these ‘anonymous’ women managed to play any games at all under such difficult and downright hostile circumstances is a testament to their strength of character.
What a total contrast to the FIFA Women’s World Cup of 2019, with its media coverage, worldwide interest, and Panini sticker albums all contributing to the profiles of the players, making them household names and sporting role models to future generations of female footballers.
-  Edinburgh Evening News, 9 May 1881
-  For example Riverford is sometimes Rimeford or Riweford
-  1881 Scotland Census, accessed via Ancestry, Reference – Parish: Campbeltown; ED: 16; Page: 13; Line: 6; Roll: cssct1881_150
-  The Jedburgh Gazette, 14 May 1881
-  The Dundee Courier and Argus, 10 May 1881
-  Buxton Herald, 11 May 1881
-  The Edinburgh Evening News, 9 May 1881
-  Ibid
-  Nottinghamshire Guardian, 13 May 1881
-  The Ayr Advertiser, 12 May 1881
-  The Fife Herald, 12 May 1881
-  Glasgow Herald 17 May 1881
-  The Ayr Advertiser 19 May 1881
-  Birmingham Daily Mail and Edinburgh Evening News 23 May 1881
-  Athletic News, 25 May 1881
-  Athletic News, 8 June 1881
-  The Leeds Times, 18 June 1881
-  Athletic News, 22 June 1881
-  The Manchester Courier, And Lancashire General Advertiser, 22 June 1881
-  The Huddersfield Chronicle, 23 June 1881
-  The Manchester Evening News, 27 June 1881
-  The Liverpool Mercury 28 June 1881