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In May 1881 at Edinburgh’s Easter Road Stadium the first recorded organised football game between two lady’s teams took place. The game was billed as a Scotland v England international. A week later a second game was played which was abandoned following a violent invasion of the pitch in which the women were roughly treated.

The outcome was that any further thoughts of developing lady’s football were abandoned.

On the 1st of January 1895, despite continuing derision in the press and public opposition to the idea, the British Ladies Football Club was founded with Nettie Honeyball, a member of the middle class, being its figurehead and Lady Florence Dixie its Chairman and Sponsor.

The choice of Lady Dixie as the Chairman was presumably prompted by her sporting prowess. She was recognised as one of the finest horsewomen in the country, an excellent shot, an accomplished angler, a strong swimmer and a billiard player who could beat most gentlemen.

However, her appointment was bound to have attracted the attention of the press and fuel the outcry against the scandal of women playing organised football. The reason for this was that in 1895 the Marquis of Queensbury, her brother, was sued by Oscar Wilde for accusing him of being a homosexual and having an affair with his son Lord Alfred Douglas. A case that Oscar Wilde subsequently lost, and which ultimately led to his imprisonment.

The lurid details of the correspondence that had been exchanged between Wilde and Lord Alfred and the threat to call several male prostitutes to testify against Wilde were widely reported in the press.

Being a relative of the Marquis it would, no doubt, have reinforced and increased the notoriety of Lady Florence. It should be remembered that, in recent times, doubts had been voiced over Lady Florence’s claim that there had been an attempt on her life by Fenians in Windsor Park, she had written an open letter to members of parliament claiming that women’s brains were far superior to that of men hence the reason why they had deliberately subjugated them. Finally, in 1890 she had written a novel called Gloriana or the Revolution of 1900 in which women had formed an army which acted peacefully to win the right of votes for women.

She would have been seen as being anti-establishment and so it was no wonder that she should be closely associated with ladies who were being encouraged by Lady Florence to take part in the scandalous behaviour of playing football.

Despite all of this, 30 ladies were recruited to the club. They were divided into two teams ‘North’ and ‘South’ and played their first game on the 23rd March 1895 at Crouch End Athletic Ground.

Lady Florence continued with her patronage and became President of the club and organised a tour of Scotland amongst the other 100 exhibition matches that were played by the club throughout the United Kingdom over the next two years.

Lady Florence asserted that playing football was good for the lady’s physique and stated that ‘the girls should enter into the spirit of the game with heart and soul’

However, Lady Florence also saw that women playing football would help to promote other causes which she passionately believed in. Two of these were: -

Women’s rights. Lady Florence was at the forefront of the movement which advocated the right of women to vote, to hold public office, to have equal rights in family law and the workplace, to own property and have an education.

Secondly, the rational dress movement. In 1881 the ladies playing football were required to wear a corset and play in high heeled boots. In 1895 the women played openly in bloomers and blouses and wore boots of the same design as that which were worn by men. Lady Florence undoubtedly saw football as a weapon to subvert the accepted Victorian dress codes and a means of rationalising Victorian dress, especially its underwear so that it was more compatible with the emerging lifestyles of ladies at the end of the 19th century.

Lady Florence continued as President of the club for a further two years but by then she would have most likely started to suffer from the arthritis that would eventually confine her to a wheelchair.

Lady Florence was a truly remarkable person who will be remembered not only as President of Ladies Football but as an author, explorer, war correspondent, an advocate of women’s emancipation and opponent of the Irish Land League and Fenians who she accused of the misappropriation of funds intended for the relief of the farming community in South-West Ireland.

Peter Loseby

Click for an enlargement of this poster.
Football match poster
Lady Florence Dixie