A history of women’s football and all the stops in Berkshire along the way

Nia Jones keeps an eye on the ball for Reading Women. Photo: Neil Graham.
Nia Jones keeps an eye on the ball for Reading Women. Photo: Neil Graham.

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Much like the men’s game, women’s football has been around in some form or another for as long as we’ve been able to kick a ball. However, the popularity of football as we know it today, in the women’s game at least, came to fruition in around the 1880’s.  

Here we take a look at a brief overview of the British women’s game in the last 140ish years and figure out how the little county of Berkshire fits into all that history!

1881 –  A team of English women travel to Edinburgh to play their Scottish counterparts led by Helen Graham Matthews.

Shortly after women are banned from playing football in Scotland. This prompts Matthews to move to England and set up a team known as the Lady Footballers. Matthews is without a doubt pivotal in paving the way for women’s football and encourages Nettie Honeyball, her counterpart from the Edinburgh game, to start up a team.

1894 – British Ladies Football Club is founded by one, Nettie Honeyball.

1895 – The British Ladies Football Club play a match at Reading FC’s home-ground, Caversham Cricket Ground, drawing a crowd higher than the men’s previous record attendance. 

I cannot believe that [men] would show any greater knowledge of the game or skill in its execution.

The Sportsman

Even the British press did not take too kindly to the success the women were reaping and often posted discouraging articles when covering games, for example, the Luton Reporter wrote in May of 1921 about a clash between Luton Ladies and Stoke Ladies claiming that “Ladies football may never be sufficiently exciting to men to become a paying proposition as a spectacle for public exhibition but Saturday’s game certainly demonstrates as an exercise it is quite harmless” however, not all was lost as evidenced by an article posted by The Sportsman with their considerably more upbeat approach – “I cannot believe that [men] would show any greater knowledge of the game or skill in its execution. I don’t think the lady footballer is to be snuffed out by a number of leading articles written by old men out of sympathy both with football as a game and the aspirations of the young new women.”

The women began to tour the country playing other ladies teams, most likely made up of factory workers. 

With the outbreak of World War 1, many factory teams were left with dwindling male participants and as a result, women were invited to play. Arguably, the most famous women’s team in England was spawned directly from this, the Dick Kerr Ladies, named after the factory in which they worked.  

Dick Kerr Ladies

1920 – Boxing Day, Dick, Kerr Ladies play St Helens at Goodison Park bringing with them a crowd of around 53,000, considered the largest gate, both male and female, total since football records began. A 3-0 win for the Dick, Kerr Ladies with all 3 goals coming from their left winger Lily Parr. Lily would go on to total 986 goals between 1919 and 1951 for two teams respectively.

This match was most certainly a factor in the FA’s frustration at the continued popularity and success of the women’s game. By 1921, there were around 150 teams, mostly in the North and the Midlands.

1921 – Women’s football is banned on any grounds affiliated with the FA on the premise that “…the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged.” A number of doctors believed football was dangerous for women and could affect fertility. 

Although banned from FA affiliated grounds, this did little to dampen the appetite for female football and women continued to play in the first two decades or so of the ban. Many games played by women were often done with charitable intentions, usually for local causes including hospitals and children’s homes. 

1922 – Reading Ladies played Ediswan Ladies in Reading in front of a crowd of 2,000 spectators in aid of Royal Berkshire Hospital. Reading Ladies won the game 2-1. 

However, as the ban continued to prevail into the forties and fifties, ultimately women’s football took a considerable decline in both participation and spectatorship. Many women’s teams found it difficult to find alternative grounds and were disbanded. By 1939, the outbreak of WW2, numbers had dwindled to around just 17 teams.

The success of the men’s international team in the World Cup of 1966, saw participation surge once again and women’s teams begin to spring up.

1967 – A Kent carpenter, by name of Arthur Hobbs, organises an 8 team tournament to include teams from the South, North & Midlands including the formidable Manchester Corinthians. 

Listen to Reading FC Women striker Lauren Bruton discuss winning the FA WSL 2 title.

1968 – Just a year later, Hobbs’  tournament returns with 4 fold participation and 32 teams take part. 

1969 – The Women’s FA is officially established.

1971 – The FA formally lift the ban on women playing football at affiliated grounds.

1972 – England assemble a team and make their debut as an international squad in Greenock, Scotland, beating them 3-2. 

1973 – The first international game to be played on a football league ground takes place at Elm Park, Reading between England and Holland on the 9th November. 2,013 fans watch England win 1-0, the largest crowd ever for a women’s international fixture.

1983 – The FA invites the WFA to affiliate using the same concept as the County Association

1988 – Reading FC become affiliated with Reading Royals LFC (known previously as Twyford Comets).

1990 – The Southern Region Women’s Football League (SRWFL) is established.

Woodley United Ladies celebrate a league title. Photo: Neil Graham.
Woodley United Ladies celebrate a SRWFL league title. Photo: Neil Graham.

1991- The WFA introduces a national league comprising 24 clubs.

1993 – The Women’s Football Committee is set up to run the women’s game in the UK

1993 – 137 teams enter into the Women’s FA Challenge Cup and the competition is brought under FA control.

1994 – The league officially becomes the FA Women’s Premier League.

1997 – The FA outline a strategy to establish the women’s game from grassroots to elite status

1997 – Reading Royals LFC top the table having played 18 games, winning 15 games and losing just 3 for a total of 45 points.

2002 – Football is confirmed as the top participation sport for girls and women in England.

2002 – 24 years after her death, Lily Parr of Dick Kerr Ladies is the first woman to be inducted into the National Football Museum’s Hall of Fame. 

2006 – Reading FC end their affiliation with Reading Royals and establish their own team Reading FC Women

2008 – Maidenhead United FC Ladies is established, starting initially in Division 1 of the Southern Region Women’s Football League (SRWFL)

Maidenhead United Women at MK Dons stadium. Photo supplied by Neil Maskell.

2011 – The Women’s Super League (WSL) is founded, 8 teams are involved – Arsenal Women, Birmingham Ladies, Bristol Academy, Chelsea Women, Doncaster Rovers Belles, Everton  Ladies, Liverpool Women, Notts County Ladies. 

2011 – Berkshire County Girls Football League is established to develop and support the participation and growth of women’s football to all under the age of 16. 

2013 – Reading Women FC win the FA Premier League Southern Division, Fran Kirby is crowned top goalscorer and named player of the season 

Former Royal Fran Kirby now at Chelsea Ladies. Photo: Neil Graham.
Former Royal Fran Kirby now at Chelsea Ladies. Photo: Neil Graham.

2014 – Maidenhead United FC Ladies win the SRWFL Premier Division title and are promoted to National League where they have maintained their position ever since. 

2016 – Football in Berkshire gets the ball rolling on women’s football in the county and publishes their first post.  

2018 – The Women’s’ Football Tier is restructured to streamline the entire league system. Promotion and relegation is now applicable across all levels of the pyramid. The FA stated the purpose of the restructure was as follows, “A full-time, competitive league will also mean better quality and unpredictability of results on the pitch. We believe this will drive interest and awareness and mean more fans through gates and more people tuning in on TV. Greater interest will also help attract more commercial investment and provide a stronger, more sustainable commercial model.”

2019 – The first ever Women’s Football Weekend takes place on the 17th November.

2019 – Barclays announce they are to become title partner of the WSL, deemed the biggest brand investment ever in women’s sport in the UK. 

2019 – As of the current season, there are currently 22 affiliated teams with 676 adult players registered in Berkshire. 

2020 – An outbreak of Covid-19 causes a pandemic and football is halted all over the world. Many leagues are null and voided, and as a result the WSL is cancelled for the remainder of the 2019/20 season. Reading currently sit 5th in the table.

To be continued…

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