Womens Sports History

A History of Hockey – Part 1

Penny Hopkins continues our series on the history of women’s sport by exploring the origins of field hockey and how the game evolved for women through the 19th Century

So when am I going to have a story to tell that begins with—this sport was created by women, for women—apparently not this time. But actually the origins of field hockey (or hockey as we will refer to it) are so interesting they merit an introduction.  While there are no women involved—from what I can tell there is no mention of women playing in most of the sport’s history as it was considered too rough for them— it’s a fascinating story nonetheless.

By the thirteenth century games similar to hockey were appearing all over Europe.

hockeyHockey, in its most basic form, dates back to ancient times and to some of the earliest civilisations. As with most sports, it’s exact origins are unknown but archaeologists have found 4,000-year old drawings of men in the Beni Hasan tombs of the Nile Valley in Egypt playing a similar game. Other records have been found in the Aztec, Ethiopian, Persian and Roman civilisations.

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Three thousand years ago it appeared in the records of the Greek civilisation and at this time appeared to be something like the modern Gaelic sport of hurling. It appeared in the Olympic Games as far back as 2000 BC.

hockey history

But there were also similar games (hitting a ball with a stick) springing up all over. A thousand years ago Beikou was played in China and the Noongar people of Western Australia played a game called dumbung with bent sticks and a ball made from the dried sap of the pear tree.

The next phase of its development came in the middle ages in Europe.

By the thirteenth century games similar to hockey were appearing all over Europe. In England, they called it Cambuca, in Scotland Shinty, in France it was Jeu de Mail and the Dutch referred to it as Het Kolven.

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In the sixteenth century, European settlers in Chile describe a game played by the Araucano Indians called Chueca. Its name means “the twisted one”, due to the bend in the bottom of the stick.

The name “field hockey” appeared first in England in the fourteenth century. It was one of the many pastimes banned by King Edward III in 1363 when he outlawed all leisure sports from being played by the working class, proclaiming:

“Moreover, we ordain that you prohibit under penalty of imprisonment all and sundry from such stone, wood and iron throwing; handball, football, or hockey; coursing and cock-fighting, or other such idle games.”

Obviously women would have been able to play even without the proclamation, but you get the idea.

In 1886 the Hockey Association was formed in England and rules were standardised.

fieldhockeyelgin23We then jump to the eighteenth century, when hockey re-appears in English public schools. It’s really here that it develops into the game we know now. As with many sports, it was played by the British army within the British Empire, expanding the game until the present day. The game as we know it is currently played by three million people in 112 countries and considered to be one of the top six widely played sports.

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The first professional club was formed in Blackheath, London in 1849. They had some interesting elements to their game, including a version of a rugby scrum and hitting a seven ounce rubber cube. A few years later, the Teddington Club was founded where the striking circle was introduced, and the cube was changed to a ball.

The first women’s hockey club — Molesey Ladies Hockey Club — was founded in 1887

In 1886 the Hockey Association was formed in England and rules were standardised.

The Modern Olympic Games first saw men’s hockey at the London Games in 1908, when only three countries took part: England, Ireland and Scotland. It was not adopted as a permanent Olympic sport until 1928, and women’s hockey, somewhat shockingly, didn’t make an appearance until the 1980 Moscow games.

So what about women’s hockey—how did that evolve? Its beginning can be traced to British universities and schools in the 1880s. Sport or exercise for women was becoming more acceptable and, as croquet and tennis led the way, hockey was to follow.

The first women’s hockey club — Molesey Ladies Hockey Club — was founded in 1887, but it wasn’t until 1894 that the first national association was established in Ireland and became the Irish Ladies Hockey Union.


By 1927, the International Federation of Women’s Hockey Associations (IFWHA)* had been formed and the sport never looked back.

In part two we will learn just how far women did carry the baton, and how hockey in the twentieth century became a truly global game for women.


* The International Federation of Women’s Hockey Associations merged with the International Hockey Federation (FIH) in 1983.


International Hockey Federation (FIH)

Olympic Field Hockey

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