In our series on the history of women’s sports, Penny Hopkins explores the origins of rugby, why women were playing in secret, the amazing Miss Emily Valentine and rugby during the First World War.
In the world of women’s sport, particularly in the northern hemisphere, rugby has constantly slipped under the radar. It has never achieved the heights of publicity afforded to association football. Even in the 21st century, although its external profile is improving, it is still very much a poor relation compared with football and, to some extent, cricket. And yet, within the game itself, the last twenty years has seen the popularity of women’s rugby union explode. The view of the “outside world” may still be lagging behind, but in the rugby world the women’s game is flourishing and growing. It may not receive the media coverage it deserves (but then what women’s sport does?) however, those in the know realise the game is on the move, and importantly in the right direction. There will be more on this aspect of the sport in the latter parts of this history.
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What of its origins?
We know that the English Football Association (FA) banned women’s football for fifty years from 1921-1971 because we were told that it was “quite unsuitable for females and should not be encouraged”. So what about rugby? You would think that this would mean women’s rugby was a non-starter but actually it has a much longer, but patchy and more surprising history than might be assumed.
The story of the birth of rugby has passed into legend; the moment when William Webb-Ellis picked up the ball and ran with it during a football match at Rugby school in 1823. And even though there is little evidence to support the idea that it actually happened, it’s a great story and deserves to signal the origin of a new sport.
A mere fifty years later, in 1881, we see the first mention of women playing a sport akin to rugby in Liverpool, England. A series of football matches between England and Scotland had been taking place in June 1881, but then for some reason (still unknown) in the game on June 25 the players seemed to play a version of rugby instead.
It was a distant version, admittedly. Points in any kind of rugby were not introduced until 1886. Before that, results were down to “goals” – a “field goal” scored from open play or from a free kick or a “try” when a player touched down behind their opponent’s line. Even then tries were not counted unless the number of goals was level.
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The description in the Liverpool Mercury of June 27 certainly suggests it was a “rugby” game; “The Scotch team won the toss and kicked off, choosing the high ground with the wind behind them, they succeeded in making several touchdowns and one goal. After refreshing themselves with oranges, the ladies resumed play, exchanging ground. The Scotch team again forced the English on to their goal and had several touchdowns but the English, by a spirited dash, managed to get the ball through and made a goal. Shortly afterwards the Scotch team succeeded in making a second goal, and thus won the game.”
In 1895, a series of cigarette cards produced in Liverpool shows a woman in rugby attire. They were produced by Thomas Ogden to promote his “Otto de Rose” perfumed cigarettes for women.
In the same year these die-cut images were printed:
They could be by the same artist, although this has not been established. What it does suggest, however, is that there was some women’s rugby taking place. Frustratingly though, little else is known.
However, this is where we come to the stand-out event in women’s rugby in its early years and the amazing Miss Emily Valentine. Emily was a pupil at the Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh in Ireland. Her father, William Valentine, was the Assistant Headmaster. In 1887, Emily’s brothers, William and John, began to play rugby with friends and in one game, it is recorded, their sister joined in – not only playing, but scoring a try.
The school was failing at the time and as pupil numbers fell, its rugby team faltered. They still practiced and played intra-school games though and, as both school records and Emily’s memoirs made clear, she was very much part of the set-up, playing on the wing even in matches against outside teams.
Amazing? Yes. Essentially, Emily Valentine is the only female player in the nineteenth century to be known by name. In fact, Emily’s story has only relatively recently come to light and we are indebted to John Birch at Scrumqueens for uncovering the story.
In 1891, it is reported that a women’s team was lined-up to tour New Zealand, but this was cancelled before it even began due to public protest.
There are then reports that at the beginning of the twentieth century there were games played “behind closed doors” in both England and France.
But the next we hear of any actual public games occurring is during the First World War. At Cardiff Arms Park in Wales on December 16, 1917, a charity match took place where Cardiff Ladies defeated the Newport Ladies by 6-0. The Cardiff team all worked for the same company, Hancock’s Brewery.
While not a very auspicious start for the game, luckily there were plenty of intrepid, pioneering women determined to ensure that the sport would not only continue but thrive.
In part two we trace the development of the game from its stuttering start through to its first test match in 1982 and to the point where no less than 50 countries have fielded a national women’s side.
For more in our series of Women’s Sports History –