Womens Sports History

A History of Netball – Part 1 of 4

A History of Netball - Martina_Bergman_Österberg

Penny Hopkins delves into the history of netball – the story behind the fastest growing women’s team sport of Netball beginning with its origins from 19th Century America and how it crossed the Atlantic to become a staple sport for schoolgirls across the country.


The year is 1891, the place, Springfield, Massachusetts in the U.S. Canadian James Naismith has been tasked with coming up with an indoor game that will wear out the excitable young men staying at the School for Christian Workers (later known as the Young Men’s Christian Association – YMCA). And believe it or not, his answer was to nail a peach basket to the wall at each end of the gym, split the young men into teams and get them to put a ball in the basket to score a point. And thus basketball was born. As Naismith had 18 young men to deal with, he made it nine to a team; three forwards, three guards and three centres – and so began the history of netball!

It was all about making it “suitable” for women to play

So far, so good. But, in those ‘enlightened-so-far-but-no-further’ times, this new game was considered too rough for women to play, so it was up to female physical education teachers to adapt it to make it more acceptable.

Early Netball

The first women to get involved were at Smith College in Northampton, MA, near to Naismith’s school. Senda Berenson, a gym teacher at the college, attempted to tone down the strenuous nature of the game by dividing the court into three zones, with three players assigned to each and not allowed to leave their allotted zone. The ball could not be held for more than three seconds nor bounced more than three times. Smith College hosted the first game of women’s basketball in 1892 and it took off immediately, spreading like wildfire across the United States.

However, different versions were adopted in different places. The idea of having areas which players had to stick to cropped up in different versions of the women’s game throughout America, but in different forms and for different reasons.

For example, in 1895, Clara Baer, a sports teacher at Sophie Newcomb College in New Orleans, wrote to Naismith asking him for a set of rules for basketball. And here is where it gets a bit odd. Naismith sent her the rules, including a diagram of the court, split into areas. In Naismith’s game the players were allowed free movement – the divisions were suggestions as to where the players should actually be playing, but Baer interpreted this as meaning that certain players couldn’t leave those areas.


Baer went on to publish her set of rules as a game for women, and Naismith commented that her version of the game differed so much from his that it should have a new name. She took his advice and called her game “basquette”.

There was no dribbling with the ball and no guarding.

Although Baer and Berenson were coming to similar conclusions regarding the shape of the women’s game, there were still many differences between basquette and the game played by Berenson’s Smith College.


In Baer’s published rules, the teams now comprised seven players, but the court was split into seven zones rather than three and each player was assigned to one zone. There was no dribbling with the ball and no guarding. It was all about making it “suitable” for women to play; to give them poise and posture, as opposed to being a physical, competitive workout.

By 1895 the sport had made its way across the Atlantic, with the first recorded game in England being played at Martina Bergman-Österberg’s College in Hampstead, London. We should, perhaps, pause here to consider Bergman-Osterberg’s contribution to women’s physical education in England.   Swedish by birth, Bergman-Österberg was a renowned supporter of women’s suffrage in both Sweden and England, and a proponent of physical education for women and girls. She founded the first PE instructors’ college for women only and was instrumental in the campaign to make physical education a mandatory subject in the English school curriculum – a woman committed to making the lives of girls and women better in a time when they were all too often dismissed as irrelevant.

Bergman-Österberg visited the U.S. in 1893 and saw how basketball or basquette was sweeping the nation as a sport for women. On her return to London she immediately set about teaching it to her students. Over the next four years she invited visiting American teachers to show her students how the game was developing Stateside and by 1897 the sport, now known as “net ball” was a firm favourite at her college.

From England the sport’s popularity naturally spread throughout the British Empire, although different versions of the game were played until the rules were finally ratified internationally in, believe it or not, as late as 1960.

In Part Two of A History of Netball, I’ll be examining the spread of the game in greater detail and outlining the development of the netball powerhouses.

Penny Hopkins The History of Netball

Penny Hopkins

Penny Hopkins is a freelance journalist and writer from the UK, specialising in women’s sport. Her passions are cricket and the political and social issues surrounding women’s sport. She believes that women are underrepresented in all areas of sport, that it’s time the balance was redressed and is proud to be helping to do just that. Whether it be at elite level, in the boardroom, in the media centre, on the touchline, at grassroots level or at the local gym, women in sport should be recognised for their expertise, knowledge and talent. Penny writes, blogs and campaigns on issues surrounding women’s sport and also loves reporting on live sport. Penny would have loved a cricketing career, but this was never offered as option when she was growing up, so now she plays netball and badminton with vigour and passion. She has her own website – pennyjhopkins.wordpress.com – and also writes for women’s views on news for Women’s Sports UK.

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