Ladies, behind closed doors

vive la differenceExtract from ‘Rugger Shorts: reflections on the amateur game

What may surprise is not that women play rugby, but that they have done so since the 19th century, albeit with little publicity and not much encouragement. The secretive nature of the early years of women’s sport — and especially rugby union — ensures its historical obscurity.

We do know that the (mainly male) public reaction to women playing contact sports was often contemptuous, sometimes even violent. In 1881, when teams played a number of exhibition ‘football’ games in Scotland and northern England, they had to be abandoned due to rioting in or around the grounds. There were early reports of women’s rugby union being played in New Zealand where in 1891 a feisty group had their proposed overseas tour cancelled (‘too independent for their own good’). Later in France in 1903 and England in 1913, but in both cases the games were played behind closed doors.

However, in December 1917 during World War One at a well-documented charity game at Cardiff Arms Park the Cardiff Ladies beat the Newport Ladies 6–0. A certain Maria Eley played fullback for Cardiff that day, and went on to become probably the oldest women’s rugby player, dying in Cardiff in 2007 at the age of 106. The Cardiff XV all worked for the local brewery William Hancock (possibly inspired and encouraged by Frank Hancock, a company director who had played for Wales). Interestingly they all wore protective headgear, some decades before it became popular with male rugby players. After World War One the women’s game in France at least had appeared from behind the doors, as the ladies magazine ‘Les Sportives’ journal illustré féminin in their January 1924 issue featured a front page photo of Lille Rugby Athlétic Club.

‘Rugger for girls’

Another advocate for women’s rugby was Colonel Philip Trevor CBE (1863-1932) born in Richmond Surrey, who had five daughters of his own (Phyllis, Violet, Dorothy, Evelyn and Enid). He had served as Captain in the 2nd Norfolk Regiment in the Anglo-Boer War, and during the Great War was Assistant Director of Ordnance Services in London. He had written books on cricket and was the rugby correspondent of the Daily Telegraph. In his book, Rugby Union Football, published in 1923, he opens with the chapter The Game’s Popularity – Rugger for Girls’.

His daughters, who by this time were teenagers and intent on enjoying themselves and flouting conventional standards of behavior, suggested a family conference in 1913. The end result being that they and a bunch of friends trooped off to a secluded beach for a game of rugger, 15-a-side with more players available if the need arose. Colonel Trevor who acted as referee marveled at the skills of the girls and described how they improvised with kit, by wearing bathing hats to lessen the chance of being ‘tackled’ by the hair.

The youngest rugger playing daughter Enid Trevor became a stage and film actress, (not surprisingly perhaps as she was great-grand-niece of 18th century actor manager David Garrick.) Her stage debut in the West End was playing cockney character parts. Later she joined a concert party as a comedienne; and met Claude Hulbert a Cambridge graduate. Hulbert had been a member of the Footlights comedy club and became a well-known British comic actor, although less successful than his older brother Jack. They married in 1928. They appeared together on BBC radio and leapt into popularity in a domestic quarreling sketch ‘Some More Nonsense’ written by her husband.

Antonia Fraser DBE [née Pakenham], the historical author in her ‘A memoir of growing up’, recalls one of the things remembered most fondly from her childhood was games of rugger. All the girls at ‘Dragon School’ her prep-school in north Oxford, in those days played rugger as a matter of course, there was nothing special about it. Antonia played on the wing for the A XV and found it ‘intoxicating’. Years later whilst watching an Army v Navy match at Twickenham, with her first husband the Under-Secretary of War, she had to stop a benevolent general attempting to explain the rules of the game, after assuring him to his incredulity that she knew the game perfectly well –having played it. Another ‘Old Dragon’ as the former pupils are known was Ronnie Poulton-Palmer whose illustrious rugby career was cut short in World War One

From these ad-hoc beginnings, women’s rugby -“a sport for women of a non-conformist cast of mind” gained popularity and the first women’s rugby international match was played in Hilversum, Holland in 1982 where the home side were defeated 4-0 by France. Changing attitudes had by the 1990s made the Rugby Football Union recognise the English Women’s game and they finally amalgamated in 2012. The women’s game has gone from strength to strength in recent decades, after the first Women’s World Cup in 1991 –won by the USA. In 2014 England, won the Women’s Rugby World Cup in Paris for the second time, after a convincing win over Canada 21-9. What is remarkable about their great sporting achievement, is the fact not one of the team are full-time professional athletes, unlike the men, they are all are amateurs. Today, more than 18,000 women and girls regularly play rugby in England alone!


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