There cannot be many people in the country who are not aware that England’s ladies football team has been competing in the women’s World Cup and perhaps even watched their recent semi-final match against the United States on TV.

Their success has pulled in record TV audiences and undoubtedly greatly raised the profile of women’s football in the country.

So readers might be surprised to learn that in the UK women have been playing village football for at least 400 years and Association football (ie played to modern-day rules) for nearly 140 years. Women first began playing football in traditional village games, usually only on Shrove Tuesday.

The earliest record of women playing is in Scotland in 1628 when a Lanarkshire Reverend voiced his disapproval of men and women playing football on a Sunday.

Scotland was also the location for the first organized women’s match of Association football, when Scotland beat England 3 - 0 in Edinburgh on May 7, 1881. This was an initiative by a theatrical entrepreneur Alec Gordon, mostly to raise funds to assist the Blackburn Theatre Royal who were in administration at that time.

During the match a lady named Lily St Clare opened the scoring and thus became the first recorded goal-scorer in women’s football. Subsequent matches were played in Rutherglen, and Blackburn, Manchester and Liverpool.Other sides formed around that time also had theatrical connections. These included the British Ladies Club (BLC), who had a number of stage performers in their team. Also their fixtures were organised via the Musical and Dramatic agent W. G Sylvester. Initially Lady Florence Dixie, a Scottish writer and feminist, was president of the club but withdrew her support when their theatrical connections came to light. However the club continued to use her name for a tour to Dublin in 1896, when she sent an angry letter to the Irish Times deigning any continued association with them. The BLC was also ethnically diverse with the first recorded black player. Controversy rages however over her background and identity but she did play under the name “Miss Clarke”. For women to use a “nom de plume” when playing football was quite common at this time.

Another example is “Mrs Graham”, who was really Helen Matthew. With her sister Florence she played in a team organised by Alec Payne, another Edinburgh-born showman, in 1890. They were also early examples of female sports journalists.

Loakes Park, the former home of Wycombe Wanderers football club before they moved to Adams Park, was the venue for one of the first women’s football matches in southern England. This was in November 1895, shortly after the ground was opened. The match was between the North (who played in red) and the South (in blue). In the programme the ladies were described as being “only genuine players, with no connection with any other teams travelling”.

The match was fully reported in the Bucks Free Press under the heading Lady Footballers at Wycombe – “Captain Harper and his Committee are sometimes credited with doing venturesome things to provide attraction for local enthusiasts. The latest speculation on the part of the Wanderers’ executive – a visit of the ‘original lady footballers’ on Monday last - must be written down a success, the gate receipts registering over £18 ….. so that the Wanderers were able to add a little to their funds”. So presumably the match was arranged to raise funds for Wycombe Wanderers.

A large crowd assembled at Loakes Park, “while a still larger number had a free view from Tom Burt’s Hill and Barracks Road”.

The result was a (1) 4 - 0 victory for the North, all four goals being scored by their inside left. The South were captained by Mrs Graham (aka Miss Helen Matthew) who “kept goal in fine form” and was frequently cheered by the crowd.

It was said that “the play was of a very original order, only one or two of the performers having advanced beyond the alphabet of the game; but they put any amount of spirit into it and seemed to enjoy themselves as much as the spectators, who were very hilarious. If verbal instruction and encouragement could do it, the Reds and Blues ought to have emerged from the match finished exponents equal to Aston Villa.” It appears safe to assume that these early women’s Association football matches were generally for fund-raising purposes, the attraction for the spectators being the novelty of seeing ladies playing the game. It is probable that quite a few of the players were also involved in the women’s suffragist movement, which was gaining traction at the end of the 20th century. This would provide at least part of their motive for participating. I am indebted to Mr Stuart Gibbs for many of the facts in this article. He has researched the origins of women’s football for his book “The Strange Birth of Women’s Football”.