This summer the Scotland Women’s senior side made history by making their first appearance at a major championship. The European Championships held in Netherlands would have bitter sweet memories for the players and their fans – from the disastrous opening loss to England to the so near and yet so far win against Spain. But as everyone regroups to go again it might be worth examining the story of what is now one of the fastest growing sports for women.

Most people are familiar with the Munitionettes and the Dick Kerr Ladies but what are the origins of the sport? It has come to light this century that the first association football match between female teams took place in Edinburgh during 1881 but the details were sketchy and open to misinterpretation. It’s only now that the inside story of the strange birth of women’s football can be told.

It was the growing popularity of men’s international football which would give an Edinburgh born theatre entrepreneur, Alec Gordon, the inspiration to organise women’s association sides. The 1881 England vs. Scotland match was particularly notable. Taking place at London’s Kennington Oval it would see Andrew Watson – the first black player to captain an international side – leading the Scots to a handsome 6-1 win.

Looking to cash in, Gordon’s female alternative would also be a Scotland vs. England fixture, and in his search for a backer, he came across Charles Scholes, head of a theatrical empire with interests across the country. Scholes would be more than receptive to the football tour idea. By 1880, his holdings had hit the rocks with debts amounting to £2,500 so with the Blackburn solicitor Thomas Ainsworth handling the administration, Scholes was in need of a cash injection.

Men’s football often ends in administration but women’s football began with it. One of Scholes’ theatre managers, George Frederick Charles (known in London as George Imbert), was also roped into the enterprise as was Scholes’ wife Nancy. The England side was drawn mostly from Lizzie Gilbert’s Juvenile Ballet Company and augmented by minor performers and dancers such as Mabel Grey and Mary Goodwin.

In the later years of the 19th century, Glasgow had become a major centre for football with large crowds regularly filling the terraces. It seemed the obvious place to site the matches, and so in mid-April, Gordon and his party arrived in the city.

Scotland squad players such as Lily St. Clare also came from Lizzie Gilbert’s Troupe but the bulk of the side were drawn from the Princess’s Theatre house company. Based in the Gorbals area of Glasgow, the Princess’s is now known as the Citizen’s Theatre and players may have trained in the theatre’s rehearsal space – a drill hall adjacent to the Tron Church near Glasgow Cross.

Finding a ground in the city to present what was being called the Lady Players proved to be problematic. As a result, Scholes – once a licence holder of the Leith Theatre Royal – called on his local connections, with the result that Hibernian’s Easter Road ground would host the debut of women’s football.

Preparations for the game were set against a backdrop of political change; Florence Harberton and Eliza Mary King had just formed the Rational Dress Society to challenge the dress convention of the age and Glasgow MP Charles Cameron was pushing through the Female Municipal Franchise Act to extend the voting rights of woman in Scotland for local elections. Taking advantage of this political firmament, Gordon and Scholes declared that the Lady Players had been organised, ‘for the purpose of popularising football as a feminine pastime by means of playing public matches.’ It was noted in many reports that the players wore the conventional football kit of the period and although they weren’t really part of the movement, the players turned out to be more radical than the radicals.

The teams took to the Easter Road pitch on May 7th at just after three o’clock. The England side had the best of the opening exchanges with the crowd being entertained by the defenders’ high-pitched shrieks whenever the ball came near their goal, but with half an hour gone a breakaway move saw Lily St. Clare send the ball between the English posts to ironic cheers from the crowd. She was the first recorded goal scorer in women’s football.

With the Scots team taking the lead, play seemed to swing round in their favour with the opposition rarely leaving their own half. Further goals were added in the second period. Louise Cole increased Scotland’s lead on the hour mark with Isa Stevenson setting up Maud Rimeford to tap in the third. The Scotland side’s 3-0 success received extensive press coverage, not only at home but abroad too with papers such as the New York Sun, the Montreal Daily Mail and the Sydney Evening News carrying the story. Women’s football was a global event right from the very start.

The players were subjected to some jostling as they left the Easter Road pitch, but worse was to come when they returned to Glasgow. An almightily row broke out among the squad with some players walking out while others were thrown out. The Princess’s manager, Hardcourt Cecil Beryl, stepped in to supply able replacements with the result that the England side now contained some Scots girls and they would have a true baptism of fire in the next match played on May 17th at the Shawfield Athletics Ground in Rutherglen.

A large mob which had gathered outside the ground piled over the barricades surrounding the bank, hurling jeers and numerous vulgarities at the players. The rather expensive cost of admission (one shilling) seemed to have been a motivating factor for the ground invasion, and among the hordes were mill girls from Rutherglen – perhaps the earliest example of female football hooligans.

With the score still 0-0, the ropes surrounding the pitch were cut early in the second half leading to a full-scale pitch invasion. The sides had been due to play at Kilmarnock Portland’s Ground the following evening but as a result of the riot, the Burgh Court placed a prohibition order on Portland hosting the match. In response Scholes would elicit the help of Blackburn councillor Charles Boothman a patron of Blackburn Olympic, and so just days after the Ayrshire court ruling the sides would appear at Olympics’ Hole-i’-th’-Wall ground on May 21st, 1881. A 4,000-strong crowd saw a dour encounter decided during a late scramble in the Scots’ goalmouth which led to the ball being bundled over the line. The England side would also enjoy a 2-1 win at the Queens Hotel Athletic Ground in Sheffield followed by a 1-1 draw in Liverpool. Attempts to play in Manchester would flounder, especially when a local agent working for the troupe made off with the gate receipts just before a match at Salford’s Rugby ground.

As it turned out, Charles Scholes wouldn’t be the only person with money troubles. The attorney handling his administration – Thomas Ainsworth – was himself in debt to the tune of £7,000. Matters would come to a head at his Showley Fold residence on the morning of June 13th where he signed a petition for the liquidation of his affairs. Shortly after this meeting Ainsworth would retire to his bedroom where he would shoot himself in the head. An inquest held days later would rule that he had been in a state of temporary insanity at the time of the incident. The show, however, would go on with Nancy Scholes, a native of Pudsey, using her local connections to secure a match at the Windhill Cricket ground, where Scotland would enjoy a 3-2 win. On June 20th the sides would finally take the field in Manchester with three matches planned at the Cheetham FC Rugby Ground. However, like Shawfield these fixtures would be marred by pitch invasions and only two attempts to play were made before a halt was called.

In a last desperate attempt to make the money they needed the group returned to Merseyside on June 25th for a series of matches at the Cattle Market Inn Athletics Ground. Scotland would win the opening match 2-1 but the game was modestly attended leaving the situation rather bleak. They would be rescued by a large turn out the following Monday evening which Scotland duly won, this time 2-0. Another match was advertised for the next evening although no report of this fixture exists. However, it seems that venture had made it over the financial finish line.

It would take until 2007 before Jessica Macbeth would first reference the exploits of the Lady Players in her contribution to the publication Woman, Football and Europe but quite why these matches should have remained obscure for so long is a mystery. Many may reflect on the history of women’s football as a long struggle but it was never more uphill than during the first tour of 1881. But now they have a new fight and this time it’s a battle for their place in history.

Recently the debut of the British Ladies Football Club played on March 23rd, 1895 at Crouch End, North London has been put forward as the first official women’s match. An article written in 2015 for the FIFA web-site tried to explain the rationale behind this new classification:

Games had been played in the early 1880s, noted the un-named source. But for various reasons were not able to be classified as official fixtures. The meeting between North and South at Crouch End Athletic Ground London therefore goes down as the first.

 No clarification is given to what these ‘reasons’ could be for discounting the 1881 matches and the others that followed going into the early 1890s. A Guardian article from 2014 suggested that the during 1881 tour matches the players occasionally changed sides but there isn’t any evidence to support this and that first match at least contained a genuine Scotland vs. England line up. It could also be that the strong theatrical connections of the Lady Players may have counted against them but a closer examination of the British Ladies Club show similar theatre connections through figures such as the Paisley Theatre manager Eade Montefiore. At least six theatricals played in the BLFC including the Montefiore starlet Lena Horwood belying the side’s claims to be of the middle classes. Indeed, when the background of the players came to light in the spring of 1895 the British Ladies’ high-profile backer, Lady Florence Dixie, would withdraw her support. The London club it seems was no different from any other side operating at this time. This, however, is of little relevance to the Scottish Football Museum’s curator, Richard McBrearty.

‘It’s quite clear from press reports that they (the Lady Players) were playing proper football under the rules of the Association code. It doesn’t matter what their occupation was – that would be like discounting football matches played by pit teams on account of the players being miners! If the 1881 matches were being organised cynically in an attempt to ‘make money’ or otherwise raise the profile of the participants so what… that is in effect why professionalism in the men’s game came about.’

Richard has already been in touch with FIFA over the issue and SFA Chief Executive Stewart Regan is set to push the case for the Lady Players. So, in another strange twist, middle aged men will take the Lady Players fight to the corridors of power. Oddly, the return of the Lady Players into the public consciousness was anticipated 136 years earlier by a contributor to the Glasgow paper the Bulletin.

On the light fantastic toe

Speed towards the goal the ball;

Kick and charge, and catch and throw –

What, although the end’s a brawl.

Blackguards those who cut their stick;

When you return, till then the hope

Besides the ball you’ve them to kick.