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Can Grimsby lay claim to a milestone in women's football?

Believed to be first photo of a women’s football match the British Women’s FC at Wycombe in 1896
Image caption Mr Heywood said the female players were, at best regarded as "eccentric and a novelty"

It was a sight that broke all taboos and came at a time when some medical opinion said it was unsafe for women to play sports such as football.

So when a group of women had the "temerity" to gather to play football in Hull in 1886, it stopped people in their tracks and the authorities made every effort to stop the game.

It took the women several attempts to find a pitch where they could play, and after being moved on again, the game finally descended into chaos as the crowds demanded their money back.

However, the "treasurer" was nowhere to be seen, having already disappeared with the profits.

The game is recorded in a long-forgotten book, recently unearthed in a Grimsby library, and experts believe it could be evidence of England's earliest women's football team.

The Grimsby women's team was apparently founded in the autumn of 1886, and its members played just two matches.

The first women's game recorded for anywhere in the world was thought to have been held in Glasgow five years earlier.

Brian Heywood, the historian behind the latest claim, said the history of women's football ran parallel with the fight for women's rights.

Terrible fiasco

According to the book, the women's first game was at the Victoria Cricket Ground in Grimsby and the second at a rugby ground in Hull.

The evidence for the club's existence was found during research for a social history project at Grimsby Town Football Club called Trawlers and Footballers.

Image caption Nettie Honeyball: "Women are not the ornamental and useless creatures... "

In the Grimsby library, sports historian Mr Heywood came across a 1912 book called Reminiscences of Sport in Grimsby.

Its author, Bob Lincoln, played in the late-1870s during the early years of Grimsby Town.

In Mr Lincoln's football chapter for autumn 1886, Mr Heywood came across the following paragraph:

"This season some individuals had the temerity to run a team of lady footballers, and they applied for a match on the Clee Park, which was refused.

"Nothing daunted, they secured the Victoria Cricket Ground. A fair crowd assembled.

"It was a terrible fiasco, and the fair maidens had a lively time, as they were unmercifully chaffed by the Pontoonites.

"Leaving here they appeared on the Holderness Road Ground. The fixture terminated in a riot.

"The people demanded their money back, but the treasurer was more than seven, and when they arrived at the turnstiles, he had departed hence with no less than 170 of the best. Quite a haul.''

The "Pontoonites" were workers on the pontoons at Grimsby's fish docks and it is thought that being "more than seven" meant not being naive.

Volatile and vigorous

The possible significance of the paragraph in Mr Lincoln's book has gone unrecognised for 100 years.

Tony Collins, director of the International Centre for Sports History at De Montfort University, said it was a "really interesting discovery".

"It is one more piece to demonstrate women played football, of one sort or another, in the 1880s," he added.

Mr Heywood said women playing football at that time would have "broken all taboos". The sport was regarded as volatile and vigorous and unsuited to women.

Image caption The FA banned games involving women's teams from its grounds in 1921

Some contemporary medical opinion even said it was unsafe for women to play sports such as football.

The two matches were apparently between the club's own members but the decision to charge entrance money to watch inexperienced players backfired.

Mr Collins said the matches would have been "commercial attractions" to bring people into a ground.

Mr Heywood said the female players were, at best regarded as "eccentric and a novelty", and at worst they were subjected to intimidation.

He said the book's record gave an "intriguing glance" into the sporting world of the 1880s and was consistent with information available on other early women's matches.

"This is not the end of the story, I can't believe there weren't other women's teams but I am not aware of any."

In the 1890s, the British Ladies Football Club's secretary and captain, Nettie Honeyball, was quoted as being keen to prove women were "not the ornamental and useless creatures men have pictured".

'Unsuitable for females'

But perhaps the most famous women's team was formed at a munitions works - Dick, Kerr and Co, in Preston - during WWI.

On 26 December 1920 a record crowd of 53,000 watched Dick Kerr Ladies beat St Helen's Ladies 4-0 at Goodison Park.

By 1920-21, eight women's teams took part in a Yorkshire Cup.

But in 1921 the Football Association (FA) banned women's games from its grounds, saying that "the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged".

The ban was not overturned for 50 years.

Spurred on by England's 1966 World Cup win - and in the context of the political and social upheaval of the 1960s - the Women's Football Association was formed with 44 member clubs in 1969.

And the FA said its figures from last year showed women's football was now the third largest team sport behind men's football and men's cricket.

A total of 1.4 million women and girls now play the game regularly in England.

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