Women playing Rugby?! The Success Story of Newport, 1917

by Lydia Furse

Traditionally, rugby union is considered a man’s sport. Yet women’s rugby has been one of the fastest growing sports over the past 25 years, and World Rugby estimates 2.7 million women and girls are playing globally. While women’s rugby as we know it today emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s, mostly as young women formed teams at universities in France, the USA, Canada, and the UK, there is a long history of women playing with the oval ball. The earliest concrete evidence of women playing rugby comes from 1887. Women took to the pitch in Hull for a demonstration match on Easter Sunday, but a pitch invasion stopped the game. Meanwhile in Northern Ireland, a young girl by the name of Emily Valentine grabbed the ball and ran with it as part of a schoolboy game with her brothers’ team in 1887. Rugby has appealed to female participants throughout the sport’s past, yet took a long time before it was considered an acceptable female sport. During the Victorian era, women were discouraged from violent contact sports, and the myth of female fragility plagued women for the better part of the twentieth century, curtailing their physical opportunities for decades. Yet, on occasion, women successfully took to the rugby pitch. Historian Lydia Furse explores the incredible story of Newport Ladies Rugby Team, 1917-1918, and considers the specific historical context that allowed women’s rugby in South Wales to flourish, if only for a short time.

Newport Ladies Rugby Football Team, 1917-1918, World Rugby Museum.

The Newport Ladies Rugby Football Team formed from munition factory workers at the National Cartridge and Box Repairing Factory. The teams were designated ‘Mr J. Triggs XV’ and ‘Mr J. Hillman’s XV’, and the women initially played in exhibition games against each other in October 1917. Triggs and Hillman appear to have acted as coaches for the two teams, training the young women after their days labour in the munition factory at the Newport docks.

The games were incredibly popular, attracting large crowds whose entry money was used for local fundraising – the Royal Gwent Hospital, the Cwmbran Wounded Soldiers Fund, and the Munitions Crèche at Newport all benefitted from money raised at women’s rugby matches, and at Barry a game was part of a larger carnival raising over £120,000 to buy a submarine for the war effort.

Over 10,000 attended a match of the Newport Ladies Rugby Team at Cardiff Arms Park on 16th October 1917, which raised money for the St. John Ambulance Brigade, and this match inspired the creation of a Cardiff Ladies Team who played against Newport on 15th December 1917.

Cardiff Ladies Rugby Football Team 1917-1918, Cardiff Rugby Museum Online Collection, ID: 0752.

The Newport Ladies Rugby Team inspired a movement of women onto the local Welsh rugby pitches, which had been left barren except for boys teams due to the conscription of young men to serve during the First World War. Rugby Union matches were largely suspended during the war, which deprived the keen Welsh audiences of their favourite sporting pastime. The Newport munition factory workers filled a gap in the sporting calendar, and were lauded for their efforts. According to the local press, the women were welcomed onto the pitch. Official referee Mr R. Pollock oversaw several of the women’s matches, and commented that ‘he had refereed many a worse game between male teams.’ Former Cardiff players praised the women as ‘quite up to the Welsh standard’, and the press reports focused on game play as much as the charitable aims, suggesting that the women were providing a true sporting spectacle.

The Newport Ladies Rugby Team, and the local surge of women’s rugby games in South Wales that they inspired, unfortunately came to an end in 1918. Maria Eley, who played full back for Cardiff at sixteen years old and lived to be 106, recalled ‘We loved it. It was such fun with us all playing together on the pitch, but we had to stop when the men came back from the war, which was a shame. Such great fun we had.’ For the Welsh women, a gender segregated playing space was integral to their rugby playing opportunities, which vanished with the return of male rugby players after the Armistice.

The Newport Ladies are a fascinating example of women successfully playing rugby union during the first part of the twentieth century. The First World War created specific opportunities for women to work outside the home, which facilitated their participation in sports organised by the middle-class factory managers. The framing of the Newport Ladies rugby games as fundraising activities also mitigated any transgression in their actions, although newspaper reports suggest that the games were well received. The women were praised for their sporting prowess, yet after the war the women’s matches stopped. The dearth of men’s rugby created an environment in which women could take to the rugby pitch to acclaim, however, their actions were considered transgressive and inappropriate following the armistice.

Research is ongoing to match the names of players with their faces in these photographs – if you think you recognise an ancestor, please comment or get in contact as we would love to hear from you! 

About the Author:

Lydia Furse is a final year PhD student working on ‘Women in Rugby Union: A Social and Cultural History, 1880-2016’ at De Montfort University and working with the World Rugby Museum, Twickenham. As a player, referee and coach, Lydia writes as a member of the women’s rugby community with an emphasis on creating accessible heritage for the community.

You can follow Lydia on Twitter @lydzfursey for links to blogs and podcasts and check out more stories of women’s rugby history via @scrumqueens.

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