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Alexandra Palace women's football: When a team of female pioneers took over Ally Pally

PUBLISHED: 18:00 29 July 2019

A sketch of the first official women's football match, held in Hornsey in 1895. Picture: Hornsey Historical Society/Daily Graphic

A sketch of the first official women's football match, held in Hornsey in 1895. Picture: Hornsey Historical Society/Daily Graphic

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Megan Rapinoe, Lucy Bronze, Marta - for perhaps the first time ever, this summer finally saw the stars of women's football become the household names they had always deserved to be.

Nettie Honeyball. Picture; Public Domain / The Daily SketchNettie Honeyball. Picture; Public Domain / The Daily Sketch

The women's game has grown massively in the last 25 years, but Rapinoe, Bronze et al were all also following in the footsteps of some pioneering 19th century women who began kicking a ball about in the grounds of Ally Pally.

The United Ladies Football Club called Alexandra Palace Park home as early as 1895, and the park might well have hosted the first women's football match in England - between teams representing north and south London from within the club.

Members of the Hornsey Historical Society have compiled a short history of the game, but what they've been able to put together has left them desperate to fill in the gaps, too.

Jennifer Bell from the HHS told this newspaper: "We had been inspired to find out what we could about women's football in Hornsey.

Bill Julian, coach of the first official women's football team. Picture: Public Domain/Der Review Der SportenBill Julian, coach of the first official women's football team. Picture: Public Domain/Der Review Der Sporten

"Not just from the queries we get, but obviously given its popularity and the World Cup, too.

"We had a bit of an idea that Emma Clarke [one of the first black female footballers] had a memorial in this area, but that was most of what we knew."

The pitch is, the HHS learnt from studying old maps, likely to be somewhere in the vicinity of the modern-day Campsbourne School in Nightingale Lane.

"We were able to find out a little, but there are still lots of gaps. We'd love to hear from anyone who knows their great-granny played football!"

Coached by a centre-half from Tottenham Hotspur's men's team called Bill Julian, the club is thought to have been bankrolled by Florence Dixie, the youngest daughter of the Marquis of Queesbury, and their captain was a woman called Nettie Honeyball.

At the time, it's thought Nettie lived in Crouch End, which may explain why Alexandra Park became their pitch.

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In an interview with the long-defunct Daily Sketch newspaper, she explained setting up the club had its foundation in female emancipation.

She said she had founded the association "with the fixed resolve of proving to the world that women are not the 'ornamental and useless' creatures men have pictured".

Nettie, whose real name is thought to have been Mary Hutson, added: "I must confess, my convictions on all matters where the sexes are so widely divided are all on the side of emancipation, and I look forward to the time when ladies may sit in Parliament and have a voice in the direction of affairs, especially those which concern them most."

The Friends of Alexandra Palace Park's Gordon Hutchinson led a walk at the park when the HHS published its work earlier in the summer.

Gordon added: "It's incredible. If you look at the newspapers you can see people were really interested in this."

He's not wrong. Contemporary accounts talk of 10,000 people making their way along Middle Lane towards the pitch. The Daily Sketch called it an "astonishing sight in the neighbourhood of the Nightingale Lane Ground, Crouch End, on Saturday afternoon. Crouch End itself rubbed its eyes and pinched its arms".

But in talking about the football some local reviewers exhibited some of the snark and retrograde thinking today's female footballers will sadly still recognise.

The Daily Sketch's correspondent was scathing and said: "A footballer requires speed, judgement, skill, and pluck. Not one of these four qualities was apparent on Saturday. For the most part, the ladies wandered aimlessly over the field at an ungraceful jog-trot."

The Hornsey Journal's correspondent 'Phoenix' was also less than complimentary, adding: "There was an enormous gathering - the number probably approached 10,000. There was a great curiosity as to the ability of females to play football.

"If, as has been asserted, this football match is an outcome of the ambition of the New Woman, it should be sufficient to teach her one of her limitations. As a display of football, it was execrable."

A taste of the scorn to come, but it's clear that in 1895, Hornsey was home to the same feminist spirit shown by today's female footballing greats. Honeyball and Clarke helped pave the way for Rapinoe and Bronze.

Can you add to the story of women's football in Hornsey? The HHS welcomes contributions to hornseyhistoricalarchives@gmail.com

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