New Zealand women’s rugby 100 years ago

Most of the early history of women’s rugby we have highlighted has concerned the game in Europe, from Emily Valentine in Ireland in the 1880s to the charity games in Wales during the First World War.

Published by John Birch, January 3rd, 2018

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New Zealand women’s rugby 100 years ago

A New Zealand rugby team from 1947 - but recently published research show that the game was being played in New Zealand over 30 years before

Inher interviewearlier this week, Lydia Furse mentioned the large number of articles on the history and development of women’s rugby that exist in academic journals. Unfortunately for anyone outside academia much of this material is hidden behind massive paywalls (£30 per article is not unusual). However, Lydia has highlighted one fascinating articles to us – and in this case it is currently accessible without cost.

Published inThe International Journal of the History of Sport,Before the ‘Black Ferns’: Tracing the Beginnings of Women’s Rugby in New Zealand– written by Jennifer Curtin from the University of Auckland – covers women’s attempts to play rugby from the late 19thcentury through to the 1920s.

Remarkably the earliest reference she has found goes back to around 1868 where a rugby historian – looking back from 20 years later – recalls “a crowd of all sorts, sizes, ages and sexes punting a small black football” in Auckland. What football code they were playing (if there were any rules at all) is not known, and it is also about three years before the formation of the RFU, but it does give further support to the suggestion we have always made – that whenever women have been given the chance to play, they have played (even if no-one has reported it).

When the press did notice, attempts by women to play sport resulted in comments that unfortunately sound very familiar today. One reporter in theNew Zealand Graphic Ladies Journalnoted for example that, “you [ladies] may play tennis but as played by you deserving of condemnation rather than commendation … Inadequately equipped, inappropriately attired, [the] majority were hopeless”.

Nevertheless, women continued to play a range of sports, and the core of the article is about a remarkable attempt to form two professional women’s rugby teams to tour the tour Australia and New Zealand… in 1891.

At its heart the venture sounds very like the 1881 “football” tour of Scotland and northern Englandthat we wrote about five years ago. In this case the entrepreneur was a Mrs Nita Webb, probably aged only about 26, who advertised in newspapers across the country for 30 players to tour Australia and New Zealand playing exhibition games, offering to pay travel costs as well as caring for them and supporting their training.

The article highlights the level of opposition this produced, but also include Nita’s brilliant response to that criticism, which would also not have been out of place 100 years later:

“… you state that ‘A travelling football team appears to us to be of this character’ (ie unwomanly). Which, may I ask, is unwomanly – the travelling part of the scheme or the footballing? You surely cannot mean the former, as you welcome the arrival of theatrical companies largely composed of ladies, and this admits their right to travel together for public amusement. It must, therefore, be the footballing part of the scheme that displeased the editorial ‘we’ as ‘unwomanly’ [my emphasis]. In this age are not my sex coming to the front in every line? As doctors, lawyers. Scholars, are they not successful? Yet it is only after years of bitter opposition that their right to the professions has been acknowledged. In athletics a similar prejudice used to prevail in even a stronger degree, but is not that rapidly dying out? It was then the ‘correct thing’ for a young lady to lounge about, to be delicate, pale, and slim; but everywhere now that girl is considered the most ladylike who takes her exercises and enjoys the consequent good appetite and colour”

There is plenty of evidence that Nita managed to get her players together – a newspaper in Poverty Bay in June 1891 says “Thirty girls are training here [in Auckland] in the game of football, and are shortly to travel the colonies and play against each other as separate teams of fifteen each”, and further reports say that that the players were to receive 10/- per week (in addition to travel costs) – equivalent to a salary of over £220 per week today. A possible venue for an initial fixture was even mentioned.

But one month later it seems the whole scheme had fallen apart. The coverage in local newspapers – detailed in Jennifer Curtin’s article – was, perhaps, just the tip of the iceberg of opposition that Nita and her players received (perhaps, again, the the experiences of the 1881 football teams in England is also a guide). In addition her husband being sued for fraud at the same time which possibly did not help (he was acquitted). After this Nita Webb later moved to Australia, and disappears from history.

Women’s interest in rugby did not disappear with Nita Webb, however. As usual we are only given tantalising glimpses of what might have been happening, but Jennifer Curtin has found mention of attempts to form a women’s “football” (ie. rugby) club in 1898 100km south of Auckland. It is not known whether they succeeded, or come to that how many other women were trying to form teams.

The next mentions are, much as in the UK, associated with the First World War, by Jennifer’s research has come up with a game that pre-dates thefamous game at Cardiff Arms Park in 1917by a full two years.

In May 1915 the single and married ladies of the Combined Sports Bodies Committees played a match at Athletic Park, Wellington, with a second match - sponsored by the Oriental Club and endorsed by the Wellington Rugby Union - taking place in the same month, with the players wearing “jerseys and short skirts”, and a “lady” acting as referee.

This means that we have a new mark as the world’s first known women’s rugby match.

Other games followed – as Jennifer details. Women’s rugby (and matches played to other football codes) became common.

But what follows the war is also an astonishingly familiar story to anyone who has read about women’s association football in the UK, and women’s rugby league in Australia. Games continue after the war, with a match between a Wellington team and Napier in late 1921 attracting coverage. Women’s rugby clubs begin to appear, leagues are proposed – but opposition, this time based on “medical” reasons rather than social grounds - grows. After 1922 the game goes into rapid decline, official bodies turn their backs on it, and newspaper coverage all but ceases – as Jennifer says at the end of her article, “spectacle games continue while officially sanctioned games remain hidden from view assuming they did take place”.

These are just the highlights from of Jennifer Curtin’s 10-page article, which is well worth a longer read (including the footnotes, where the background to Black Ferns nickname is revealed), and also the first taste of what Lydia Furse is beginning to uncover and bring into the open,

More exciting discoveries can be expected!