Who were the forgotten pioneers of professional women's cricket?

BY Giles Wilcock

24th Apr 2024 Sport

4 min read

Who were the forgotten pioneers of professional women's cricket?
In his new book Forgotten Pioneers, Giles Wilcock tells the extraordinary tale of the world’s first professional women cricket players
On 19 July 1890, Turf Moor—usually the home of Burnley Football Club—hosted an event which would have been unthinkable 12 months earlier but which had become almost commonplace. Around 5,000 spectators had paid upwards of 6d (pence) to watch an exhibition match between two teams of professional women cricketers. The two teams, the “Reds” and the “Blues”, were collectively known as the Original English Lady Cricketers (OELC).
"In 1890, around 5,000 watched a match between two teams of professional women cricketers "
Throughout the summer of 1890, the teams had been touring Britain, captivating audiences with their performances and generating substantial publicity. While women’s cricket was not unheard of at the time, this experimental team had no precedent. People simply did not pay to watch women—who had a carefully defined and restricted role in Victorian Britain—play cricket, nor any other sport. And the more high-minded members of society deeply disapproved of professionalism in sport; for women to be paid for playing cricket was scandalous.

Origins of women’s cricket

In the autumn of 1889, Walter Bosanquet and Edward Michell between them created the idea that evolved over the following months into the first professional women’s cricket team in the world.
By late 1889, advertising had begun to appear in newspapers and early in 1890 the organisation that came to be called the Original English Lady Cricketers was attracting a lot of attention.

Women’s cricket in the 19th century

Women's cricket illustration from 1889
Not only cricket but women’s sport in general grew in popularity towards the end of the 19th century. However, men constantly—often mockingly—dismissed the notion that women could ever be good at sport, and eyebrows would have been raised at any participant taking matters too seriously.
There was also a hierarchy of respectability: cricket, tennis and hockey were reasonably acceptable, but athletics was questionable among the upper and middle classes. Such an attitude might explain why Bosanquet would have had reservations about some of the initial plans advertised and why the focus switched to the far more acceptable sport of cricket.


Around 40 women played at least once for the OELC in 1890. Although we can identify many of them, some players remain nothing more than a name on a scorecard. Only a handful can be traced confidently enough to give a reasonable picture of their lives. This makes it a challenge to understand why, or indeed how, they came to play for the OELC.
"Only a handful can be traced confidently enough to give a reasonable picture of their lives"
But if the women rarely spoke for themselves, their manager was more than happy to talk on their behalf. In an 1890 interview Michell invented backgrounds for his players. By this stage, he had a clear picture what he wanted to present to the public and therefore made some grand claims on their behalf. According to Michell, the “girls” were of a “superior class”: two were daughters of “West End physicians”, two were daughters of dentists and two were daughters of an architect. He stated: “It is of vast importance to us that the respectability of the girls should be above suspicion, because a good deal of their work will be to play in private matches among the gentry”.
In reality, none came from the “superior” background advertised by Michell. Most of the women were working class and some lived in obvious poverty.


Cricket bats and balls owned by WG Grace in 1899
While we cannot be certain—not least because they never discussed the issue publicly—it was likely the prospect of a good salary that convinced the majority to pursue an unlikely career in cricket. The initial contracts were for two-year engagements, although many of the first recruits dropped out after less than a year and the OELC folded before the contracts could be fulfilled.
There is no question that the wage was generous. The maximum would probably have been around £50, although most players would presumably have received a lower amount. This was a surprisingly good salary, although it did not quite match what was available in men’s cricket.


A possible explanation for the high turnover of players is the heavy workload demanded of the cricketers. Between April and October 1890, they appeared in around 80 exhibition matches—over 100 playing days—across the length and breadth of Britain. A comparison with male professional cricketers is revealing.
Both the OELC and their male counterparts generally played six days of cricket each week. For the men this meant two matches but for the women—who mostly played a combination of one- and two-day games—it was often three, involving a greater amount of travel.
"Between April and October 1890, they appeared in around 80 exhibition matches—over 100 playing days across Britain"
And for any professional cricketer, it was travel which made the lifestyle so exhausting: an endless succession of railway stations, trains, long journeys and nights in unfamiliar hotel rooms or other lodgings.
Perhaps the only way in which the lives of the women were easier was in the hours on the field: their games usually began at 2pm and ended at 6.30pm, whereas men played from 11am until 6.30pm. But the women also had to perform at theatres in the evening, which more than offset the shorter cricketing day. The men’s season was also briefer; their last game was in mid-September but the women played for another month, an unusually late finish.
Forgotten Pioneers
Extracted from Forgotten Pioneers: The Story of the Original English Lady Cricketers (Pitch Publishing) by Giles Wilcock
Banner: The Original English Lady Cricketers' from en:James Lillywhite's Cricketers' Annual for 1890 (Nigej)
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