The story of the pioneers of women's rugby

BY Ali Donnelly

26th Sep 2023 Lifestyle

5 min read

The story of the pioneers of women's rugby
Women's rugby has a long history, dating all the way back to the 1880s. The new book Scrum Queens, by Ali Donnelly, takes you through the history of women's rugby
It is thought that rugby began in the 1820s and was named after the school at which it began: Rugby School in Warwrickshire. Today, the sport has come a long way since those humble beginnings and women's rugby is fast catching up to men's rugby in popularity. Female rugby players like Emily Scarratt are now household names. 
Ali Donnelly, though, wants to take you further back into history, in her new book Scrum Queens, where she tracks the long history of women's involvement in rugby. Taking the reader through 130 years of female rugby, she tells the story of how the women's sport has triumphed in the world of sport. 
In this particularly extract, Donnelly takes the reader all the way back the inception of women's rugby in 1883. 

Rugby's first lady

The story of Emily Valentine is one of the earliest documented records of any woman playing rugby anywhere at any level. While there are some records of attempts for social games to be played before this, there is nothing definitive, and research to tell her story has helped produced a remarkable tale.
The story began in 1883 at the Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh in Ireland. The school had a wealth of famous alumni with former students going on to have high profile careers in several fields like football, cricket, athletics and the arts—playwrights Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett both attended the school for example.  
"It is the story of a ten-year-old girl which is integral to women’s rugby folklore"
But it's the story of a ten-year-old girl which has entered women’s rugby folklore. The school was going through a particularly difficult period in the 1880s after the departure of a headteacher who took many pupils with him to a new school, and a decision to stop taking on boarders.  
The arrival of a new Assistant Headteacher William Valentine in 1883 brought three new pupils – his children William, John and Emily who all loved the game of rugby which they played amongst themselves and with friends. 

Emily’s diaries are discovered

Although the school didn’t have an official team, intra-school matches where played every Saturday and matches against Enniskillen RFC were recorded. 
The discovery of Emily’s journals revealed that one day in 1887, the boys were playing a match and they were short a player, summoning their sister to come and join them on the field. Her later discovered memoirs vividly recall the moment. 
"Valentine's story is remarkable because it would be another 100 years before Ireland’s first women’s rugby club was formed"
"At last, my chance came. I got the ball. I can still feel the damp leather and the smell of it and see the tag of lacing at the opening. I grasped it and ran dodging, darting, but I was so keen to score that try that I did not pass it, perhaps when I should.
"I still raced on, I could see the boy coming towards me; I dodged, yes I could and breathless, with my heart thumping, my knees shaking a bit, I ran. Yes, I had done it; one last spurt and I touched down, right on the line. I had scored my try.
"I lay flat on my face, for a moment everything went black. I scrambled up, gave a hasty rub down to my knees. A ragged cheer went up from the spectators. I grinned at my brothers. It was all I had hoped for.” 
Her story is remarkable, not just because its history has been preserved and was told so many years later for the first time, but also because it would be another 100 years before Ireland’s first women’s rugby club was formed. 
It’s unlikely that what Emily Valentine did at the time was unique – there were probably plenty of other girls who picked up the ball and ran with it or got involved informally, but hers remains the earliest recorded written story.  

Playing in the face of misgivings

While a young Emily Valentine was reflecting on the joy of playing and scoring in her first rugby game in rural Ireland, serious efforts around the same time were being made on the other side of the world to get the women’s rugby up and running in a more formal way.  
Though it would only be a couple of years before New Zealand would become the first country in the world to give women the right to vote in Parliamentary elections in 1893, attempts to empower women to play rugby – which had only existed for 20 years in the country that would go on to dominate the sport – faced significant opposition. 
Research from the academic Jennifer Curtin’s plus club histories from the brilliant New Zealand Rugby Museum, describe the efforts of another remarkable woman – Nita Webbe, to organise a women’s team and an international tour in 1891. 

Nita Webbe forms her team

There is evidence that women in New Zealand were attempting to play socially when Webbe, just 26-years-old, came up with a plan that can only be described as radical given the era. 
She wanted to get 30 women together, divide them into two teams of fifteen each and after several weeks of training, tour the Australian colonies and then return to play a series of matches around New Zealand
"Women made up vast chunks of the crowds attending games all over New Zealand"
Inspired perhaps by other changes afoot in New Zealand, where women’s suffrage was a powerful political issue, and where women were seeking more rights across all aspects of life, Webbe was taken with how popular rugby had already become in just a few decades, particularly among women who made up vast chunks of the crowds attending games all over the country.  
She placed advertisements in several of the major newspapers around the country to attract women to come and set up a team in Auckland. The deal was that women could apply, with parental consent, and if selected, Webbe would pay the players 10 shillings a week.  

An unwomanly proposition

england rugby team
Her advert said that players were to wear gymnasium suits with a jersey, knickerbockers and short skirts, and their hair was to be cut short. 
Though there was interest from women to take up the offer, her efforts were greeted with scorn in local media with the consensus being that the game was far too rough and dangerous for women. 
"Though there was interest from women to take up the offer, her efforts were greeted with scorn in local media"
The Auckland Star ran an editorial after Webbe’s advert appeared describing her idea as “unwomanly”.
There is evidence that Webbe managed to get her players together – a newspaper in Poverty Bay in June 1891 wrote that 30 girls were in fact training in Auckland, but the overall mission never got off the ground. 
About a month later, newspapers reported that the scheme had been abandoned with suggestions that Webbe and her husband Frederick did not have the money to carry out the plan.  
But while that specific tour might not have gone ahead, women’s rugby in New Zealand and all over the world did start to put down real roots in the years that followed.
You can buy Donnelly's book, Scrum Queens, (published by Pitch Publishing Ltd) here
Banner credit: Women's football (fstockfoto)
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