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The rise of women's football after it was banned, and how a Deal man helped establish the WFA

By Pat Smith

A 101 years ago, in 1921, the Football Association banned women’s football by prohibiting them from playing on and using football league pitches and facilities because, in their opinion the game was quite unsuitable for females, and they should not receive any encouragement to participate in the sport.

A doctor was reported in the Birmingham Daily Gazette as considering kicking to be "too jerky a movement for women because ‘the frame of a woman is more rounded than that of a man and therefore her movements should take the same form and not be angular’".

Arthur Henry Hobbs. All pictures: Pat Smith
Arthur Henry Hobbs. All pictures: Pat Smith

There are references to women playing football in the UK from the late 18th century when an annual match took place between fisherwomen of Musselburgh and Inveresk in East Lothian, both in Scotland.

In 1881 Helen Graham Mathews established Mrs Graham’s XI in Scotland but a match on May 16 1881 was called off because of a violent pitch invasion and this early attempt to establish women’s football league was abandoned.

Three years later, the British Ladies Football Club was formed by Alfred Hewitt Smith with Nettie Honeyball (a pseudonym) as captain and the feminist and Scottish writer Lady Florence Dixie as patron.

In 1894, The Sketch, a weekly illustrated magazine, took a light-hearted and satirical look at the women’s game in a cartoon by Thomas Downey that showed women being more interested in their appearance and attire than the game itself.

Although it may not have been intentional, it led to the perception that for many men the attraction was to view the women who were taking part.

The first match of British Ladies Football in 1895
The first match of British Ladies Football in 1895

Although 10,000 people are reputed to have attended a match at Alexandra Palace on March 25 1895, the game received critical reports, emphasising poor play and the ridiculous costumes worn by the players, even though the women were trained by professional players from Millwall Football club and Nettie Honeyball was unable to keep the team going.

Then came the First World War and women working in factories took up playing the game on their breaks.

They formed teams, interest grew, and matches were arranged on town grounds.

In 1915, the Men’s Football Association suspended the men’s leagues because so many players were at the Front, but the country loved the game and women’s matches had a resurgence.

The FA supported these games as fundraisers for the war effort drawing crowds of thousands to stadiums across the country. Press reports were positive.

Newspaper story from the East Kent Times in 1970
Newspaper story from the East Kent Times in 1970

When the war ended and men returned home, the women’s game retained its popularity with a gate of 53,000 spectators at Goodison Park on Boxing Day 1920 to see the match between Dick Kerr Ladies and St Helen’s Ladies. Over 10,000 were turned away.

Reportedly by 1921 every major town in England had a women’s team, some with more than one, but their success became a threat to the men’s game, especially as demand grew for a governing body and professional status.

A ban was introduced in December 1921, because the game was considered unsuitable for women.

Registered referees were banned from officiating and access to facilities was refused.

The women’s game became unsustainable. The rule remained in force for 50 years.

1966 is probably the most memorable date in English football, after the World Cup victory. It was also the incentive for the return of the women’s clubs.

This is where a man from Deal stepped in.

In 1967, an amateur footballer in Deal ultimately became known as the Founding Father of Women’s Football.

His name was Arthur Henry Hobbs. He was born in Wincanton in Somerset, the younger brother of Albert Ernest Hobbs. By trade he was a carpenter, but this wasn’t what brought him to Deal.

He was posted there during the Second World War, when he was in the 4th Battalion Wiltshire Regiment.

Hobbs was related to Jarvist Arnold by marriage, who was one of the heroes of the Goodwin Sands
Hobbs was related to Jarvist Arnold by marriage, who was one of the heroes of the Goodwin Sands

He, and his brother Albert met and married their respective wives, twins Daphne and Mary Arnold, members of the well-known Arnold family of Kingsdown.

Indeed, the brother of their 3xgreat- grandfather was Jarvist Arnold, coxswain of the Kingsdown lifeboat until 1889 and one of the heroes of the Goodwin Sands.

Little has been written about the women’s clubs that tried to survive after the introduction of the FA ban in 1921.

Two surviving clubs are well-known, Dick Kerr’s Ladies, formed from munitions workers at Dick Kerr and Co. Ltd Munitions in Preston, Lancashire and the Manchester Corinthians, a team founded in 1949 from local career women, including typists and machinists.

There was also a local team in Deal led by the enthusiastic Arthur Hobbs who thought that a tournament would encourage women to join the game.

He only knew of eight teams in 1967, which included the Manchester Corinthians and a team from Fodens, Bus and Truck Manufactures, both in the north of England.

In the summer of 1967 Hobbs organised the tournament but there were problems. Although Deal Town FC, the men’s club, were supportive, the FA blocked the use of the ground quoting the 1921 ban which was still in place.

The chairman of Deal Town and another committee member resigned in disgust and expressed their views in the East Kent Mercury.

Undeterred, Hobbs approached David Ennals the local MP who backed him up to the hilt and Betteshanger Colliery provided the ground.

The proceeds, which had been an issue in the 1921 ban, went to the British Empire Campaign, continuing the spirit of charitable fund raising from the first women’s games.

Gillingham Women FC team huddle before the FA Women's National League Southern Premier game between Gillingham and Hounslow at Rochester United Sports Ground in Strood. Picture: Sam Mallia Photography
Gillingham Women FC team huddle before the FA Women's National League Southern Premier game between Gillingham and Hounslow at Rochester United Sports Ground in Strood. Picture: Sam Mallia Photography

The first competition was between teams from local workplaces and youth groups, but interest grew and the second tournament in 1968, attracted better known teams including the Manchester Corinthians.

By 1969, 52 teams took part.

After its success Arthur Hobbs led the formation of the Ladies Football Association of Great Britain - the WFA with Hobbs as its secretary.

The tournament continued until 1972 - the year after that the FA recognised the WFA by lifting its ban from 1921.

The final match of the tournament was played on the Deal Town Charles Sports ground, which was affiliated to the Kent FA.

In 1993 the FA brought women’s football under its umbrella and support for the game continues to increase.

Celebrations in 2021 marking the 100th anniversary of the ban by the FA and the 50th anniversary of the ban being overturned were delayed because of Covid 19, but this summer the National Lottery is funding a project to uncover the history of women’s football and 24 women’s teams will compete in the eighth FIFA Women’s World Cup in France.

Many events are taking place across the country as part of these celebrations, including one in Deal in July this year.

Deal Town Football Club and Betteshanger Sports & Social Club, with the support of Deal Town Council, are planning to bring back Arthur’s tournament with women’s teams playing for the Arthur Hobbs Cup.

Unfortunately, Arthur Hobbs’ health began to deteriorate, and the ‘Father of Women’s Football’ died in 1975 at the age of 53.

A FIFA Women’s World Cup would have made his day but as a tenacious pioneer with a love of the ‘beautiful game’, who had no time for bigotry, he is a worthy ambassador for the theme of International Women’s Day today.

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