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The Matildas will go into the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup in France full of confidence. Currently (August 2018) ranked eighth in the world, they showed at the 2018 Tournament of Nations what a class act they are.

Defeating two higher-ranked opponents in Brazil and Japan and drawing with hosts and number one ranked USA along the way, the Matildas proved they are one of the best performed and most consistent of Australia’s national sporting teams.

The tournament witnessed the international debut of Mary Fowler against Brazil. At only 15 years of age she appears to have the world at her feet. She is just one of the stars of the current batch of storied women’s footballers in Australia.

But what of the stories of players past?

Until recently, my knowledge of the history of women’s football was limited to my own experience. I remember a girl’s team being established at my own junior club in the late 1970s.

In fact, Australia’s very first women’s full international match was played about the same time, against New Zealand, right over the fence from my local club at Seymour Shaw Park in Sydney in 1979.

But what of the stories of players past?

Australia first qualified for the World Cup in Sweden in 1995, where they played under their new nickname, ‘The Matildas.’ They qualified again in 1999 in the United States.

For my money, however, it was the athleticism and team spirit they displayed before home audiences at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 that cemented them as a national team of note.

But the early history of the women’s game is elusive.

When did women’s football spring up in Australia? What were the teams?

And, perhaps most importantly, who were the players? Was there a Samantha Kerr, a Lisa De Vanna or a precocious teenage talent like Mary Fowler from a past generation?

I wanted names.

It’s not surprising that some of the earliest mentions of women’s football are connected with the Granville club in New South Wales.

The Granville (men’s) football club was established in 1885. It was essentially a factory team, their members being drawn from Scottish employees of the Hudson’s Works at Clyde, near Parramatta. They played on land donated by the factory owners, which they cleared and maintained themselves.

In 1903 a new district based men’s competition in Sydney was established. Football fever spread. Granville, now under the patronage of the Clyde Engineering Works, was one of the more progressive football clubs in Sydney.

On Saturday 23 May 1903, a Mr Lennox, secretary of the Clyde Engineering Sports club, was approached by a delegation of young female employees of the factory. The women wanted to form their own football team.

At first, Lennox was reticent, raising concerns about the roughness of the play and whether suitable clothing could be found.

The women had done their research. They assured him that it would be less dangerous than cricket, a sport women were already playing. For uniforms there was an easy solution – they would wear women’s cycling attire.

Lennox acquiesced and advised them that if they could recruit enough players for two teams, he would organise a coach for them.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t determine whether any teams were formed. The archival trail runs cold.

During World War I, football in England boomed amongst the female employees of munitions factories and other industries involved in the war effort.

The women’s game continued to grow after the war and a match between Dick, Kerr’s and St Helens factory teams drew a crowd of over 50,000 to Goodison Park in Liverpool.

In 1920 and 1921, England and France played each other in international matches. When news of this made it to Australia, the effect was electric. By 1921 there was a surge of interest from women in Brisbane and Sydney wanting to play football.

This interest wasn’t restricted to association football. The Sun newspaper of Sydney reported on 25 May 1921 that the organiser of a potential women’s Rugby League competition said that ‘football was played by women in England and France, and she thought that clubs in Sydney would be successful.’

Something like a mini social revolution swept through the male-dominated team sports culture of Australia. But not all men were enamoured with the new sports movement.

The Rugby League players were told ‘that the time was inopportune for the formation of football clubs for women.’

In the end, 1921 would prove to be the best of times and the worst of times for women’s football.

With enthusiasm on the rise, the secretary of Sydney’s Metropolitan Football Association called for the establishment of a women’s association.

The Sydney Ladies Soccer Association was duly formed at a meeting held at the Sydney Sports Ground on 30 June 1921.

But not all men were enamoured with the new sports movement.

The first president was Maisie Alexander, who had played in England, Canada, and New Zealand. With 30 players in attendance, there were encouraging signs that up to four teams could be formed.

And in Maisie Alexander, I had my first name.

On Tuesday 5 July, the Sydney Ladies players had their first trial at Wentworth Park. Under Alexander’s tutelage, they were taught the rudiments of the game, many of the first time players turning up in bathing suits despite the cold.

At the end of the session, a question was put to the group if they would come back the next week. The answer was a resounding yes.

Women’s football fever spread fast. Before long, it was reported that teams had been formed at Balgownie and Woonoona, near Wollongong, as well as teams in Mayfield, Boolaroo, and West Wallsend in the Newcastle district.

In Queensland, the enthusiasm for football was probably even greater than in New South Wales. The Toowoomba Rovers and Toowoomba Cities clubs, as well as the Latrobe Ladies Football Club, were all formed in June 1921.

On the 8th of July, a meeting was held at the Brisbane Gymnasium to gauge the interest in women’s football. The Telegraph (Brisbane) reported that almost 100 prospective female players attended.

When a motion was moved to create an association, every hand went up. The Queensland Ladies Soccer Football Association was born.

The first public game of women’s football in Queensland was between teams representing the North and South of Brisbane.

The match was played at the Brisbane Cricket Ground on 24 September 1921 in front of 10,000 spectators. North Brisbane took the field in maroon jerseys, their opponents in blue. A local comedienne, Amy Rochelle, performed the ceremonial kick off to healthy applause.

North won 2-0, with a well-taken goal by H Breeze in the first half and a second-half penalty converted by the player of the match, Jean Campbell.

But, just as the women’s game was getting established in Brisbane and Sydney, the rug was pulled from under their feet.

In December 1921 the Football Association (FA) in England prohibited women from playing on its clubs’ grounds, effectively banning women’s football. They rationalised their decision on the shaky grounds that it was their ‘strong opinion that the game is quite unsuitable for women.’

As Australia was affiliated with the FA, the action seemed to take the momentum out of the local women’s game.

There was a brief revival in 1926 when it was announced in The Telegraph that the Queensland Ladies Soccer Football Association had been formed (really re-formed) and that players were required for newly created teams.

Players such as Betty Aldridge, E Varney and B Sondergeld were leading lights but it’s hard to see where this all went. Again, the trail grows cold.

In Newcastle, that great cradle of Australian football, a series of matches between women’s teams from Abermain and Weston were played during August and September 1928.

In one match, The Cessnock Eagle and South Maitland Recorder reported that Weston’s Alma Kelly scored after a ‘dazzlingly brilliant run.’

The enthusiasm of the women could not be stopped. By the end of September, another four teams had been formed at Bellbird, Cessnock, East Greta, and Kurri North End.

In 1929, two new sides appeared in the Newcastle area. Speer’s Point and Teralba played matches to raise money for the local hospital.

The women also donated proceeds of their matches to other causes including the unemployed and the striking miner’s relief fund.

Described in The Newcastle Sun as ‘young women, many of whom are miner’s daughters,’ they soon attracted other challengers.

A match between Speer’s Point and Weston was played at Wallsend on the 17 August 1929 in front of a ‘good crowd.’

Photographs from the game were published in the press including a shot of Weston’s captain Alma Kelly, scorer of the classic goal from the previous year.

In Sydney, a new sports promotion company, Australian Sports Limited, had leased the Sydney Sports Ground and was on the lookout for talent for the first of its sports carnivals. They had got wind of the women’s matches in Newcastle and booked two teams as the feature event of their opening gala.

On the night of 16 November 1929, under banks of newly installed floodlights described as the best in Sydney, the Weston team, captained by Alma Kelly, kitted out in black and white stripes, took on the canary-uniformed Speer’s Point featuring three players named Kerr – probably sisters.

A new sound system pumped out music during intervals in the program. This was a radical departure from how sports entertainment had been packaged in the past. The game was a success.

There was talk of a follow-up match between one of the Newcastle teams and a side from Wollongong. There were even hopes for a state-wide competition in 1930.

But the trails cools again.

Perhaps worsening economic conditions took their toll, the night match at the Sydney Sports Ground coming as it did just a few weeks after the Wall Street Crash ushered in the Great Depression.

If the crisis of the First World War was the catalyst for introducing women’s football in England, with its subsequent export to Australia in 1921, then the Second World War was a crisis that led to another burst of football activity.

Once again, many women joined the factory workforces in the cities. A photo was published in 1943 of a match between employees of the Richard Hughes company in Five Dock in Sydney. Factory teams were springing up everywhere.

16-year-old Daphne Martin was perhaps typical of the players of the time. Originally working in a munitions factory, Martin helped out in the family’s hamburger shop when her mother became ill.

Martin was a keen footballer. In an interview, she described how she used to discuss the game with boys who came into the shop.

Martin played for the Granville team that was formed by friends at a dance. They played against a team called Central at the Clyde Oval in 1942.

The match, with proceeds going to charity, attracted a good deal of public interest. Some people were shocked that two married women took part. Eyebrows were raised when one of them, Martha Sheldrick, parked a pram carrying her 14-month-old daughter on the sidelines before running out.

Granville won the match 3-0. The star was none other than Martin, who scored two goals including one, if the reports are to be believed, where she ran the ball from her own goal line all the way to her opponents’ goal.

Here was a precocious 16 year-old with a healthy dose of talent.

Support for the women’s game was not universal. When it was proposed that a team be formed consisting entirely of married women there was an outcry in some quarters.

‘To my mind the whole thing is grossly indecent,’ Reverend DR Wilcox thundered to The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgowers Advocate.

He was ‘not personally attracted by the spectacle of married women playing football dressed in football kit.’

These hard-working women would have lived with all the stresses and uncertainties of the times.

The Reverend strongly denied that members of his fraternity tore down posters advertising the game, blaming it instead on ‘local hooligans.’

More women’s teams were springing up however. In July 1943, Wollongong defeated the splendidly named Guilford Black Cats by 1-0 at the Sydney Sports Ground.

Iconic Sydney photographer Sam Hood was commissioned to cover some of the women’s matches played at the Sports Ground. His photos show the women playing in sandshoes with no socks, in various team poses as well as some action shots.

The photos convey a sense of camaraderie, a shared triumph in a hard-fought sporting contest. Remember, these games were held in the darkest days of World War II and these hard-working women would have lived with all the stresses and uncertainties of the times.

I wonder if copies of these photographs survived on a suburban mantlepiece in subsequent years, or maybe still exist in a cardboard box in someone’s attic – a dusty black and white connexion to extraordinary times.

The early history of Australian women’s football comes replete with stops and starts. Bursts of activity often connected with hardship, such us wars and times of industrial unrest and unemployment.

Daphne Martin in 1942

Until recent times, there appears to be no continuity. Formal organised competitions seem to be lacking, at least in the press reports of the day.

But there are some clues that there might have been a nascent women’s football culture. When interviewed in The Sun in 1942, Daphne Martin mentioned that ‘She rarely misses a match in the Granville district.’

Was she speaking as a spectator or as a player? Furthermore, she said that ‘the girls around Granville all like the game.’

One of the married women playing at Clyde in 1942, Nellie Doherty, was the wife of an ex-Granville player currently serving in the AIF. She said she used to practice in a paddock near her Newcastle home and was not going to miss the game at any cost. She was clearly part of a football family, part of the football culture.

I now have a roll call of names to add to the narrative of women’s football in Australia. There is Maisie Alexander, the experienced player and organiser of early football in Sydney.

Jean Campbell and H Breeze, goal scorers in front of 10,000 people in Brisbane in 1921. Also in Brisbane are Betty Aldridge and B Sondergeld, architects of the 1926 football rival.

In the late 1920s in the coalfields of the Hunter Valley we have the talented Weston captain, Alma Kelly and three Kerrs. Then, during World War II, there are great characters such as Nellie Doherty and Martha Sheldrick, married women challenging social mores in their desire to play football.

Of course, there is also the young starlet Daphne Martin.

It is hard to compare these players to the current crop of Australian female footballers.

While today’s players still have to toil remarkably hard, opportunities were almost non-existent in the past.

If there is a common thread linking pioneering footballers to the Matildas it could be something as simple as this: a love for the beautiful game.

Written by Paul Nicholls

Paul Nicholls is a Sydney-based writer with particular interest in the history and culture of sport.

He has penned two other longforms on The Roar before; one discussing the murky origins of Australia’s football codes, and another exploring the birth of rugby league.

You can follow him on Twitter at @70s_mo.

Editing and design by Stirling Coates

Lead image and wide middle images are credit: Sam Hood/State Library of NSW. All other images are credit: Trove, National Library of Australia.