South Bristol Voice Features: A short (and hidden) history of women’s rugby union

A cigarette card from the 19th century

By Harry Mottram

Despite over 130 years of rugby union played by a wide variety of club teams in Bristol currently it is Bristol Bears Womens’ rugby team who are the most successful this season.

The female side of the game has for long been in the shadows of the male fifteens partly due to sexism and partly due to historically games such as tennis and hockey were seen as the preserve of the so-called fairer sex.

This as we know is rubbish as I can testify with a female relative playing at a very high level in the women’s game.
Although women have long wanted to play the running game it wasn’t until 1984 when Clifton Ladies RFC was founded, before changing their name to Bristol Ladies and eventually Bristol Bears. Surprisingly the history of women’s rugby dates to the 19th century and due to prejudice has been ignored by mainly male sports commentators.

De Monfort University’s Professor Tony Collins said: ” The story of women and rugby has been hidden from history. Women have played a huge part in the sport, whether it is playing the game, organising it or supporting it.”

The Leicester academic said the first known female rugby player was a schoolgirl called Emily Valentine, who played in a team formed by her brothers at Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, where her father was the headmaster. She is recorded as scoring a try in a match held in 1887.

Four years later there was even an international between England and Scotland women revealing that even in Victorian Britain feminists were breaking out of the social restrictions of the time.

The main drivers of female rugby were to be found In New Zealand and universities where women keen on sport tried out various sports through college clubs.

In the land of the Long White Cloud down under women were playing the game with inter club competitions taking place by the turn of the 20th century.

In the 1920s as women’s football took off rugby was making inroads as well especially in Wales and France. It wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970s with the sexual revolution heralded by changes in attitudes, the Equalities legislation and the increase in leisure time and attendance by women in higher education that the female game began to flourish.

In 1983 the Women’s Rugby Football Union (WRFU) was founded with ten clubs including Leicester Polytechnic with home internationals starting in 1996 followed by the Six Nations in 2007.

The game has come a long way since those Victorian women picked up the oval ball and ran down to the pitch – but with the world cup set for later this year the game has come of age.

Since it began in 1991 only three teams have won it. England, New Zealand and the United States.

New Zealand will host the next Rugby World Cup for women in 2022, one year later than planned due to Covid. From 2025 the competition finals will be expanded to 16 teams, from the 12 competing in 2021.

January 2022’s issue is out just before Christmas 2021 – free to thousands of homes plus in shops in south Bristol.

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Harry Mottram is the news editor of South Bristol Voice monthly magazine and a freelance journalist. Visit http://www.harrymottram.co.uk/

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