Born in 1871, in London, Helen was the daughter of William Matthew, a ship’s captain from Montrose, Lotian in Scotland. In later life Helen told people she was born in Montrose but it was actually in London. This is one of many elusive aspects of her life story: although she appears in most history books as Helen Matthews, the family name was Matthew. In 1880, Helen and her sister Florence moved with their family to Liverpool. By their early teens, Helen and Florence were already football enthusiasts, playing in the back garden and following the fortunes of local League clubs. (Their favourite team was Preston North End). In 1890, they took part in a ‘theatrical football event’ in Liverpool featuring both male and female players.
Promoting the Women’s Game
From 1891, the Matthew sisters ventured into sports journalism, writing articles under the nickname ‘Lothian Lassies’ for Liverpool and Lancashire newspapers. The girls became local celebrities and were match officials, running the touchline at a big Chritmas charity match. , After Florence got married in 1894, her interest in football waned but Helen committed herself to women’s football. In 1895, under the name ‘Mrs Helen Graham’ (though she was still single) she played a leading role as goalkeeper and captain of ‘Mrs Graham’s XI’ in the pioneering games put on by the British Ladies Football Club in 1895 and 1896.
Helen Matthew died in Devon c1955. Part of her legacy was confusion and false narratives: she has been misnamed Matthews; it has often been claimed she was a politically active Suffragist, but evidence for this is lacking; ‘Mrs Graham’ has been credited with a leading role in the ‘first-ever women’s football match’ staged in Edinburgh in 1881, but she had nothing to do with it (she was only nine years old at the time). Even so, Helen Matthew was historically important, both as female sports journalist and as pillar of British Ladies Football Club, alongside ‘Nettie Honeyball’, Emma Clarke and Lady Florence Dixie. The flourishing of BLFC was a very brief but very significant moment in the origins of women’s football and the search for equality. In 2018 ‘Helen Graham’ was inducted to Scotland’s Women in Sport Hall of Fame.
Students might be invited look at Football Makes History’s Lives in order to compare the life stories of Helen Matthew, ‘Nettie Honeyball’ and Emma Clarke before addressing some of the following questions:
Why did many women and girls show genuine enthusiasm for the game in the 1880s and 1890?
Why did that enthusiasm not take root (and who tried to obstruct it)?
Why did ‘Mrs Graham’ and ‘Nettie’ use false names?
There are also interesting questions to ask about how and why History has marginalised these women for so long; and why there has been so much confusion, so many myths and so many contradictory stories about their life stories, and about the origins of women’s football.
Find out more
More than twenty of the Life Stories on Football Makes History concern key figures in the history of women’s football, from its beginnings before 1900 to the present day.
In 2022, a number of new books on women’s football were issued, coinciding with the centenary of the FA ban in December 1921 and with the surge of interest in the women’s game stimulated by the Euro Nations tournament. The History of Women’s Football by Jean Williams, Unsuitable for Females by Carrie Dunn, and A Woman’s Game by Suzanne Wrackall have sections on the beginnings of the game before 1914.
Online, there are a number of interesting articles on the Playing Pastswebsite.
Article is a reworked version based on expert feedback by Tim Jones in 2022. Do you see any content which requires updating, feel free to contact us!
Helen was one of the founding figures of the women’s game. She was a suffragist and a campaigner for women’s rights. She was the first woman to set up the stall for serious women’s football.