British Ladies North, on 23 March 1895.
British Ladies North, on 23 March 1895.

Nettie Honeyball

Pioneer of women’s game

Beginnings

Annie Jane Honeyball was born in Pimlico, South London, in 1867. Her father was a skilled craftsman, a carpenter and cabinet maker. (Until 2023, most accounts of ‘Nettie’ Honeyball supposed she was born into middle-class affluence). Annie’s family was marked by tragic loss. Two of her brothers died young. Her mother died in 1892, when Annie was 25. She remained a single woman, living with her father until he died in 1915.  Known as Janetta or ‘Nettie’ because her middle name was Jane, Annie became a committed supporter of women’s emancipation, with many influential contacts, above all Lady Florence Dixie. Nettie’s first known connection with football was in 1894, when she wrote letters to newspapers to promote the British Ladies Football Club. She was one of the founders of BLFC and a team captain in its first match, at Crouch End, North London, in March 1895.  

The British ladies Football Club

For a short period, the British Ladies Football Club captured the public imagination. The 1895 match, British Ladies North against British Ladies South, was a landmark in the early history of the women’s game, watched by 12 000 spectators and widely reported in the national press. Among famous names involved were Helen Matthew (‘Mrs Graham’) and Emma Clarke. Interestingly, as with ‘Nettie Honeyball, the facts about the real lives of Helen and Emma were until very recently buried under a mass of confusion and mistaken identity. The match at Crouch End was not a one-off; It led to a national tour by BLFC with well-attended games at Brighton, Bury in Lancashire, Reading, Bristol and Newcastle. Women’s football seemed on the rise. 

Legacy

The brief flourishing of the women’s game in 1895 did not last. There were internal divisions within the British Ladies Football Club. In the autumn of 1895, Nettie gave up her position as club secretary. After that, there is no evidence Nettie had any further involvement in football.  The women’s game sank back into obscurity, with fewer matches, played before smaller crowds. The Football Association issued warnings against clubs allowing their grounds to be used for women’s football. In 1902, the FA banned mixed-sex games of football and blocked women from playing the game. Only a generation later during and after the First World War, did ‘munitionettes football’ bring the women’s game back to life. 

Thinking Points

Until recently, accounts of Nettie Honeyball’s contribution to women’s football have been wildly wrong about her true identity. For example, it used to said that Nettie’s name was a fictional ‘nom de plume’ to hide who she really was; but this was not true of Nettie (unlike ‘Mrs Graham’ who was really Helen Matthew). Even now, historians are unsure whether Nettie was Annie Jane Honeyball or her first cousin Nellie Honeyball. Why has there been so much confusion and uncertainty about the life stories of these unfairly forgotten women?

Why did the excitement and public interest around the British Ladies Football Club in 1895 die away so soon afterwards? What were the pressures that made it so hard for women to ‘come out’ as football enthusiasts and fulfil their ambitions for the game?  

Find out more

To find out more about the British Ladies Football Club, look at the lives of Emma Clarke and Helen Matthew.  There is a vivid but no longer fully inaccurate account of Nettie Honeyball and her connections with Lady Florence Dixie on Spartacus Educational.

The first chapter of The History of Women’s Football by Professor Jean Williams provides lots of evidence about BLFC and the 1890s – The Honeyballers and Lady Florence Dixie. The most recent and best investigation into Nettie’s complex life story, by Andy Mitchell, can be found online at Scottish Sporting History.

“Nettie” was a pioneer of women’s football. Her story is about diversity, equality and education.

Life Story 44

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British Ladies North, on 23 March 1895.
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