Cardiff Ladies' Fullback, Maria Eley
In South Wales, the ladies of Newport decided to undertake an innovative form of fundraising by forming a rugby team, playing full contact fifteen-a-side rugby union.
During World War One, the men who left to fight on the front needed to be replaced in the factories and additional munitions works that developed to support the war effort. Many women took up these factory positions, and used their recreation time to fundraise for the war effort. In South Wales, the ladies of Newport decided to undertake an innovative form of fundraising by forming a rugby team, playing full contact fifteen-a-side rugby union and using the gate proceeds to support wounded soldiers and prisoners of war. This is not only an example of ways in which women on the home front mobilised themselves to support the war effort, but is also the earliest recorded game of women’s rugby in Wales.
Although the most famous sporting story from the Great War is the Christmas Day football match, there are some sports historians who argue that a rugby ball as often as a football was punted out to encourage the men over the top and into no man’s land. Rugby Union is a popular sport in the Welsh valleys and this was also the case during the First World War. Many rugby union matches were cancelled during wartime as large numbers of young men volunteered, and were later conscripted, to fight on the Western Front. The men who had left to fight in the trenches left a significant gap in the labour market, which was filled up by women. The growing war industry, for example munitions factories, also provided new jobs for women. These female factory workers began to take advantage of their new working environment to emulate the recreation activities of the menfolk, and sports historians have highlighted the significance of the First World War in the growth of women’s football at this time. However, the female workers at the Newport Box Repairing Factory took to the rugby field. There were also women’s football teams at this time in this area, which suggests that the women chose the oval ball game particularly, and from contemporary news reports not only thoroughly enjoyed themselves but also raised considerable sums for War Charities.
The Saturday 15th December 1917, Newport Ladies Vs Cardiff Ladies Match, is the only known game from which team photos have survived, in which most of the players have yet to be identified. Cardiff Arms Park hosted the charity event, which raised money for the town battalion fund, supporting troops on the front line. Newport won the game 6-0, which was most likely two unconverted tries to nil in accordance with the points system at the time. The Cardiff Ladies’ Fullback, Maria Eley, recalled in later life her experience of playing rugby, and suggested that the match was not a one off:“We loved it. It was such fun with all of us together on the pitch, but we had to stop when the men came back from the war, which was a shame. Such great fun we had.” Maria Eley has since passed away at the grand old age of 106, making her possibly the oldest rugby player.
Research is ongoing into any other games that either Cardiff or Newport teams took part in, and why such games could not continue after the peace declared on the 11th November 1918. Although the rest of these rugby pioneers remain anonymous, they are now recognised as the first women’s rugby union players in Wales.
If anyone has any information about these women’s rugby games that they would like to share, please contact the author: Lydia Furse, firstname.lastname@example.org. Lydia is currently undertaking research on the history of women in rugby union, 1880-2016, as part of a PhD with De Montfort University and the World Rugby Museum, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council through Sporting Heritage.