From The Vaults

03 November 2022
Newport Ladies, 1917

While it was uncommon for women to play rugby union in the early twentieth century, some seized short opportunities afforded to them by the significant changes to society brought on by the First World War. In Newport, munition factory workers set up their own women's rugby teams, to play in exhibition matches against one another. These games raised money for local and wartime charities, and quickly became popular spectator events.

On the 29 September 1917, local newspapers reported on thousands of people who enjoyed a 'wonderful display of scrimmaging, running, passing, and kicking' by the Newport munition factory women's teams at Cardiff Arms Park. The referee Mr R. Pollock stated that 'he had refereed many a worse game between male teams.'

The Newport players competed in exhibition matches around South Wales, inspiring the creation of other local teams. On 15 December 1917, Cardiff Ladies faced Newport Ladies at the Cardiff Arms Park, the visitors winning 6-0.

Thanks to the games' charitable aims, women were able to play rugby despite the masculine connotations of a contact sport. In March 1918, the Newport players competed as part of a wider fundraising carnival at Barry, which raised over £100,000, enough to buy a submarine for the war effort!

Unfortunately, the support for female rugby players vanished after the armistice. Maria Eley, who as a young woman played on the Cardiff Ladies team, recalled at the age of 106: 'We loved it. It was such fun with us all playing 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'.

Newport, 1917

Women's rugby disappeared almost entirely from Wales until the 1970s, and it would be 1986 before the first representative Welsh Women's rugby team played an international match, against England.

By then, these early trailblazers had been forgotten, and it would not be until 2018, when this photograph was generously loaned by the family of Thirza Dunn (front row, second from left) to the World Rugby Museum, that the world would know more about the pioneering players of Newport.

It is on permanent display as possibly the world's oldest photograph of a women's rugby team.

About the Author - Dr Lydia Furse completed her PhD from De Montfort University in 2021, supported by the World Rugby Museum. Extracts from her thesis, entitled 'Women in Rugby Union: A Social and Cultural History' can be found online, and the current World Rugby Museum special exhibition 'The Rugby World Cup: In Her Own Words'. She is currently transforming the thesis into a book.