World War I: Portsmouth Ladies, slayers of Arsenal

Top level football came to a halt in England during the first World War. Many footballers were away from their homes fighting for their country and with resources scarce, football wasn’t really a priority for the nation.

Despite the difficulties of war, the appetite for football remained, and with so many in desperate need of aid a charity football team “Portsmouth Ladies” were set up in order to raise some funds for numerous charities including the Red Cross. They played games across the south of England, normally against male sides and always gave good accounts of themselves.


On the outbreak of war the team was founded and played a local side described as ‘Lady Artistes” by the Portsmouth Evening News. They won the game 5-1, the local reporter first impressed that the ladies were “attired in correct football gear” and even more impressed by the play of Miss Anscombe who scored four goals for her side. The Portsmouth Ladies side included a woman by the name of Gauntlet who you imagine must have been a formidable character. The full side was listed by the Evening News as follows:

Local Ladies – The Misses Davey; Cage and Warwick; Wood, Gauntlet and James; Yates, Arnold, Anscombe, E.G. Warwick and Grey.

After the match the team were ‘entertained to tea’ at a nearby hotel. A lot of money having been raised for the Naval Disasters Fund.


It was two years later when they played against their largest reported crowd, an almost unfathomable reported figure of 30,000 watching them at Alexandra Park in Portsmouth. Though more contemporary sources list it as 1,000. It’s likely the 30,000 figure was used to boost interest for future games. Later in the same year Portsmouth Ladies played against a team of French sailors, defeating them by three goals to two in front of thousands spectators on Southsea Common. According to a newspaper at the time the French Sailors presented the ladies with a silver fruit basket.


Further travels took them all the way to the capital where they played a team representing ‘Woolwich Arsenal’ – though interestingly Arsenal had dropped their ‘Woolwich’ prefix just before the war yet were still referred to using it – whom were defeated by Portsmouth Ladies. The Ladies were presented with a ‘Cup’ for their valiant efforts. Portsmouth Ladies other opponents included sides representing different aspects of the military including the Navy, Army and ‘Submarine men’. 

In September 1917 the side travelled to Berkshire to play a charity match against a team the Reading Mercury describes as ‘sturdy Canadians’ in a match at Elm Park. The reporter bemoans the bad weather which he feels had a large effect on the attendance. He also makes it clear that he feels the Canadians weren’t trying very hard and that “they allowed by their tactics their opponents to score eight goals and responding with five themselves the ladies were proclaimed victors by the margin of three. Still, the game served its purpose. It provided much amusement to the onlookers who after all had an afternoon’s enjoyment.”.


The match report also mentions that as part of the conditions of the match the Canadians were forced to tie their hands behind their backs. The whole game sounded like great fun and a magnificent spectacle. They even employed a local band from Bearwood Hospital to play before the game and during half-time.


The team continued to play matches in the south of England until the conclusion of the first World War. Whatever happened to Miss Gauntlett, Miss Anscombe and their star French goalkeeper. However, it’s hard to separate fact from fiction. The 30,000 crowds, the remarkable fact that they never lost a match and even their French goalkeeper. Was she even French? What we do know for sure is that they raised hundreds of pounds for differing charities and clearly brought a lot of joy to many during a difficult time for the country.

Pictures and information from the excellent:


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