Mrs Graham: Promoting the Women’s Game

Jun 5, 2020

Life Stories

Helen Graham Matthews


Born in Montrose in Scotland, Helen “Graham” Matthews got to love football after seeing a men’s match between England and Scotland. In 1881 she founded a women’s team called ‘Mrs Graham’s XI’; where she played as goalkeeper. (At that time many people claimed it was ‘grotesque’ to see women playing football; so female players often hid their real identity by using false names to avoid being targeted). That first match attracted a big crowd but had to be abandoned because rowdy spectators invaded the field of play.

Spreading the Women’s Game

Soon after the 1881 match, women’s football was banned in Scotland. Soon after the 1881 match, women’s football was banned in Scotland. Helen Matthews joined forces with ‘Nellie Honeyball’ (pseudonym of another player) and the formed a team in England: ‘The Lady Footballer’. Later, Helen Matthews organised matches between ‘Mrs Graham’s XI’ and Scottish men’s teams. In 1895, at Crouch End, London, 11 000 people saw ‘Mrs Graham’s XI’, called British Ladies North, win 7-1 against British Ladies South; the first ‘official’ women’s football match under Football Association rules.


It only became known that ‘Mrs Graham’ was Helen Matthews in 1900. She was also a fierce campaigner for Votes for Women. Interest in her career did not really revive until more than 100 years after her death.

Thinking points

Educators could look at the life story of Helen Matthews and work with young people to consider these questions:

  1. Why did women’s football become popular in the late 19th century?
  2. Why were many people so hostile to women playing football that the players had to use false names?
  3. Why has there been a revival of interest in recent years about the early women’s game?

Find out more

Find out more in this article, or read John Blake’s “Girls with Balls: The Secret History Of Women’s Football”.


Scottish suffragette and women's footballer Helen Graham Matthews in 1895 (Photo: South West News Service, public domain)

Scottish suffragette and women’s footballer Helen Graham Matthews in 1895 [Photo: Messils, Russell and sons, in Wikimedia Commons, public domain].

Life Story

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.


Article Tags:   19th century  |   diversity  |   gender history  |   Industrial Revolution  |   social history

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