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How hockey paved the way for women's sport in the UK

The British women's hockey team has been a remarkable success in recent years.

They captured the nation's hearts when they grabbed gold at the 2016 Olympic Games, and the team has also won two Olympic bronze medals and silver in the Champions Trophy.

But while the team may seem to have burst out of nowhere, hockey has a long history of success and in many ways it paved the way for the development of women's sport in the UK.

“Women's hockey is one of the most significant sports within the amateur tradition – which is a key component in the development of British sport,” says Professor of Sport at Wolverhampton University, Jean Williams, who is leading a major new Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)-funded investigation into hockey's history and development.

“Women took control of the sport very early – in the 1894-95 season – and this makes it very distinctive within British sport, especially when you compare it with, say, women's football, which wasn't organised into a Women's Football Association until 1969 or women's athletics, which was organised by women from the 1920s.

“Hockey is a great example of a sport organised by and for women from a very early date.”

The development of hockey also had a magnifying effect on the development and success of netball, women's cricket and lacrosse, which we now think of as key sports for women. These were all organised on women's behalf by many of the same personnel who had gained their management experience with women's hockey.

“Interestingly, they also had their own form – I call it a kind of high amateurism,” says Professor Williams. “We all understand that amateurs play for the love of the game rather than payment, which is when it becomes 'professional'. However, women's hockey was even more pure than that. They didn't even like to play for cups or other silverware and would often insist on playing friendlies, because they thought that the result wasn't important; it was all about playing.”

This was partly because the All Women's Hockey Association was very middle class. Many of those involved were relatively affluent and well-educated; in fact they were some of the first women to go into higher education. As a group saw their sport as something that was all about their own enjoyment and not to be sullied by cups, competition or money.

But despite – or perhaps because of this – it was incredibly popular.

“One of the really interesting things about women's hockey is that they play these big internationals at Wembley from 1951 onwards,” says Professor Williams. “These were events that were supported by civic dignitaries, and even royalty to a certain extent.

“Women's hockey was very much a part of the establishment from an early date and yet that story hasn't been told. Through this project we want to hear those stories – we want to hear what it was like to cross the equator for the first time on a hockey tour. How did that feel?”

To do this the project will gather oral history from interviews with those who played, and hear from them about how successful the sport was – and how it evolved to be seen as a very appropriate sport for schoolgirls.

“The story hasn't been told, partly because of the usual bias against women's sport. But also there is a preconception that national success in hockey is a new thing – and it's not,” says Professor Williams. “Although Britain's women hockey players were playing in the Olympics from the early 1980s, their international tradition pre dates this by some way. They were playing in New Zealand, South Africa, the United States.

“Things have certainly changed. When you get members of the team now advertising household products, you know that the sport has arrived in the public consciousness. That all began when the organisation of men's and women's hockey was amalgamated and a new spirit of professionalism was born.

“But we still had women touring the world and playing the sport in front of large crowds decades earlier.”

Professor Williams hopes the project will provide greater understanding of the tension and inter relationships between continuity and change in the sport, and contextualise the more recent success of the team within this longer tradition.

“We want to celebrate hockey's female-defined amateurism, alongside the success of the consummate committee women who ran the sport, who popularised it and organised it so effectively,” she says.

“One of the other things that we really want to do is to engage with the public and their stories – we want to hear about relatives who played, or matches that people watched. We really want to hear about those memories and I would love to hear from anyone with anything to tell us.”

If you have anything that you would like to share with the project, please get in touch with Professor Williams at jean.williams@wlv.ac.uk.


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