Batter up, ladies
Author, editor, and independent researcher, Louise Zedda-Sampson, writes about how she discovered the first women’s cricket games in Australia and how it began her love affair with Trove.
In 2015, as I was completing a Diploma of Professional Writing and Editing at Melbourne Polytechnic, I was offered the opportunity to do a pro-bono research project for the Youlden-Parkville Cricket Club. I knew little about cricket, but I loved research. Of course, I said yes.
In helping the cricket club research their story, which went back to the 1870s and proved to be a long and fascinating account, I found mention of a game of women’s cricket played in Bendigo, Victoria in 1874.
Was this the first women’s cricket game played in front of a spectator crowd in Australia?
The answer, I discovered, was yes.
I bought all the cricket books I could find – which amounted to two at the time! – and only found a line or two anywhere mentioning the game. And nothing that seemed to really tell the story of how big an event this really was.
So, using Trove, I went backwards through the years looking for one search term then another to try and find out more. When I did this, over many, many days, a bigger picture started to form. There wasn’t just one game – there were two! The games, which had been overlooked by history, had been serious attempts by the ladies to play a competitive match.
Sports such as these were not considered feminine, and in 1874, croquette was much more acceptable as a feminine sport. Many suggested at the time, that the games were a performance, and one that was unfitting to be played by the fairer sex. However, the women were trained by the Bendigo United Cricket Club (BUCC) – a club that had produced first-class Australian cricketers.
The First Match
The account of the first match, published by the Bendigo Advertiser on 8 April 1874, opens with commentary about the unprecedented nature of the match.
It certainly required a very considerable amount of courage on the part of the ladies to undertake to play a cricket match in public. The thing was unprecedented as far as Australia was concerned, and such a remarkable event as a ladies’ cricket match has seldom happened, even in the old country—the home of cricket.
The match, which took place on 6 April 1874 at the Sandhurst Easter Fair in Bendigo, Victoria, was played to raise funds for the Bendigo hospital and asylum.
Sandhurst has the honor of turning out the first twenty-two lady cricketers, and from the exhibition of their capabilities yesterday in this new field of love’s labor they have added an additional charm to the game of cricket, and shown that, as a healthy exercise, it is alike fitted for the gentler as for the sterner sex. The match was originated in aid of the funds of the hospital and asylum, and the large crowd of spectators who gathered yesterday to witness it evinced an amount of public interest in it far beyond what was expected.
Pictured are some of the ladies who participated in the match, including both team captains, Mrs Rae, and Miss B. Rae.
It was just as well the women had some local positive representation to support them, because soon afterwards, other articles started to appear, not so complimentary. Like this nasty extract from The Herald, published on 11 April 1874.
Nay, even as the other day at Sandhurst, she will display her brazen charms in broad daylight to a miscellaneous crowd at the masculine game of cricket, and be with difficulty kept from wearing men’s apparel by the bare fear of being hooted by that crowd’s offended decency. Let our women keep their own places in our homes in this day of growing disregard of the chimeric “moral” influence, and fear lest the men who should take to prayer meetings in the millinery shops, or to forcible expulsion from these and other haunts of our feminine would-be-tyrants, who see our failings so very clearly, but are blinded to their own.
Inventing the uniform
The question of what the women would wear for the match was a controversial one. It was speculated that the women would wear the ‘bloomer costume’.
At first it was expected that they should play in the Bloomer costume, as being less likely to interfere with their freedom of movement than any other, but the innovation was considered too startling for a British community, and the idea was given up in favour of an attire of the ordinary shaped dress, made of calico, with a colored jacket to distinguish the respective sides.
Designed by Mrs Amelia Bloomer in 1849, the costume ‘consisted of a skirt reaching half way between the knee and ankle, and beneath this Turkish trousers, made very full and gathered in at the ankle with an elastic band’.
In fact, there was so much concern about the ensemble that an article was published in the Bendigo Advertiser before the game saying that the women wouldn’t wear it.
Bowl the Maidens Over
Drawing most of its sources and imagery from Trove, Bowl The Maidens Over: Our First Women Cricketers focuses on the first two games of women’s cricket played in front of a spectator paying crowd in Australia and tells the story through the media responses to the games.
It was first published as an article in The Yorker, Issue 70 in 2019 and then re-released as a revised and expanded edition with images and illustrations in June 2021.
Continue exploring the history of women's cricket in Trove with Nick Henderson's blog, The Maiden Summer.