This article concentrates on Phoebe Smith and Ellen Dunn, two over looked figures involved with the British Ladies Football Club of 1895-190?  It seeks to examine their careers and significance to women’s football in comparison to the figures most associated with this period of the game’s history.

Ellen Dunn and Phoebe Smith
Regular players with the British Ladies Football Club.

Of the early women football sides the British Ladies Football Club is the most prominent.  The club was formed, according to many narratives, by Nettie Honeyball and Lady Florence Dixie in the autumn of in 1894.  However, there is little evidence that Florence Dixie was anything more than a figurehead for the club and consensus has yet to be reached on the identity of ‘Nettie Honeyball’.  The only real agreement is that the ‘Honeyball’ name was a pseudonym.  Interestingly, the advertisement which first announced the British Ladies in 1894, makes no mention of Nettie Honeyball or Florence Dixie, but invites applicants to write to a ‘Miss P’ of 27 Weston Park.

Nettie Honeyball centre, standing, she was a figurehead during the early months of the club
Image Courtesy of National Football Archive.

The ‘Miss P’ that resided at this address was Phoebe Smith the youngest of the Smith family, born in Tottenham in 1881.  Her older brothers Alfred Hewitt and Frederick Smith and his wife Jessie Allen all had a hand in running the club.  Phoebe was also part of the administration, but she also played and appears in early team photographs.  Along side her, is another player that can be identified as Ellen Dunn, and she would often in matches under the name Ruth Coupland.  Dunn was born in the Clerkenwell district of London in 1879, and was an amateur performer.  Phoebe Smith may also have been an amateur.  There is evidence of Dunn and Smith sharing a stage and they may also have been friends.  A sizable contingent of the British Ladies squad also had theatrical connections, in contrast to the image projected by the club.

In an interview, Nettie Honeyball declared that her team all belonged to the upper middle classes and the club was at great pains to push this impression.  Florence Dixie, used the club as a vehicle to promote dress reform for women.  However when the press leaked that several of the players belonged to the stage; Dixie withdrew her support perhaps on the grounds that she had been sold a project under false pretences.  The Nettie Honeyball figure also disappears around the spring of 1895, perhaps no longer seen as an effective means of promotion for the club.

For the autumn of 1895 the British Ladies Club would run two groups of touring sides.  Phoebe Smith would often appear with the alternative side which had as its figurehead ‘Mrs Graham’.  Like Nettie Honeyball, ‘Mrs Graham’ would act as a focal point for the press, but in keeping with the British Ladies appearances were deceptive.  ‘Mrs Graham’ was in fact a Miss Helen Matthew and she wouldn’t actually marry until 1915, in all likelihood, Phoebe Smith was present to keep an eye on the second string.

Advertisement from the Stiring Advertiser of June 26th 1896
Announcing the arrival of Mrs Graham’s side in Stirling.
Phoebe Smith was part of the squad despite claims that Mrs Graham’s XI had no connection to the British Ladies Football Club.

It is not clear in which side Ellen Dunn was playing for at this time, as she had adopted a new pseudonym, but she may have travelled with the main British Ladies side to Dublin during May and June 1896.  There was a report of squad members giving a concert at the Theatre Royal Wexford held on June 22nd 1896 and it is likely that Ellen was among the performers at the event.  The British Ladies were still using Florence Dixie’s name in the club’s publicity, however this would prompt a sharp riposte to the Irish press in which Lady Florence declared: I am president of no football club.

Lady Florence Dixie display at Annan Museum close to her South of Scotland home of Glen Stuart on the Kinmount Estate.
Lady Florence sponsored the British Ladies Club during the initial phase of its development.

The British Ladies would often host social events following their matches, such as the Variety Hall in North London after a fixture at the Wembley Park Cricket Ground on January 22nd 1897.  It was during these events that Ellen Dunn would develop her singing and gymnastics, act taking the stage as her alter ego, Lily Flexmore.  Following a match against Southend Athletic on April 7th 1897, a cabaret was held at Southend’s Victoria Hall in which the theatrical element of the football club appeared.  This included both Phoebe Smith and Ellen Dunn.  The boisterous audience ensured that the local talent struggled but Ellen appearing in the guise of Lily Flexmore brought the unruly crowd into line with rousing numbers such as “Oh! Cake” and “The last time Clem me boy.”

Ellen Dunn left the British Ladies in the summer of 1897, to bring her Lily Flexmore character to a mainstream audience.  In 1907 Ellen crossed the Atlantic to appear as La Zephyr at the Chicago Auditorium, before a month long residence on vaudeville at the New York Theatre, and she would remain a popular act into the 1920s.  Her last stage appearances would be at the London Shoreditch during December 1923.  It is not clear what became of Ellen Dunn after this, but it is likely that she developed another act under a new name.

Ellen Dunn as Lily Flexmore at the height of her career in 1907
Image Courtesy of Karen Wall

Phoebe Smith would continue with the British Ladies, taking the reins as club secretary for another tour during the autumn of 1897, and the club would continue until at least 1907.   By 1910 Phoebe resided at 55 East Avenue Manor Park in East Ham and since the early 1900s she worked in the mantel retail industry.  Alfred Hewitt Smith the British Ladies Manager would die suddenly in 1918 while visiting the Leigh-on-Sea home of Jessie Allen Smith, a former club secretary, his estate totalled £2000.  The last record for Phoebe Smith was the 1911 census and it is unclear what happened to her after this date.

It is highly likely that Phoebe Smith was one of the instigators of the British Ladies Football Club; she captained the side, and for a time acted as the club’s secretary.  She has never been recognised for any of these feats, and has somehow managed to slip past contemporary study.  But as our understanding of early women’s football grows, Phoebe Smith may yet be elevated from the position of showroom assistant, in the early 1910s, to hall of fame inductee in the 21st Century.


Article © Stuart Gibbs