Story highlights

Campaign to recognize rugby pioneer

Emily Valentine, 10, played game in 1887

She was first documented female player

Attended school in Northern Ireland

CNN  — 

William Webb Ellis will always be known as the boy who, in 1823, picked up the ball and ran with it during a school football game.

His action “with a fine disregard for the rules” is credited with creating the game of rugby – though historical evidence suggests the story best fits into the category of legend or myth.

Nevertheless Webb Ellis was honored as the first inductee of what became the World Rugby Hall of Fame, with plaques and a statue in the English town of Rugby honoring his place in history. The men’s World Cup trophy is also named after him.

The Hall of Fame includes 120 individual men, five teams, four institutions – and only six women, mainly recent retirees, all admitted as recently as 2014.

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But supporters of the women’s game are becoming increasingly aware of another name – Emily Valentine – whose credentials for inclusion can rival those of Webb Ellis. Her story also takes place in the 19th century on a school playing field.

Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, has had more than its share of famous alumni. Pupils who passed through the gates went on to accomplish great feats in football, cricket, athletics and the arts. Playwrights Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett honed their storytelling skills here – but it’s the tale of a 10-year-old girl which is of interest to the rugby world.

emily valentine portrait

“I loved rugby football, but seldom got a chance to do more than kick a place-kick or a drop-kick, but I could run in spite of petticoats and thick undergarments. I could run. My great ambition was to play in a real rugby game and score a try.” Extract from Emily Valentine’s journal.

Emily’s father was assistant headmaster at Portora Royal in 1887, when she made her rugby debut. A more recently-retired deputy head, Robert Northridge, picks up the story.

“Her brothers were playing rugby and they were a man short – a woman short – they were somebody short,” he tells CNN’s World Rugby show.

“So Emily was standing, luckily suitably attired in suitable footwear, at the side of the field and they beckoned her on and said, ‘Come on Emily, please join us in this game.’ She leaped at the chance to play because it was something that she’d longed to do for a very long time.”

Catherine Galwey with a childhood portrait of her grandmother.

“At last my chance came. I got the ball – I can still feel the damp leather and the smell of it, and see the tag of lacing at the opening. I grasped it and ran dodging, darting, but I was so keen to score that try that I did not pass it, perhaps when I should.” Extract from Emily Valentine’s journal.

Northridge continues: “Her parents certainly didn’t find out until much later because she tells the story of them having tea later that evening and one of the boys saying ‘We won today, mother.’

“And the mother said, ‘I hope you all played well’ – and one of the brothers kicked Emily under the table to make sure she didn’t say anything to tell them that she had scored the winning try.”

“I still raced on, I could see the boy coming towards me; I dodged, yes I could and breathless, with my heart thumping, my knees shaking a bit, I ran. Yes, I had done it; one last spurt and I touched down, right on the line. I had scored my try.” Extract from Emily Valentine’s journal.

Northridge concludes: “It was obviously one of the major moments of her life because 50 years later she could recall every detail of diving for the line and jumping up and throwing her arms in the air.”

Valentine’s granddaughter Catherine Galwey lives in the English city of Norwich. She remembers her grandmother documenting her life story.

“She was in a nursing home in London and she didn’t have much to do, so she thought she would write a biography – a memoir for us all,” Galwey tells CNN.

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“The whole memoir is full of life and enthusiasm, and that’s how I remember her – taking life by the horns – and all the sad bits in it were just glossed over really.

“I think she was thrilled to let rip and she didn’t mind about mud and all the things that girls are supposed to mind about, and she was able run and do all those things and prove herself.”

Emily Valentine (far right) with members of her extended family.

“I lay flat on my face, for a moment everything went black. I scrambled up, gave a hasty rub down to my knees. A ragged cheer went up from the spectators. I grinned at my brothers. It was all I had hoped for. ” Extract from Emily Valentine’s journal.

“Although she wasn’t what you’d conventionally call a feminist, she certainly believed that women could do anything that they wanted to do,” Galwey adds.

“I think she would be very pleased to support people who wanted to play rugby and were female.”

Although Galwey was aware of her grandmother’s memoir, both she and the school were unaware of its significance until they heard from John Birch – a former government librarian whose research skills were employed to great effect after he spotted a brief reference to the story in The Times newspaper.

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A dedicated cricket fan, Birch had responded to his daughter’s interest in playing rugby by forming a girls’ team in Letchworth Garden City, in the English county of Hertfordshire. They enjoyed great success and contributed players to the England women’s team.

“The problem with not just women’s rugby history but women’s sports history is that it’s a hidden history,” he tells CNN.

“No-one writes it down. It’s kind of frowned on until comparatively recently. So even if women want to play they tend to do so in secrecy, and it’s not the sort of thing that gets reported. “

Birch managed to connect the dots and reveal the full story behind Emily’s exploits. Letters she sent to the school show she took part in rugby training and played in intra-school games – some sources indicate Emily, a winger, and her two brothers at times made up the team’s three-quarter back line.

While the brothers went on to Dublin’s Trinity College, Emily married Major John Galwey and spent time in India before settling in England. She died in 1967.

Birch’s research indicates that the next documented female rugby player after Valentine was 16-year-old Mary Eley, who played for Cardiff Ladies in 1917.

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Birch now writes for the women’s rugby website Scrum Queens, which has campaigned for Emily’s inclusion into the Rugby Hall of Fame alongside Webb Ellis.

“You’ve got a mythical guy who allegedly picked up a rugby ball and ran with it – even though he didn’t – but here we’ve got a real girl who did pick up a rugby ball and ran and scored a try in her first game, against boys. Isn’t she as relevant as he is?” Birch contends.

Governing body World Rugby says there are no plans to include Valentine in the Hall of Fame at present. In the meantime her story, which began on a school playing field in Enniskillen, continues to spread further around the world.

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