Netball World Cup: Eastbourne 1963

Ahead of the 15th Vitality Netball World Cup 2019 in Liverpool, we are looking back at the inaugural tournament which England hosted in 1963.

Ten days of round-robin competition took place in Eastbourne with 55 matches played and 4,207 goals scored as eleven nations battled it out to become the first netball world champions.

Evolving from a form of basketball, the first game of netball was played at a physical training college in London in 1895 with its popularity growing in the early 20th century.

However, it was not until an Australian tour of England in 1956 that the process of standardising the rules of the sport began.

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Representatives from those two countries, as well as New Zealand, South Africa and the West Indies, met in Sri Lanka and in 1960 what would become the International Netball Federation (INF) was born.

Once the rules were established, plans to hold an international tournament every four years were initiated with Eastbourne selected to stage the first Netball World Championship.

The renamed Netball World Cup has developed with each edition as the modest, outdoor surroundings at Chelsea College of Physical Education in 1963 seem a far cry from the sumptuous setting of Liverpool’s M&S Bank Arena this year.

Despite not garnering the prestige or the attention of more recent iterations of the competition, the event at Eastbourne was a celebration of a sport with tremendous potential and the beginning of something grander.

It also allowed remarkable women who combine their participation at the elite level with their working and family life to feature on the world stage and England’s first World Cup squad epitomised that.

Josephine Higgins, who captained her country at Eastbourne, was a teacher in London as well as a Panel umpire and coach for the All England Netball Association (now England Netball).

Her vice-captain Anne Stephenson, who skippered Northumberland, was a PE teacher while Essex captain and centre Margaret Eve worked as a television executive.

There were also several housewives, a telephonist and a bookkeeper within the squad representing their country at the highest level.

Among the housewives was Pat Harris (née Wells), who spoke to England Netball about her pride in featuring in the sport’s first World Cup on home soil.

She said: “It was a tremendous honour, it’s nothing you can ever expect.

“It happens and you think ‘wow, that’s happened to me’ and you’re very proud.”

Harris explained there was no junior netball club in her area growing up so she started her own in 1953 – having previously only played in school – demonstrating the lengths some women had to go to improve the state of the game and create opportunities for participation.

And she discussed her rise from there to compete for her country on the world stage a decade later: “That’s a long story because I played for Middlesex for a good many years but I was 24 when I first got picked for England at trials and then I had a year off because I had a child.

“Then I was chosen not to start for the team that played at the tournament but after a few people dropped out I got called in and then I played most of the matches at Eastbourne in the first world tournament.”

Accompanying the hosts in this historic tournament on the southeast coast were: Australia; New Zealand; Trinidad and Tobago; Jamaica; West Indies; Scotland; Wales; Northern Ireland; South Africa and Ceylon (Sri Lanka).

England’s campaign began with a narrow 45-42 success over Jamaica before beating Trinidad 46-18.

The side, coached by Ellen Marsh, proceeded to defeat every nation in the competition – scoring 537 goals in the process – apart from the top two, Australia and New Zealand, whom they lost to 44-30 and 56-29 respectively.

Harris insisted: “We got well and truly beaten by Australia and New Zealand because they were so much fitter than us.”

Their eight victories were enough to finish third, however, and to secure a Bronze medal on their World Cup debut.

A special moment for the England team, as well as significant summer for the sport.

The tournament included a number of thrashings as nations such as Northern Ireland – who lost all their matches – struggled to compete.

However, the destination of the trophy was ultimately decided by an incredibly tight contest.

Australia and New Zealand’s quality was unparalleled so their match-up was destined to be crucial and it was just the single goal that separated them with the Diamonds prevailing 37-36.

The remaining games presented little challenge to the Australians as Joyce Brown became the first Netball World Cup winning captain with a rather long and arduous journey to that point.

Training on the deck of a ship as they sailed for several weeks across the ocean for England was the reality for Australia, along with New Zealand and South Africa.

Even with the benefit of air travel in the modern-day, those trips can feel onerous at times so the prospect of sacrificing weeks to get somewhere is unthinkable now.

It is another example of the commitment shown by the athletes to netball and to their country which helped create a memorable tournament that would inspire future generations.

Make sure you’re following @EnglandNetball for the latest news and updates!

By Leon Waite

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