The triumph and the tragedy of Emma Clarke, Britain’s first black female footballer

The triumph and the tragedy of Emma Clarke, Britain’s first black female footballer

Born in Liverpool in 1876 to parents William and Wilhelmina, there was nothing remarkable about Emma Clarke at the time of her birth, except perhaps that she was one of 14 children. Clarke, though, would go on to leave an indelible mark on football in Great Britain – a mark not fully realised nor appreciated until as recently as 2017, when it was revealed Clarke was the first black female footballer to play the game, making her one of the most remarkable footballers you’ve possibly never heard of.

Historian Stuart Gibbs made the discovery less than two years ago but it had been thought for some time that it was a teammate of Clarke’s who held the honour.

Records referred to a right winger, described by a South Wales newspaper as “The fleet-footed dark girl on the right wing” – but also to a “coloured lady of Dutch build” who played goalkeeper by the name of Carrie Boustead. But an image of the team with pictures of the players was found by a colleague and it was discovered the honour belonged to Clarke.

Growing up in the Bootle area of Liverpool, the same area to which current Manchester United captain Alex Greenwood would be born over a century later, Clarke lived a normal childhood and, while there were wild differences between the late-19th century and the modern day, she likely started her football career in exactly the same fashion as Greenwood; by kicking a ball around in her neighbourhood with friends. At 15 she became a confectioner’s apprentice, but just five years later she’d be playing football in front of thousands of people around the country, at stadiums including St. James’ Park and Portman Road.

The first record of a woman’s football match occurred when Clarke would’ve been just five years old, an international match between England and Scotland, the latter otherwise known as Mrs Graham’s XI, on 9 May 1881 at Easter Road, the home of Hibernian. Eleven days later, the game was played again in Glasgow, in front of 5,000 people, but the match had to be abandoned after hundreds of men invaded the pitch and the players had to flee in horse-drawn carriages.

Similar incidents happened in more matches, putting paid to any attempts to introduce women’s football on a more regular basis. The press coverage described the idea of women playing football as “grotesque” and, despite the odd compliment, most write-ups were more than negative about the idea, with contempt largely for player appearance and the standard of play, with the underlying tone that football simply wasn’t for women.

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Fourteen years later, just two years after New Zealand had awarded adult women the right to vote, the British Ladies Football Club was created by Nettie Honeyball, with Lady Florence Dixie acting as the club’s chairman and sponsor. Captain Honeyball, whose real name is believed to have been Mary Hutson but, like many players, used a pseudonym to avoid harassment from supporters and the media, explained her motives in an interview with The Sketch in February 1985. “There is nothing of the farcical nature about the British Ladies’ Football Club. I founded the association late last year, with the fixed resolve of proving to the world that women are not the ‘ornamental and useless’ creatures men have pictured.

“I must confess, my convictions on all matters, where the sexes are so widely divided, are all on the side of emancipation and I look forward to the time when ladies may sit in Parliament and have a voice in the direction of affairs, especially those which concern them most.”

Towards the end of 1894, adverts had been placed for those interested and the club was officially formed on 1 January 1895, after 30 women responded to the advert and began to train twice a week under the guidance of ex-Arsenal and Tottenham player Bill Julian. Clarke and her sisters, June and Mary, were three of the players involved with the club at some stage during its two-year existence.

They was denied permission to train at The Oval but the side soon found a home in London. Just two months after their creation, the team played their first game on 23 March, at Crouch End in London, in front of 11,000 curious spectators. The women were allowed to wear normal football boots as opposed to the specially tailored high-heeled boots used in 1881 and no longer had to wear corsets, but bonnets remained a necessity in the uniform. The bonnets were such a nuisance that play regularly had to stop if anyone headed the ball so the player in question could re-adjust theirs before play resumed. 

A smaller ball than the standard size was used and it’s unknown if the game was a full 90 minutes or shorter. Clarke played in the match, which was regarded as ‘The North’ versus ‘The South’. Curiously, it appears she played for the latter despite being born in Bootle.

Nevertheless, Clarke was on the losing side as their northern counterparts ran out convincing 7-1 winners. Just as it had been four years earlier, press coverage was once again scornful of the idea and they were constantly heckled by the crowd. The Manchester Guardian reported at the time: “Their costumes came in for a good deal of attention … one or two added short skirts over their knickerbockers. When the novelty has worn off, I do not think women’s football will attract the crowds.”

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The team would go on to play over 100 matches in the next two years thanks to a tour sponsored by Lady Dixie and attracted plenty of attention from the media, but the eventual toll of playing so regularly and the lack of funds meant they never played again after 1887. The tour included a charity match in Brighton to raise money for local medical charities and many more around the country.

Lady Dixie was a Scottish traveller, a war correspondent and a feminist who firmly believed in women’s rights, but appeals for more funding fell on deaf ears. Clarke herself had only spent a year with the British Ladies before touring with the aforementioned Mrs Graham’s XI in Scotland in 1896. Helen Graham Matthews, a Scottish suffragist thought to be the first British women’s footballer, had lived just a few streets away from Clarke when she was a child and Matthews was the brainchild for the team, though once again, it is believed her name is a pseudonym. 

Their matches regularly attracted thousands of people and the players received paid expenses, approximately amounting to a shilling per week. Clarke would go on to play in a ‘women vs men’ match in 1897, with the women winning 3-1, though the media coverage was typically derisory, despite the impressive victory.

Clarke’s career as a footballer continued until 1903 but details of her life and the lives of her sisters are relatively scarce after that, with her date of death also unknown. The lack of information led Gibbs to believe Clarke died around 1905 at the age of 30 due to her disappearance from the national census, but the finer details of Clarke’s possibly short but remarkable life may never be known.

Now it is about ensuring that while it is a brief story, given the lack of information available, Clarke’s story never gets forgotten. In October 2018, The FA backed calls to commemorate Clarke and Anna Kessel, the co-founder of Women in Football, and appeals for a blue plaque at her childhood home. Women in Football also contacted The FA about the possibility of a statue of Clarke, either at Wembley or St. George’s Park, with only two current statues in the UK dedicated to sportswomen.

As many as 143 years after Clarke’s birth, there is still an ongoing fight for equality when it comes to women’s football, regarding both ethnicity and gender, which is why it remains more important than ever to acknowledge just how far back in history pioneers such as Emma Clarke go in making strides to help those in the future play the game they love just as we do.

By Rich Laverty @RichJLaverty

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