Emma Clarke, Born 1875: Britain’s First Black Female Footballer

As I noted in The ‘Black Boy’ of the Philanthropic Society, much of Britain’s black history is hidden from the historical record, not least because histories were generally recorded of rich, white men;  women and minorities are hard to locate unless they married into the aristocracy, did something extraordinary or found themselves in trouble with the law. It also relies on the person recording any document to note skin colour or heritage for us to pinpoint a reliable source.  

Emma Clarke’s story was hidden from history until very recently. Historian and artist Stuart Gibbs uncovered Emma’s history when researching female footballers. In late Victorian England, she travelled the country playing football for the British Ladies’ team. 

Emma was born in Bootle, Liverpool, in 1875. Her parents, William and Wilhelmina Clarke, had fourteen children, five of whom reached adulthood. Her father was a bargeman. It is believed her black ‘Dutch’ heritage came from her mother. Emma’s younger sister Jane would also play football alongside her.

The house in Bootle, Liverpool, where Emma Clarke grew up

The first official women’s football match took place in Scotland in May 1881, later a series of matches were played in Liverpool. Whilst it is believed that Emma and her family could not afford to attend organised matches like these, she could possibly have heard about them, particularly with her geographical connection to another female footballer, Helen Graham Matthews, who had lived around the corner. Women would give themselves sporting pseudonyms, Helen Matthews was known as Mrs Graham, another contemporary was Nettie Honeyball. Emma does not appear to have had a pseudonym, was this because she was already distinctive and would not be able to hide her identity? Pseudonyms were necessary due to the hostility from some quarters as the women stepped out of rigid Victorian social mores, where women were supposed to remain in the domestic sphere.

Female footballer Helen Graham Matthews (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Emma had very much stepped out of the domestic sphere, aged fifteen, she was a confectioner’s assistant, by twenty she had become a professional footballer. She played her first match for the British Ladies’ team at Crouch End, London, in March 1895. The British Ladies’ team was trained by former Tottenham and Arsenal player, Bill Julian, during the winter of 1894/5, before their March debut. Their match was played in front of 10,000 paying spectators. The team is known to have played at St James’ Park, Newcastle, Valley Parade, Bradford and the old Wembley Stadium, to name a few of the places that held matches for the women’s game. 

Emma Clarke (top row, second left), Britain’s first black female footballer

She was paid one shilling plus board and lodgings, which wasn’t bad for a working class woman. She continued with this team until around 1903 when records cease. However, it is known that she took a break from the Ladies in 1896, when, along with her sister Jane, she joined Mrs Graham’s XI for a tour in Scotland. Emma sometimes played in goal, other times on the right wing, she is mentioned in match reports as ‘the fleet-footed dark girl on the right wing’, and the Stirling Sentinal noted in June 1896, that she was ‘a coloured lady of Dutch build in goal’.

British Ladies in action, Emma Clarke (right) other players in Emma’s team believed to be Mrs Graham and Nettie Honeyball

It’s strange, but also very representative of women’s history, and black history in particular, that Emma’s story was hidden in an archive waiting to be discovered. She was noted in the newspapers of the day and depicted in images in newsprint and yet when she was no longer newsworthy her story faded into the shadows awaiting discovery by the curious.

Drawing from The Daily Mail, 2 April 1897 depicting Emma and possibly Jane Clarke

Emma’s former family home in Bootle is still standing, campaigners are now pressing for it to receive a blue plaque, noting Emma’s place in British history. Strict criteria rule out a plaque on buildings at football grounds that she played at, original buildings have not survived. A statue to commemorate Emma has also been mooted, however, there are 200 statues of sportspeople in the country and only two depict women, that’s 1%. Blue Plaque Rebellion, led by sports journalist Anna Kessel, celebrates women’s sporting history and is behind a campaign to bring Emma Clarke’s history to a more permanent place in the historical landscape highlighting her status as a black Victorian sportswoman.


Images: Images taken from the RSA panel presentation (see link below) unless stated








14 thoughts on “Emma Clarke, Born 1875: Britain’s First Black Female Footballer

    1. Yes! I’ll be honest, I hadn’t heard of her before, yet I know of a tennis player and Wimbledon champion from the Wirral (Lottie Dodd!) There was a panel at the Royal Society of Arts (link below) quite a fascinating discussion on female black identity then and now. It’s a great watch 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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