Britain’s first Black female footballer came from Bootle

Emma Clarke's history was recently discovered and she has since been celebrated as a forgotten pioneer of black sportswomen

Britain’s first black female footballer and a forgotten pioneer for black sportswomen grew up in Bootle, it has emerged.

A recent discovery by historian Stuart Gibbs revealed that Emma Clarke was born in 1876 and lived in a terraced house in Bootle with 13 other siblings.

They lived with her mother Wilhelmina Clarke, believed to be of black Dutch heritage, and father William Clarke, who was a bargeman.

When she was aged six or seven, the first official women’s international football match took place in Scotland in May 1881.

Later that year a series of matches took place in Liverpool, which is thought to have influenced her on her path towards becoming a professional player.

From the age of 15, she worked as a confectioner’s apprentice, and received her formative sporting education playing the game in her neighbourhood streets.

By twenty she had become a professional footballer and played her first match for the British Ladies’ team at Crouch End, London, in March 1895.

Watched by a crowd of more than 10,000 people, unfortunately Clarke’s “South” team took a hammering, losing 7–1.

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 knicker-bockers. When the novelty has worn off, I do not think women’s football will attract the crowds.”

The British Ladies’ team were not an international team, but an early all women’s football club patronized by Lady Florence Dixie.

The following year, Clarke made her debut for Mrs Graham’s XI. They were a team named after Suffragist Helen Graham Matthews, who lived in the area close to where Clarke grew up.

She was selected as part of the team which toured Scotland that year, and games regularly attracted crowds numbering in their thousands for which she was paid approximately a shilling a week.

In 1897, she made an appearance for a team described as “The New Woman and Ten of Her Lady Friends” against “Eleven Gentlemen”.

The ladies team were victorious winning the match 3–1, but a report at the time made it clear the feelings about the women’s game, describing it as a grotesque.

However, the reporter did concede that “in the second half the ladies distinguished themselves”.

It is also thought that Clarke’s sister, Jane, played in this match.

As an outfield player, she was once described by the South Wales Daily News as “the fleet footed dark girl on the right wing”.

Clarke continued her career as a footballer until at least 1903, after that, not much is known about her life.

Following the recent discovery of her history, there were calls for a blue plaque to commemorate her achievement to women’s sport and to highlight her status as a black Victorian sportswoman.

In 2019, a commemorative blue heritage plaque celebrating her historic contribution to women’s football was erected at the home of former club Crouch End FC in London.