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WCWFC celebrates the end of Black History Month

To celebrate the end of Black History Month, WCWFC would like to share an important story in the history of Women’s Football.

19th century England was a time of great change, a generation that opted out of rural living and ventured to newly industrialised cities in search of stable work, steady wages, and the excitement of big-city living. Innovation and advancements swept across the country, accompanied by social regression. Children were used for labour in unprecedented ways, and the workforce was exploited to pave the way for industry, lining the pockets of the aristocracy. However, with these significant changes, there was a high demand for leisure activity, and Sundays in England were reserved for one thing in particular: football. The impactful stories from this era are endless, but one story needs recognition: Emma Clarke, the first black women's footballer.

Emma Clarke was born in 1876 to parents William and Wilhelmina in Liverpool and would later move up the coast to Bootle, where she spent her formative years. Due to the lack of information coming out of this period and the lack of documentation, there is a lot unknown about the Clarke family. Still, we know she had at least one younger sister, Jane, and she is believed to have another younger sister named Mary. As the eldest daughter, Emma set a good example for her younger sibling(s), becoming a confectionary apprentice at fifteen. This lends itself to the theory that the Clarke family was well known in the community, particularly William, who made connections through the network of canals he worked on as a bargeman. Potentially, this is the reason behind their move further north up the coast: opportunity.

Emma was introduced to the game of football the way every child at the time was, on the streets. Given the small living quarters the working class inhabited, children likely spent most of their free time playing in the streets, and football had an ironclad grip over the country. In 1895, at nineteen, Emma joined the prestigious Mrs. Graham’s XI and experienced a profound period in football. Before the FA’s ban on women's football in 1921, it could attract crowds of tens of thousands, and this period was no different. While playing for Mrs. Graham’s XI, she had the opportunity of touring Scotland, earning a shilling a week, and having her lodging and food paid for by the club, a decent living at the time. Furthermore, while these matches attracted large crowds, they also received attention from media outlets. See below a photo of the front page of ‘The Hull Daily Mail’ in 1897.

The Hull Daily Mail of 2 April 1897 features a sketch of a team including Emma Clarke and, it is thought, her sister Jane. Photograph: Hull Daily Mail

Emma Clarke lived a fascinating life, overcoming adversity as a woman and person of color. During this period, women were employed as textile workers, teachers, and domestic servants. And while Black women worked these same jobs, they often faced discrimination due to the color of their skin, greatly affecting their well-being. Still, Emma Clarke overcame this inhumanity to feature on the left wing for Mrs. Graham’s eleven, and while she earned a wage of one shilling per week, she could have easily been making up to 6x this amount if she had pursued a more accepted role. This is why we celebrate Emma Clarke; her life teaches us all that following your dreams and doing what you love requires determination and sacrifice. This is where the biggest impact can be made. Today, her story continues to inspire the many women who play football, who are well aware of the financial implications at every level; their passion for the game is at its rawest form.

Here is to the memory of the Late Great Emma Clarke.

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