Emma Clarke (born 1871) was a Lost Lioness, a Pioneering Victorian Football Player But Much Remains to be Known About Her Life…
Who was Emma Clarke?
In 1894 Nettie Honeyball formed the British Ladies Football Club (BLFC) with Lady Florence Dixie as its non-playing President. There were in all around fifty members of the club, playing and non-playing. Wearing blouses instead of the regulation shirts, and blue serge knickerbockers, shin-pads, ankle protectors and boots, the team trained before their first match, with ex professional and coach J. W. ‘Bill’ Julian, who had played for both Royal Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur, before finishing his career at Dartford and opening a sports shop in Plumstead. The women covered their heads with fisherman’s caps, as it would have been convention of the time to appear in public with some form of headgear.
Versions of this team, and its breakaway competitors held over 150 matches between 1895-1903, latterly against men, which were some of the most lucrative fixtures.
Largely due to Honeyball’s shrewd PR campaign, the first BLFC match, held on 23 March 1895, at Crouch End Athletic Ground Hornsey, drew over 10,000 spectators. It was considered a financial and sporting success, and The Shields Daily News of 25 March told its readers that ‘the players mainly belong to London and the suburbs but a few hail from the country.’ Most were of independent means, the paper went on, but a few were married women. One of the earliest BLFC players was Emma Clarke. The 1891 census gave her occupation as a nurse, and so the newspaper report was perhaps not entirely accurate.
It has been claimed by a number of people that Emma was mixed heritage and so could be the first British-Asian woman football player. However, the paper-based evidence does not suggest this, and it may be that only family history sources could confirm one way or the other. So what do we know so far from the data?
Emma’s father, John William Clarke, aged 28, married Caroline Harriet Bogg, aged 21 on 3 May 1863 in Plumstead. John’s father, William, was a labourer, and Caroline’s father was an overlocker. John was a labourer at the Royal Arsenal, where Emma’s brother would later join him. Caroline's mother came from a long established Cornish family, as her maiden name was Granville. The Boggs were of Irish-Scottish heritage going back to at least the 18th century.
Emma’s birth certificate, gave her date of birth as 2 December 1871 in Plumstead. The birth and marriage certificates going back to the grandparents therefore do not show any mixed British-Asian heritage. But one aspect of her life has given rise to suggestions that Emma may have mixed heritage. Caroline Bogg’s father served a period of service in the army of just over four years in Ceylon, where Caroline was born, just as her older sister Mary Ann had been born in Dublin when the family was there. As both Caroline’s mother and father were registered on the birth certificate and went on to have other children, there is no evidence from the paperwork to suggest that Caroline was illegitimate. Indeed given the size of the British army in the Empire at the time, having a child while serving overseas was not that unusual.
A final case has been made for Emma’s being illegitimate, and this of course is just as difficult to evidence. If this is the case, it would mean that, even if either Caroline or John were unfaithful, the marriage seems to have been successful, with at least five children appearing after Emma, including her blonde sister Florence with whom she played football. As we know, families can have secrets but for now the paper trail is at an end. Unless of course you can help with further evidence?
Newspapers and Photographic evidence
As we know, women’s football was really topical at the time, so the British Ladies Football Club matches were reported widely. There were also lots of photographs, telling us quite a bit about the team, and in some of these photographs Emma appears to have darker skin than some other players, although this isn’t always the case depending on lighting, whether the photograph was taken indoors or outdoors, and the wider context. Certainly some photographs were portraits of the team. There is one photograph in the National Archives on which someone has written Emma Clarke on the reverse side and this is in good condition, and so does seem to support the theory that one of the 1895 team was of mixed heritage. However, other surviving photographs are not so conclusive.
We do know that the newspapers often referred to the players by hair colour. The Northern Whig from Belfast has a piece written in 1895 about lady footballers which includes Emma Clarke, who played right back. It calls her brunette, aged 21, and says that she is a native of Plumstead. It also mentions her sister Miss F. Clarke, who is 17, blonde and also of Plumstead. However, if we look at the census data our sisters are 24 and 19 respectively.
So it appears the sisters went on tour outside of London. The Belfast Newsletter of 20 June 1895 ran an article that was very celebratory of the women’s teams, naming both Emma and Florence amongst the players, with 6000 people in attendance. Emma’s football career appears to have been short-lived and she was very active, and touring in 1895 and 1896 but a split in the team saw her appear less often in the newspapers. Florence and Emma played in a match against the male team Preston North End Juniors at Cliftonville Belfast, in June 1895, drawing 2-2, after which there was an exhibition women’s match. Florence had enough energy leftover to win a 120 yards race for gold and silver medals.
Emma Jane Clarke seems to have married Thomas Reginald Porter in 1899 who was a Navvy in the 1901 census. at Woolwich Register Office on 28 October 1899. Emma’s father was listed here as John William Clarke deceased, formerly a Foreman at the Royal Arsenal. Thomas' father, also Thomas, was a coachman. Witnesses were Charles Edward Clarke and Jemima Ann Clarke. Both were Emma's siblings. Thomas is shown as 23 years of age, and Emma was 27 in the 1901 census when their first daughter Ethel Lizzie is listed. In the 1911 census, a son, Charlie Reginald had joined the family, at 7 Rose Villa Station Road, Abbey Wood, Plumstead.
Emma died aged 53 years, in 1925 living at 125 Abbey Road, Belvedere. The cause of death was carcinoma of uterus and asthenia. Thomas was present when she died and registered the death the same day. Emma’s daughter died in adolescence and her son married but had not children, dying in 1977.
It is important to say that the photographs sometimes show players who look darker skinned than others, and there is a chance that Emma Clarke was of mixed heritage, or that other players may well be of mixed heritage, but the research has yet to be done more broadly on the team. The author invites further evidence, and has not concluded definitively one way, or the other. Certainly the photographs suggest the possibility of mixed heritage, and hence the difficulty of being conclusive.
Finally, the newspapers often referred to a Dutch lady playing for the team which has been interpreted by some historians to mean a woman who had mixed heritage. However, the term ‘Dutch’ may have several meanings. The popular Music Hall song of 1892 called My Old Dutch, performed by Albert Chevalier, implied that his wife was his best pal, thought to combine cockney rhyming slang for ‘dutch plate’ or mate, and ‘duchess’. Similarly Dutch was used to refer to objects, and people, as of substantial build, and a Dutch wardrobe would therefore have been a well-built model. We know that Nettie Honeyball weighed 10 stones, so she would have been robust for her time, as perhaps footballers generally were. So, like references to hair colour we have to be careful when using newspapers, photographs and genealogical sources. Still much more to find out about Emma and Florence Clarke.
The author acknowledges, and is grateful for the research assistance of Amanda Callan-Spenn and for the collaboration and comments of Bill Hern, David and Roxanne Gleave.
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