In honour of Women’s Snooker Day, Annette Lord looks at one of the game’s female pioneers who surprised many watching the classic Crucible matches in lockdown.
“Who’s the woman commentating on the BBC in 1982?” That was the question on many fans’ lips when the TV network launched its Crucible Classics last week, looking back at golden matches from yesteryear.
In fact, some messaged Snooker Chat searching for the answer after seeing Tony Knowles trouncing Steve Davis 10-1 and others took to social media with the query.
The answer is Vera Selby, a remarkable lady who is not only a multiple world champion in both snooker and billiards but was honoured for her services to both sports and also amazed everyone by playing regularly well into her 80s.
Selby was born in 1930 in Richmond, North Yorkshire, and first became aware of billiards aged six through watching her uncle play in the cellar of his home in Newcastle. This started a life-long love of cuesports, with Selby becoming women’s world billiards champion eight times between 1970 and 1978.
She was also one of the leading women’s snooker players of the 1970s, winning the national title four years in a row from 1972-75 and also regaining it in 1979.
But her success didn’t end there. Selby was crowned the first ever women’s world snooker champion when the inaugural tournament was held in 1976 and five years later captured the title again, entering the record books by becoming, at 51, the oldest female world champion in any sport.
That was 1981, and within two years Selby – who made a living as a lecturer in art, textiles and dress design at what was then Newcastle Polytechnic – had taken early retirement aged 53.
Selby was also becoming a voice on TV, as some of the Crucible Classics last week proved.
Some fans were astonished to hear Selby commentating, and there was also praise for the BBC for being “ahead of its time”.
“I had no idea there were women commentators back then,” said v3rng (@vernongiles1959), one of many to comment on Twitter.
“Vera Selby commentating for BBC at the Crucible in 1982. Snooker was way ahead of its time with a female commentator,” added Phil Gilman (@bookiemonster81), with Chris Schou Watts (@goatsebeast) saying: “Good on the BBC for getting women involved at the top level so early (seeing as snooker only really ‘started’ in the 70s).”
It was certainly a surprise to remember that snooker had a woman commentator in the early 1980s. But Selby was not the first female to commentate for the BBC on cuesports. Thelma Carpenter, also a champion in both billiards and snooker in the 1930s, commentated for billiards on BBC Radio. And Joyce Gardner, one of her rivals in both games whose once recorded a snooker break of 82, was also employed to commentate on radio. One of her appearances was at the 1946 World Snooker Championship, where she gave her thoughts on Joe Davis v Horace Lindrum for the fee of 6 guineas (£6.30).
Yes, there were female cueists in the 1930s. Alongside Gardner and Carpenter at the top of the game was Ruth Harrison, from County Durham, who won the Women’s Professional Snooker Championship – a national event – eight years running.
Back to Selby, who was given a lifetime achievement award for services to billiards in 2014 and was made an MBE for services to snooker and billiards in the 2016 Queen’s birthday honours.
She told the BBC’s Rob Walker: “It was wonderful. Prince Charles gave me it. He said ‘you don’t look like a snooker player.’ I replied, saying we weren’t all big butch male players and he laughed.”
Amazingly, Selby was still competing at the age of 86 and is now 90, enthusing about the benefits of playing for older people.
She said in 2016: “It guards against dementia and it’s a physical thing as well as being mental. You are not getting fresh air but you are walking round and round the table.”
What a remarkable woman. Vera Selby, we salute you!
Today (Wednesday April 29) is World Women’s Snooker Day.
This year the event will run online following the postponement of this year’s professional World Snooker Championship in Sheffield due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
A long-standing annual event, the day aims to encourage women to participate in snooker at all levels. Women’s sport has never been more widely recognised than it is today, and this is reflected in snooker by the rapidly expanding World Women’s Snooker Tour which can now count over 150 players, from no fewer than 29 countries on its ranking list.