A WOMAN IN A MAN’S WORLD
Born Vera Danby in Richmond, North Yorkshire, her father was the manager of the local Freeman, Hardy and Willis shoe shop.
She was introduced to billiards aged just 6 as her uncle Jack had a table in his cellar in his house in Newcastle. He taught her every technique and trick, for snooker as well as billiards.
After leaving school, Vera went to Leeds University to study Art and Design.
In her mid-twenties she met Bruce Selby, a dapper, well-dressed Newcastle hairdresser who was 28 years her senior. They dated for 2 years before getting married. Vera described Bruce as, “a bit of a character”.
Vera got a job as the Senior Art, Textile and Dress Designer lecturer at Newcastle Polytechnic. She was a larger-than-life character and was well liked by her students. As part of her role she taught trainee primary school teachers art, with an emphasis on fashion. She wrote a book entitled ‘Creative Textiles for the Primary School’. Her passions were macrame and crochet and she loved making hats out of carrier bags.
Snooker was Vera’s hobby until she was 36. She regularly played in clubs in the Northeast (e.g. Gateshead Railway Institute, Ashington Veterans and the Elders Institute) and participated in 11 different leagues.
Some clubs had restrictions on women. They would only let her in between 6:00pm and 7:00pm and then she had to give up her table to let the men play. In all her leagues she was the only woman playing. She faced real sexism and prejudice.
In 1966, when Vera was 36, she was seen playing Bruce in the Coxlodge Club, by Alf Nolan, an amateur snooker and billiards champion. He became Vera’s coach for the next 10 years.
On one of the first training sessions she missed an easy shot and banged her cue down in frustration. Alf told her off and said, “Show no emotion, keep calm”. It was a lesson she learned, applying it for the rest of her career. She became known for being as cool as a cucumber.
She bought a snooker table for £20 from an advertisement in the local paper and set it up in the garage of her new home. But it only just fitted and was right up against the walls. She couldn’t use a full-size cue and had to rely on one two feet short. She always believed this helped her cue control in a manner other players didn’t have.
She entered the Dudley Miner’s Welfare competition – and came last. She was in tears but Alf told her it was good. It showed she cared about the result and he said she would never be as bad again.
It wasn’t long before she was captain of the Gateshead Railway Institute snooker team.
Her very first proper tournament was in Soho, London. She travelled down to London alone, without her husband or coach. When she finally found the Windmill Snooker Club, it had a cinema showing blue films on one side and a strip club on the other. She was embarrassed to enter the snooker hall under a sign that blazed ‘Sex – Morning, Noon and Night’.
She came second in the tournament. Bruce was delighted but Coach Alf was furious. “That’s no good to me. I want winners!”
She entered the same tournament the following year. Feeling she needed extra practice before the competition began, she went to the Windmill Club very early in the morning. On the table next to her, two Chinese men were playing. An argument began and punches were thrown. Then one man broke his cue and rammed it into the others throat – killing him outright. Murder! And Vera was the only witness. She still went on to win the tournament.
In 1970, Vera won the women’s world billiards championship. She went on to win it for the next seven years.
In 1976, she became the first ever Women’s Snooker World Champion, beating Muriel Hazeldine 4-0 in the final.
Her second world snooker championship came in 1981 when she beat Mandy Fisher 3-0. She was 51 and at the time was the oldest female champion in any sport in the world.
She was invited to be part of the BBC commentary team for the men’s World Snooker Championship in 1982, played at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield. That was the year it was famously won by Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins.
Vera then qualified as a snooker referee and also became a coach. She particularly encouraged women and girls to take up the sport – “a trailblazer and a pioneer.”
This encouraged her to give up her lecturing job in 1983 and turn professional.
And as a referee she had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the rules and was regarded as scrupulously fair. With her knowledge of textiles she would fix the men’s bow ties and on one occasion a competitor split his trousers, so Vera sewed them up again.
Her husband Bruce died in his late eighties in 1990, when Vera was just 60. He had been to every single game she had played or refereed as a professional.
When she retired from professional competitions Vera had won the World Billiards Championship 9 times and the snooker equivalent 5 times. She kept her hand in by continuing to play locally and back in the clubs she loved so much.
Her love for art and textiles never diminished. She would turn up at tournaments dressed in bright colours with all her suits designed herself.
She made a 3D model of a mountain which she placed slap-bang in the middle of her sitting room. She referred to it as “the cow pat.”
A friend who was a sculptor made a Plaster-of-Paris mould of her body and turned it into a pewter statue of her which was always on prominent display in her home. He delivered it to her home in Gosford on the back of his Harley Davidson motorbike.
Vera took to the after-dinner circuit as a speaker. Her talk was entitled ‘A Woman in a Man’s World’. It was very popular.
In 2009, she was made Master of the 400-year-old Fellmonger’s Guild in Richmond, North Yorkshire. She was the first woman ‘Master’ in its history.
In 2015, Vera was awarded an MBE, “for services to snooker and billiards.” It was presented to her by Prince Charles. She was thrilled. “It was wonderful. Prince Charles gave it to me. He said ‘You don’t look like a snooker player’. I replied, saying we weren’t all big, butch male players – and he laughed.”
And immediately afterwards she hung up her cue for ever. She was 85. She continued to be a passionate advocate for women’s participation. “Anything is possible in sport.”
Vera died on her 93rd birthday. Ex-world champion Shaun Murphy said, “She was one of the pioneers of women’s snooker and an early trailblazer for girls and women who followed.”
RIP – Red In Pocket