Vera Selby MBE – Richmond snooker champion dies aged 93

Vera Selby MBE.

For those that knew her well, it was impossible to sum up the essence of Vera Selby MBE, who died on March 13 aged 93.

There were so many sides to this larger than life, highly talented yet highly individual lady, who is perhaps best known for her achievements in the sporting world as nine-time British billiards champion and best female snooker player in the world (1976 and 1981).

Born in Richmond, where her father was manager of the Freeman, Hardy and Willis shoe shop, the town remained a place of great significance throughout her life, and she was later to become the Master of the 400-year-old Fellmongers’ Guild in Richmond as the first female master in its history.

As a child of seven, she was introduced to billiards by her Uncle Jack, who had a table in his cellar. Vera would sit and watch him play, picking up tips and techniques for many years and through this experience, went on to develop a lifelong love of cue sports.

Nonetheless, she regarded snooker to be more of a pastime and put it on the back burner to pursue a career in fashion.  So it was not until she was 36 when she was seen playing by former British amateur billiards and snooker champion, Alf Nolan, who started to coach her, that her sporting career took flight.

She studied art and design at Leeds University and went on to become a senior art, textile and dress designer at Newcastle Polytechnic as it was then called, specialising in fashion, as well as teaching trainee teachers of primary school children how to teach art.

With an interest in macrame and crochet work, she wrote a book called ‘Creative Textiles for the Primary School’ hoping to get children interested in the craft.

Friends also recall how she would fashion hats out of old plastic bags, long before recycling became a thing, how she had a three-dimensional floor ornament in the shape of a mountain – affectionately known as the cow pat – slap bang in the middle of her sitting room floor and how she famously decided to display a pewter sculpture of her torso above the mantel piece. The story goes that her friend, a sculptor, having fashioned a plaster of Paris mould from this part of her anatomy, proceeded to create the piece and delivered it on the back of his Harley Davison to her home in Gosforth.

Alongside the quirky part of her disposition, was of course, a steely determination to win, which saw her become the first ever women’s champion, claiming the title by beating Muriel Hazeldine 4-0 in the final. Her second title in 1981 came after a 3-0 defeat of Mandy Fisher in the final and so, at 51, her success made her the oldest woman world champion in any sport.

She decided to retire early from her career in fashion, art and design at 53 and went on to become a television commentator for snooker, qualified as a referee and served as chairman of the North East Billiards and Snooker Association, also picking up a lifetime achievement award for her services to billiards in 2014.

In fact, when she was made an MBE in the 2016 Queen’s birthday honours for her longevity of services to the sport, aged 85, she was still playing snooker and commentating on it regularly.

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.”

Throughout her life, she was very much a woman in a man’s world, which was the title of one of her incredibly popular after dinner speeches.  She said that men in the sport didn’t faze her and was known to mend the odd bow tie, even sewing up a player’s trouser zip which came unstuck in the middle of a match.

She played snooker in many working men’s clubs up and down the country, those closest to her heart being Gateshead Railway Club and Ashington Veterans and Elders Institute, which is one of the largest in the country with eleven leagues.

One of the pioneers of women’s snooker, Vera died as a result of various old age problems having enjoyed a very strong constitution throughout her life. Married to Bruce Selby, a dapper and famous hairdresser who was 28 years her senior and attended every snooker match she played in or refereed, he died in his late eighties when Vera was only 60.

Still promoting billiards and snooker for players of all ages until recently, she championed the benefits of  the sports for maintaining agility and mental fitness. Vera was very much admired and loved amongst the snooker community and continues to be mentioned as a figure who cut through the red tape and sometimes bent the rules, showing that anything is possible in sport.