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Today’s guest post is by Dr. Jo Bath, co-author of The Newcastle Book of Days, which is a collection of ‘On this Day’ style anecdotes and historical snippets centred around the city of Newcastle Upon Tyne. Being as how it is a city close to my heart, being close to where I was born, my interest is especially piqued by this book. I even remember some of the events described, including the building of the Metro described below. Here she talks about some of the stories she came across when writing the book, including one that is very relevant in Wimbledon season…

Muriel Robb

One of the best things about writing a Book of Days has been the freedom to explore more or less any aspect of local history that caught my eye. Of course, some things were always going to be included in one form or another. You can’t cover Newcastle’s history without referring to, for instance, the Great Fire which devastated the Quayside on October 6th 1854, the development of Grainger Town or the birth of the Metro (the largest urban transport project of twentieth-century Britain). But what really excited me were the nooks and crannies of the city’s history, the almost-forgotten figures and stories which have all, in their way, made the place what it is today.

I’m sitting in my office listening to the tennis, and that reminds me that Newcastle has a Wimbledon champion all of its own in 23-year-old Jesmond-based Muriel Robb. Admittedly her victory was on July 2nd 1902, so the contest was very different from the modern game. Wimbledon merely hosted the English National Championships (though participants did come from further afield – Robb had already won the Irish, Scottish and Welsh Championships). At the time, the women’s game was quite sedate, with underarm serves delivered by refined ladies in floor-length dresses and straw hats. But Robb was a blast of fresh air. Despite the handicap of corsetry, she was a relatively speedy mover and probably the first woman to serve overarm. Contemporary Arthur Myers said that “her command of the ball was so striking, her forehand drives so deadly, and her overhead service so effective, while her self-possession was so apparent,” that her opponents were often placed at a disadvantage.
Remarkably, due to a strange decision Robb’s Wimbledon final, against defending champion Charlotte Sterry, was the longest women’s Wimbledon final in history. The match was drawn at a set each when rain stopped play. Rather than playing a deciding set the next day, the committee decided to wipe the scoreboard and start from scratch! This time, Robb won comfortably – after playing a total of 53 games. Despite her powerful play, her health was never that robust, and she retired later the same year. She died less than five years later, of unknown causes – the youngest Wimbledon champion ever to die.

armstrong_munitionettes

Armstrong Munitionettes

Speaking of female sports players, Newcastle’s ladies (as you might expect) were also pioneers on the football field. The British Ladies’ Football Club played at St James’ Park on April 20th, 1895, only a month after they formed, and a crowd of 8,000 gathered to watch the “spectacle”. The reporter for the Sporting Man was obviously confused by the whole thing, and spent all his time describing the women’s attire. He concluded that “the young women presented a pretty appearance on the field, and this was in great measure due to the nice assortment of colours, as well as the dainty way the women set them off”! The quality of football played on this occasion is unclear, but certainly twenty years later a new generation of teenage girls embraced the sport with enthusiasm. The Munitionettes League was formed in 1917, made up of teams from the women workers of the factories of the north-east, and was the first ever league for women’s football. Made obsolete by the end of the war, the League lasted less than three years, but St James’ Park, host to the cup final, saw some remarkable young women in action. Mary Brown, playing for Palmer’s of Jarrow, not only played in the 1919 final (March 22nd) but at 14 was the youngest-ever footballer, of either gender, to play for England!

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