How Lily Parr Became England’s Unknown Footballing Legend

by Louise Quick

‘Let’s talk about football’ is a phrase I never thought I’d start a blog with. As someone who can count the number of football games I’ve watched on one hand I’m hardly a footie fan, but I am a fan of women’s history and that’s exactly why we need to talk about Lily Parr.

Despite retiring from the beautiful game 70 years ago, Lily Parr is still one of England’s finest wingers. Six-foot tall with a powerful left foot – and a significant chain-smoking habit – she’s best remembered for scoring more than 900 goals during her 32-year sporting career.

Lily Parr (credit: National Football Museum)

Nine hundred goals. Granted, the Brazialian goal-scoring legend Pelé has clocked more than 1,200 in his time, but in Parr’s defense, he’s likely played a few more games considering the FA essentially banned women’s football for half of the 20th century.

Let me explain. Women’s football is big business now: almost 12 million Brits tuned in to watch the US and England face-off in the 2019 Women’s World Cup semi-final. While some of us may have thought that women’s football was born the night the 2002 classic Bend it Like Beckham premiered, it turns out that its roots run a little deeper, back to the 19th century. 

It was then World War One that triggered a real high for the game. With men fighting in Europe, women filled munitions factories in their droves, manufacturing the ammunition for the frontline.

Women munition workers in the First World War (credit: IWM)

It was in these factories that female workers began kicking a ball around in their brief breaks. It wasn’t long until teams were formed and then by Christmas 1916 crowds were turning out to watch them compete. 

You’d think that ‘proper’ Edwardian society could never possibly approve of women flinging themselves around a field. However, the factories and even the Prime Minister David Lloyd George supported the growing support as a means of boosting morale – anything for the war effort, hey?

Another reason women’s football got away with, well, existing was its charity work. Many games raised money for charities that helped soldiers and those affected by the war. A 1920 game at Goodison Park allegedly raised more than £3,000, which is somewhere around £120,000 in today’s money.  

One team quickly emerged as the one to beat: the Dick, Kerr Ladies. The team was named after the Preston munitions factory, the Dick, Kerr & Co, where the athletes worked. Terrible name, but fantastic at football, the team quickly gained an impressive following a 10,000-heavy crowd turned out to watch their 1917 Christmas game, raising funds for wounded soldiers.

Even as the war ended in 1918, women’s football continued its rise and this is where a very young Lily Parr enters the field. In 1919, a 14-year-old Parr was already playing for her local team, St Helens. Her talent was such that after only a few matches she was head-hunted by the Dick, Kerr Ladies, who could even afford to pay her 10 shillings per game. Parr was playing professionally! She quickly earned her wage too, by scoring 43 goals in her first season. Again, she was 14 years old.

The Dick, Kerr Ladies’ popularity only increased and in December 1920, a whopping 53,000 fans turned out to watch them face St Helens at Liverpool’s Goodison Park. That same year, Parr and her teammates played in one of the earliest women’s internationals when, representing England, they beat France 4-0.

Dick Kerr Ladies (credit: http://www.dickkerrladies.com)

It’s safe to say women’s football was popular and Parr’s star was on the rise. That was until, in 1921, like a cartoon piano plummeting from the sky, the Football Association (FA) banned women from playing on FA-affiliated ground and banned members from refereeing any women’s football matches. 

In a complete 180, the FA declared that, “the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged”. The message was clear: the wartime freedoms felt by women were just that, reserved for wartime. Now the men had returned, women were no longer required in factories or on pitches. 

Fortunately, the Dick, Kerr Ladies reacted to the ruling perfectly, by ignoring it and touring America the next year. However, without the FA’s grounds and backing, women’s football inevitably struggled and many of the teams that had dominated pitches died away in the 1920s.

The Dick, Kerr Ladies fought on as the Preston Ladies with Parr as their star player. She earned a living as a nurse, where she met her partner Mary, and on the pitch she saw off Edinburgh Ladies 5-1 in 1937 and was named captain in 1946. She ended her football career with a 11-1 victory over Scotland in 1950 – three decades after her first season – and it wasn’t until 1971 that the FA repealed its 1921 ruling. 

Yes, Parr was a skilled athlete with a mean left foot, but what is more admirable is her defiance in the face of society’s ‘rules’. She defied ideas of femininity by pursuing a professional football career and, to top it off, she couldn’t give two flying footballs about society’s rules on sexuality. She lived in an openly gay relationship in north England, in the early 20th century.

Lily Parr: An icon of women’s football

Parr has, quite rightly, become an icon of both women’s football and LGBTQ+ rights and became the first female footballer to be commemorated in a prominent public sculpture when the National Football Museum unveiled a statue last year. Honestly though, I don’t think she’d care about all that, just as long as she got to play ball.


Recommended reading:

In a League of Their Own! The Dick, Kerr Ladies 1917-1965, Gail J. Newsham 

The Dick, Kerr’s Ladies, Barbara Jacobs

Lily Parr, the pioneering star, FIFA News (Link: https://www.fifa.com/news/lily-parr-the-pioneering-star-2593969


About the Author:

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Louise Quick is an experienced multimedia journalist, content writer, and proud history nerd.

She completed her Public History MA from Royal Holloway, University of London, in 2018. Her MA project featured a YouTube cookery series, recreating Edwardian vegetarian recipes in a bid to highlight the little-known fact that many of Britain’s Suffrage campaigners were vegetarians. The project was called ‘Suffrage Eats’, (a pun she is far too proud off).

Before her MA, Louise worked as a lifestyle journalist in Dubai, but returned to the UK to pursue her love of history. She has since written forThe Guardian and All About History, and produced educational video series for Historic Royal Palaces and History Bombs.

 

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