Lily Parr was maybe the greatest female football player who ever lived! In a career that spanned over 30 years she scored nearly 1000 goals!
Lily was born in Merseyside on 29th April 1905. She was the fourth of seven children, and as she grew up she prefered kicking a ball around with her brothers to sitting inside and sewing like most other girls her age. She quickly became adept at both football and rugby, but it was football that was to become her life’s passion. By 1919 she had joined the St Helen’s Ladies football team.
During the First World War women’s football had enjoyed somewhat of a heyday. The thousands of women who had been recruited to work in munitions factories across Britain began to form their own teams, and regularly played against one another. Perhaps the best known, and most successful of all the teams that formed were the Dick, Kerr Ladies.
The team grew in prominence throughout the war, and continued to play after it had ended. In 1920 the Dick, Kerr Ladies manager, Alfred Frankland spotted Lily when they played St Helen’s in a match. He knew talent when he saw it and quickly recruited her for his team (and to go and work in the Dick, Kerr’s factory in Preston.) And so at 14 she began her footballing career, being very nicely rewarded with 10 shillings (about £100) for each match she played.
In her first season she scored 43 goals, and also played in the very first international women’s football tournament between England & France, held in London. A local newspaper wrote about her saying,
“There is probably no greater football prodigy in the whole country. Not only has she speed and excellent ball control, but her admirable physique enables her to brush off challenges from defenders who tackle her. She amazes the crowd where ever she goes by the way she swings the ball clean across the goalmouth to the opposite wing.”
Lily was known for her killer kick. Her teammate Joan Whalley said,
“She had a kick like a mule. She was the only person I knew who could lift a dead ball, the old heavy leather ball, from the left wing over to me on the right side and nearly knock me out with the force of the shot…”
Women’s football matches had been used throughout the war to raise money for injured servicemen, which they contiued to do once the war had ended. One fundraiser game in 1920, which Lily played in with the Dick, Kerr Ladies, drew a crowd of 53,000 people! Women’s football was really popular!
Around the same time charity games were organised to raise money for miners who had gone on strike, many from the towns where the players had grown up. The huge popularity of women’s football, and the support they showed for the miners had begun to ruffle feathers. Of course there had always been some who thought that football was no game for girls and that women shouldn’t be involved in sport at all.
The blow came in 1921 when the Football Association banned women from playing on any member grounds. In a statement they said:
“Complaints having been made as to football being played by women, the Council feel impelled to express their strong opinion that the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged…”
And with that they effectively shut it down.
Some people spoke out about the decision. The Mayor of Liverpool wrote to the FA outraged;
“I may mention that in the past and present seasons I have watched about 30 ladies’ football matches between various teams and I have met the players. I have travelled with them frequently by road and rail ….On all sides I have heard nothing but praise for the good work the girls are doing and the high standard of their play. The only thing I hear from the man in the street is ‘Why have the FA got the knife out for women’s football?’ What have the girls done except raise large sums for charity and play the game? Are their feet heavier on the turf then the men’s teams?”
While this stopped the widespread popularity of women’s football in it’s tracks, many of the women were not the type to be easily deterred, and so they played wherever they could – be it on a ploughed field or a village green.
Alfred Frankland decided to take the Dick, Kerr Ladies where they could still play in proper grounds, and so the whole team set sail across the Atlantic, headed for Canada and the USA.
When they arrived in Canada they were greeted with the pretty rubbish news that the Canadian football authorities had sided with the FA and were upholding a ban on women’s football too! So on they went to America. This time they were able to play, and although they had expected to play other women’s teams, they found themselves up against the men’s teams too! They didn’t do too badly, all things considered, winning 3 games, drawing 3 and losing 3! American newspapers wrote that Lily was the ‘most brilliant female player in the world’!
Dick, Kerr Ladies eventually became Preston Ladies, and Lily continued to play for them. In 1946 she was made the Captain for her many years playing with them. She continued to play for the team until 1951.
But with the decline in popularity of women’s football, most of the players had to look for other work. Lily and some others trained as nurses finding work at Whittingham Mental Hospital. While working there she met, and fell in love with, her partner Mary. Lily was very open about the fact that she was gay, and never hid her relationship with Mary. They bought a house together and lived happily together for many years.
As well as her powerful kick, Lily was also known for her smoking habit – getting through at least a packet of Woodbines a day. Today we know the damage which smoking can do, but unfortunately when Lily grew up many people were not aware of the dangers.
She developed breast cancer in the 1960s and had a double masectomy in 1967. While this may have extended her life, the cancer continued and she died in 1978 aged 73.
The FA finally lifted the ban on women’s games in 1971! Who knows where women’s football, and it’s stars like Lily, would be today if not for the ban. In 2002 the National Football Museum made Lily Parr the only female inaugral member of their English Football Hall of Fame.
Find out more….
This website has lots of information about women’s football and the Dick, Kerr Ladies. It was created by a woman who has written a whole book about them called In a League of Their Own, which you can find here.
Another book all about the Dick, Kerr Ladies, and featuring Lily Parr is called The Dick, Kerr Ladies and is available here.
You can see a short documentary about the history of women’s football here:
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