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She was a working-class girl from Lancashire who became an internationally feted sporting talent. Hailed as a prodigy on the pitch, she defied convention in both her personal and professional life. Meet Lily Parr, the woman who helped to change how football was perceived.
Born in 1905 in the town of St Helens, Lancashire, Lily Parr challenged gender roles from a young age. With the encouragement of her brothers, she began honing her football and rugby skills on waste ground close to her home, and by age thirteen she’d developed a seriously strong left foot.
The next year, she began to play for her local team, St Helens Ladies. It was in a match against Dick, Kerr Ladies, a team representing a munitions factory in Preston, that Parr caught the eye of their manager, Alfred Frankland. Impressed by her 5ft11 build and her remarkable prowess on the pitch, Frankland offered Parr a position on the team as well as a job in the factory. She scored 43 goals in her first season.
Parr proved to be a fearsome opponent with a reputation as a formidable attacker. As a teammate later 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 and nearly knock me out with the force of the shot.’ A local newspaper went as far as saying there was ‘probably no greater football prodigy in the whole country’.
A highlight of her career was the Boxing Day match of 1920, where over 53,000 spectators came to watch the Dick, Kerr Ladies play at Everton’s Goodison Park. Several thousand disappointed fans were stuck outside. This was by far the largest crowd that had ever gathered to watch women’s football, a record that remained unbeaten until almost a century later at the London 2012 Olympics. Not only did they beat the St Helens Ladies 4-0, but they also raised a staggering £3,115 for the Unemployed Ex-Servicemen’s Distress Fund in Liverpool, worth over half a million in today’s money.
Politics on the pitch
The popularity of women’s football was rising against a backdrop of major social unrest. In March 1921, miners were hit with a pay cut due to the privatisation of coal mines after the war. Those who refused to accept this were locked out of their jobs and forced to go without pay for months. With many of the Dick, Kerr Ladies coming from working-class backgrounds, they chose to raise large amounts of money to support the miners, playing charity matches in hard-hit industrial cities like Cardiff and Swansea.
Outraged by their involvement in the labour movement, the Football Association announced in December 1921 that ‘the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged’ and subsequently banned women from playing on their grounds. Lily was just sixteen when the announcement threatened to end her career.
Undeterred by the FA ruling, the team went on to play games in the United States, against both male and female teams. The Americans were equally impressed with Parr, with newspapers naming her ‘the most brilliant female player in the world’.
Despite this, their support back home dwindled, with smaller capacity venues restricting their ability to raise funds for charitable causes. They even lost the support of the Dick, Kerr & Co factory, forcing them to rename themselves Preston Ladies. Lily and her team went undaunted, their love of the sport inextinguishable.
An unapologetic pioneer
Making only ten shillings and a packet of her beloved Woodbine cigarettes per match, it was vital for Lily to earn a second income. She trained as a nurse and began working at the Whittingham Mental Hospital where she met her partner, Mary, with whom she spent the rest of her life.
Equally as revolutionary off the pitch as she was on, Lily was unashamedly open about her sexuality. Although not technically illegal like male homosexuality was during the time, being a gay woman would have still inevitably invited stigma and scrutiny. But Lily and Mary refused to conceal their relationship, even in the face of possible prejudice. This uncompromising attitude enshrined Lily Parr as an icon of the LGBTQ+ movement, as well as women’s football.
Her lasting legacy
Lily Parr scored close to 1,000 goals during her prolific three-decade-long career, eventually retiring from football in 1951. It was a further 20 years before the FA lifted the ban on women’s football, with the first women’s FA Cup final taking place that same year. Decades later, in 2008, the governing body issued an apology for their treatment of women footballers during the time.
Lily Parr died of breast cancer in 1978, aged 73. In 2002, she became the first woman to be inducted into the English Football Hall of Fame at the National Football Museum in Manchester, and the museum later erected a statue of Parr to commemorate her contributions to the sport.
She is remembered to this day as one of the greatest players of her generation, regardless of gender. In the words of fellow player Lydia Ackers, ‘I have never seen any woman, nor many a man, kick a ball like she could. Everybody was amazed when they saw her power, you would never believe it.’