Sunday 26 April 2020, 08:03

Lily Parr, the pioneering star

  • Lily Parr was born 115 years ago today

  • This outstanding athlete was one of women's football's earliest stars

  • She has become an icon for the female game and for gay rights

“Complaints have 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.”

That statement, released by the FA in 1921, banning women’s football from being played on affiliated grounds in England, served to stunt the progress of a game that was increasing in popularity, with huge crowds turning out to see women play. That rise in popularity was partly down to the women’s game’s early superstars, one of whom was arguably the most outstanding women’s player of the early 20th century.

Lily Parr was quite a sight, and a remarkable character who led an incredible life. Close to six feet tall, a chain-smoker with jet black hair and a lethal left foot, her footballing career began in 1919, at just 14 years of age. In her second match, playing for St Helens Ladies against Dick, Kerr’s Ladies, she impressed Kerr’s manager Alfred Frankland, who invited her to join his already talented squad. She moved to Preston, and one of the most prolific goalscorers in women’s footballing history had found her perfect home.

Before the 1921 ban, Dick, Kerr’s Ladies (founded as a World War I-era works team for the Preston company Dick, Kerr & Co.), were a charitable team, holding games to raise money for the National Association of Discharged and Disabled Soldiers and Sailors. A touring French side visited England in 1920 and Dick, Kerr’s, playing unofficially as England’s representatives, won twice, lost one and drew one in the four matches – raising almost £3,000 for charity across the matches, equivalent to over £100,000 today.

Return matches were played in France, and the team was in demand when they arrived back in England, playing games in front of huge crowds (53,000 turned out at Goodison Park) and raising well over £5,000 for charitable causes across a number of matches (over £200,000 in today’s money). In 1921, Parr scored five against the ‘Best of Britain’ in a 9-1 win and, representing their country, Kerr’s saw off the France national side 5-1 in front of 15,000, with Parr scoring all five.

A team photograph of Dick, Kerr Ladies football team, founded in Preston, Lancashire, during World War One, who were undefeated British champions during the 1920-1921 season.

Playing despite politics

However, with the growing popularity of Parr, the team, and the women’s game, and the huge amounts of money being raised, Kerr’s and women’s football became embroiled in a political battle. With Kerr’s holding games in support of miners, and the team seen as a tool for helping the Labour Movement, the FA moved to suppress the women’s game. Further to the statement released saying “football is quite unsuitable for ladies”, the FA added: “The Council are further of the opinion that an excessive proportion of the receipts are absorbed in expenses and an inadequate percentage devoted to Charitable objects.”

Stoutly ignoring that football was ‘unsuitable for females’, Kerr’s headed to the United States on tour. They played nine games, some against men’s teams, and Parr was considered the star player, with American newspaper reports labelling her “the most brilliant female player in the world.”

Kerr’s continued to play games in their return, for charitable causes, but without access to larger venues, they could not continue to raise the large amounts for charity they had before the FA’s ruling. Parr continued to play, and continued to score. Dick, Kerr & Co. was eventually taken over by English Electric, who proceeded to sack members of the team, including Parr.

Parr found work with Whittingham Hospital and Lunatic Asylum, one of the beneficiaries of Kerr’s charity work, with Frankland opening a grocery shop in Preston and continuing to manage the team. It was while working at the Hospital that Parr met her partner Mary, and together they bought a house in Preston, refusing to hide their relationship as many gay people of the time were forced to do.

Despite the lack of backing they had enjoyed from Dick, Kerr and Co., Preston Ladies continued to be the best side in England, thumping Blackpool Ladies 11-2 in 1927, with Parr, naturally, on the scoresheet. While some of her teammates got married, or emigrated, and left the team, Parr carried on, and her reputation was spreading across the country.

Champion of the world

Bobby Walker, an international player for Scotland, called her the "best natural timer of a football I have ever seen."

“She had a kick like a mule,” her team-mate Joan Whalley recalled. “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.”

In 1937, Preston Ladies saw off Edinburgh Ladies 5-1 to claim the “championship of Great Britain and the World”, with Parr and a 15-year-old Whalley on the scoresheet. Frankland was compelling in a speech delivered at the post-match dinner to commemorate the victory.

“Since our inception we have played 437 matches, won 424, lost 7 and drawn 6, scored 2,863 goals and had only 207 scored against,” Frankland said. “We have raised over £100,000 in this country and in foreign lands for charity.”

If Frankland’s fundraising estimates are correct, that means Dick, Kerr’s, Preston Ladies and their star player Parr helped raise what would be the equivalent of several millions of pounds for charity.

After 26 years of service, and after the side played only a small number of games during the Second World War due to the rationing of petrol and Frankland working as an Air Raid Warden, Parr was named captain in 1946. She played her final game on 12 August 1950, aged 45, scoring in an 11-1 victory over Scotland. Educated estimates put her career goal tally at over 900.

After retiring in the early 1960s from her work at the hospital, she developed cancer in 1967, finally succumbing to the disease in 1978. It was fitting that Parr lived to see the FA repeal their 1921 ruling which forbade women playing on affiliated grounds, doing so in 1971.

Since her death, Parr has become an icon for women’s football and gay rights. She was the only female inaugural inductee into the English Football Hall of Fame at the National Football Museum in 2002, and from 2007-09, the Lily Parr Exhibition Trophy was played between LGBT football teams from England, France and USA, in tribute to Parr and Dick, Kerr’s ladies’ tours in the early 20th century.

Over a century after her birth, Parr would surely be warmed to see the rise of the women’s game in her homeland, with growing attendances in the FAWSL and a crowd of over 80,000 turning out at London 2012 to see the finale to the Women’s Olympic Football Tournament. Those same fans would surely flock in similar numbers to see the power of Parr.