Birth: 26th April 1905
Place of Birth: St Helens, UK
Nationality: British
Job Title: Footballer, Factory Worker
Partners: “Mary”
Died: 24th May 1978, ST Helens

Female football is still very much in the shadows. Most of us would be hard pushed to name a professional female player, let alone last year’s FA cup winners. Sexism in sport has always been rife, especially in sports that have traditionally been male dominated. This month’s Gay Great was an essential part of a ground breaking group of female footballers who briefly broke through the male defence only to be beaten back out of play.

Lily Parr was born in Gerrard’s Bridge, St Helens, one of the poorest areas of Merseyside. Her father, George, worked as a labourer in a nearby glass factory while his wife Sarah stayed at home to look after the couple’s 7 children. Lily was the fourth child and from an early age enjoyed playing with her older brothers. Many happy hours were spent on waste ground learning how to play rugby and football. Parr was a temerarious and daring character and refused to associate with the interests little girls were supposed to have. Her large and strong frame also set her aside from other girls her age and she increasingly pursued to male interests. Instead of learning to cook and sew, she worked hard on her drop kicks and tackling. By the age of 13, she was able to hold her own against her brothers in both rugby and football.

The First World War offered Parr a welcome shift in the expectations of women. For the first time ever, females were donning overalls and heading for the factory floor. After a while the women naturally fell into some predominantly male habits, most notably smoking and playing football at lunch time. Several women’s football teams sprung up as a result, one of which was St Helen’s Ladies Football Team. Parr joined the team in 1919, then aged 14, and instantly showed a talent for the game. Soon after she joined, St Helen’s played top all women team Dick Kerr Ladies. Team boss Alfred Frankland was impressed and offered a place on his team to Parr and one of her friends. On offer was a job in the Dick Kerr factory and 10 extra shillings for every game played. On Parr’s request, part of her pay in was in Woodbine cigarettes. Frankland also arranged places to live in Preston for the girls. Parr jumped at the offer and moved in with Dick Kerr player Alice Norris.

With many professional male players killed or injured, women’s football continued to flourish even after the war had ended and matches were drawing tens of thousands of fans to every match. In her first season with Dick Kerr, Parr scored a staggering 43 goals. In an empty field, she could find the back of the net with a single kick from every point on the pitch. Her kick was also extremely hard and rivalled most male professionals. Her body was designed for football. She was a tall and strong girl and had fantastic aerobic ability, despite smoking a packet of Woodbines a day. Her personality was also well suited to the game. Although she was apparently unaware of her attraction to women, Parr was certainly masculine in her ways and was unafraid to get dirty, take on a difficult tackle and generally act competitively. The local press were set alight by the young Parr and one named her the most promising football talent in the country, despite her gender!

Keen to increase the earning power of ladies football, Frankland invited the Societies Feminine Sportives de France to send a team to England for several games. Parr played a vital role in these first few international matches, the proceeds of which went to the National Association of Discharged Soldiers. Thousands lined the street to see the arrival of the French team and a massive 25,000 turned up to see the first game, which England won 2-0 (they won the next game 5-2, drew the next game 1-1 and lost the last 2-1). The team played a return leg of games in France. Although the England team were surprised by how well the French ladies played on their home turf, they came back victorious having achieved three wins and one draw.

Dick Kerr Ladies were now a popular UK team and Lily Parr was fast becoming a national hero. Their games were even covered on Pathe newsreels. But problems were afoot. Although women’s matches were fund-raising events, some of the charities they chose had a distinctively political angle, such as local mine workers funds. The FA were not impressed also more than a little upset that women’s football seemed to be getting more popular than the male game. Wider issues also played a part.

Many women were still working in factories and many unemployed men felt they were taking their jobs. Seeing women playing a ‘man’s sport’ didn’t make them feel any better! In a dramatic move, they issued a statement stating that women’s football was ‘dangerous to female health’ and ‘becoming far too involved in politics’. The missive asked all Football Associations to ban female teams from its grounds and a resulting lack of Association referees and line judges made it difficult to hold a game anywhere. The ban stayed in place from 1921 until 1971 and did great harm to the progress of the women’s game.

Trying to keep the game alive, Frankland took his team on a tour to Canada. Once there, they encountered a similar problem when the Canadian national soccer body decided that they too would ban female players. A tour of the USA was more successful and they were not only allowed to play, but also compete against men, something unheard of in the UK. The team made a good showing, beating most of the male teams they came across and even rising to a challenge of a relay race by the American Olympic Athletics team (Dick Kerr Ladies won the race, a testament to the fitness of the team). Parr had already marked herself out as a strong kicker and this was clearly demonstrated to the Americans when one of the goalies broke an arm trying to save one of her penalty shots!

On their return, Parr and the team continued to play, but the new FA rules left them with a limited number of games. In addition, the team that owned their practice pitch was part of the FA, so they were forced to practice in a field which was sometimes ploughed! It looked as though the final nail in the coffin had come when the Dick Kerr factory was taken over by a new company, English Electric. The new owners decided to take away the team’s funding and some players also lost their jobs at the firm. Parr was less than impressed, but Frankland was determined the team should carry on. He rebranded them Preston Ladies and searched to call in a few favours. In its time, Dick Kerr Ladies had raised a lot of money for Whittingham Hospital and Lunatic Asylum. In gratitude, they offered jobs and accommodation to women on the team who had been fired from English Electric.

One of the women who took a job there was Parr. In her first few days at the hospital she met a co-worker called Mary. The two fell in love and became partners. Parr and Mary refused to hide their relationship like so many lesbians of the time did and they were openly partners among friends and teammates. So forthright were they that few people dared to question or criticise their relationship. The couple even bought a house together (Parr was the only woman on the team to own her own house, mostly due to Mary’s brilliant financial and organisational skills.)

When the 1930s arrived, football began to fade into the background for many of the Dick Kerr team. Parr concentrated more and more on her nursing career, eventually reaching the post of Ward Sister, while many of the other players married and gave up football altogether. The war years proved a difficult time for the game as petrol rationing made it hard to travel to matches. Nevertheless, Parr was made captain of the team in 1946 in recognition of 26 years service in the team. In all her years, she had scored 967 goals and only missed 5 games through illness or injury. She played her last game at the age of 45 when she took to the field in a game against Scotland. Parr left on a high – her team won 11-1. Preston Ladies continued without her well into the 60s, but eventually folded in 1965.

Two year later in 1967, Parr’s years of smoking caught up with her and she developed breast cancer. She stubbornly refused to give up her beloved Woodbines and despite a double mastectomy she died at home in May 1978. In 2002, she became the first and only women to enter the Football Hall of Fame. This year also saw a major exhibition on her life and football as part of LGBT History Month as well as the first ever Lily Parr Exhibition Trophy match, played in Camden.

Few people know who Parr is today. It is sad that one of the most talked about football players of the 1920s has faded into obscurity. However, as female football grows in popularity, knowledge of the game’s great players will hopefully emerge from the shadows, allowing the battling Lily Parr to influence another generation of young female sportswomen.

Web geek by day...... ......pool player by night

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