Lily Parr (26 April 1905 – 24 May 1978) is a working class LGBT icon and was one of the greatest footballers of all time.
The upheaval of the social order during and after the First World War is well documented, but less known is its profound effect on football. There was a major surge of participation and interest in women’s football when large numbers of working-class women entered the workplace, including munitions factories in which Parr worked during the war.
In those factories in places such as Coventry, women lived in on-site houses and football teams emerged, organised on a factory-by-factory basis. Traditionally, these teams played on the basis of raising money for charities relating to aid for soldiers. The origins of nationally-organised women’s sides can be found in the teams created by Helen Graham Matthews, alongside Nettie Honeyball, during the 1880s.
In 1881 Matthews set up a game between female Scottish and English players at the Easter Road stadium in Edinburgh. Her side, Mrs Graham’s XI, played two of these matches before Scottish authorities cancelled all remaining fixtures and Matthews went to England to continue to play and put together sides. Matthews was involved in the women’s suffrage movement and her team which featured the first-ever black women’s footballers in the UK, Emma Clarke (sometimes misnamed as Carrie Boustead), who made her debut for a team called British Ladies in 1885, and her younger sister Jane.
Banned In 1921 the Football Association effectively banned prominent women’s games, but in the years before that, and as men’s football suffered from the general war effort, women’s football became the major national sporting entertainment in the UK. Women’s games would regularly draw tens of thousands. On boxing day 1920, 53,000 people came to a women’s football match at Goodison Park in Liverpool. This figure is higher, often by tens of thousands, than the average attendance of 13 out of 20 men’s English Premier League teams in the 2017/18 season.
Leading the way in women’s football was Lily Parr, who starred in the famous Dick, Kerr’s Ladies side of 1917-1925. She joined the side in 1919 aged 14, and played in the first official international game between England and France in 1920.
This side was the best women’s team of the era, playing against and beating national teams and in 1922, embarking on a tour of the USA in which they played the best men’s teams in the country, winning 3, losing 3 and drawing 3.
Parr was born in St.Helen’s and played for the St. Helen’s Ladies, but in 1919 played against the Dick, Kerr’s Ladies and was so impressive she was asked to join the team. She accepted and moved to Preston to work in the Dick, Kerr’s factory, famously requesting that she be paid for her playing time in Woodbine cigarettes.
Parr significantly developed theory on kicking techniques, writing several books, and developed an extremely powerful strike. Her former teammate Joan Whalley said of Parr that "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...".
While playing in Chorley, a male goalkeeper once challenged her to a penalty contest on the basis that women could not be as good as men. Her penalty shot was so powerful that it broke his arm and the goalkeeper had been irreconcilably Parred off.
Throughout her time as a prominent footballer Parr had continued to be open about her sexuality, living with her partner Mary and publicly refusing to hide it despite the added criticism she took. After 1921 Parr continued to play, helping to organise teams on non-association grounds and eventually retiring in 1951 having, incredibly, scored over 900 career goals. She lived long enough to see the FA’s effective ban on women’s football lifted in 1971 and she was the first woman to be inducted into the Football Hall of Fame, which came as late as 2002.
• Further reading: Barbara Jacobs’ The Dick, Kerr Ladies (2004) and Tim Tate’s Women’s Football — A Secret History (2016).