Lily Parr: The enduring icon of women’s football

Words by Callum Rice-Coates Illustration by Philippe Fenner
October 12, 2018

In the 1920s, Lily Parr was perhaps the most celebrated footballer in England. At a time when women’s football had reached unprecedented levels of popularity, she was the star. Parr was a pioneer and a role model, a representative for female footballers across the country. But the FA, in 1921, sought to put an end to the growth of the women’s game.

“Complaints have been made as to football being played by women,” read a statement released by the governing body. “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.”

Parr spent her illustrious career battling against deeply ingrained stereotypes, against the patronising comments of men who refused to accept that women could play the sport. But she didn’t need words to make her point. By the time she had finished, her statements had been made on the pitch.

Parr was born in 1905, in St Helens, and showed a keen interest in sport from an early age. Her brother taught her to play rugby and football, and she was skilled at both.

“She spent hours on her own perfecting the technique of the power kick,” wrote Barbara Jacobs in her book The Dick, Kerr’s Ladies. “She’d sorted that out by the time she was thirteen and in football could score from anywhere on the pitch.”
Parr’s ability, Jacobs wrote, was “natural, magic, but honed by her refusal to conform to the art of being a woman. She wasn’t having any of it.”

She made her debut in 1919, at the age of just 14, for St Helens Ladies. Already, people were taking notice. She was nearly six feet tall and towered above her teammates. She had jet black hair and a gaze of steely determination. On the sidelines, before the game, she smoked cigarettes. She was a formidable opponent.

In her second game, against Dick, Kerr’s Ladies, Parr impressed so much that the opposition’s manager, Alfred Frankland, asked her to join his team. She accepted, moved to Preston, and embarked on one of the most prolific careers in the sport’s history.

Dick, Kerr’s paved the way for future women’s teams to follow. Their players, working at an engineering factory when they weren’t on the pitch, were the first to wear shorts, the first to tour in Europe and the USA. And at the heart of this progressiveness was Parr.

In her first season, Parr scored 43 goals and quickly began to attract huge crowds. Fans attended just to watch her play, to see her kick the ball with her famously powerful left foot. During one game, at Goodison Park in Liverpool, 53,000 people filled the stadium. It remained a record attendance for a women’s game until 2012.

In 1921, Parr scored five in a 9-1 win against a Best of Britain team. A few months later, she scored all five in a 5-1 win over the French national side, who had been touring in England. The matches involving Dick, Kerr’s were played for charity: by the end of the club’s 48-year existence, they had raised £175,000.

The FA, though, saw things differently. They accused the club of using too much money on expenses, and not donating enough to charity. At the same time, they made clear their view that “football is quite unsuitable for females”.

Parr attempted to prove, demonstrably, that the opposite was true. During a game in Chorley one day, a male professional goalkeeper challenged her to beat her from the penalty spot. His tone was condescending. So Parr accepted, determined to show him up. He saved her shot, but the hard leather ball was struck with such power that it broke his arm. “Get me to the hospital as quick as you can,” he shouted. “She’s gone and broken my flamin’ arm.” Parr smiled to herself

Despite the attitude of the FA, Dick, Kerr’s pressed on, and so too did Parr, who continued to score at an astonishing rate. But it was not long before they were denied access to large venues. Interest waned, and eventually the club was taken over by English Electric, who sacked some members of the team.

Parr was one of them. But she was not deterred, and simply moved on to Preston Ladies. While playing for her new club, she worked at Whittingham Hospital and Lunatic Asylum. There she met her partner, Mary, and they bought a house together in Preston. Parr was openly gay and refused to hide it, despite the persecution at the time of those known to be in same-sex relationships.

At Preston Ladies, Parr was equally prolific. She continued to play until 1950 when, aged 45, after scoring in an emphatic 11-1 win over Scotland, she retired. She had, according to most estimates, scored a career total of over 900 goals.

She died in 1978 after a battle with cancer. She had lived long enough to see the FA repeal the ban which denied female teams access to the biggest stadiums and, after her death, she became an icon for those pursuing further development of women’s football. Over her 41-year playing career, Parr did far more than just score goals. She changed the perception of the women’s game, and for that she will be remembered long into the future.

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