Forgotten Women is a series dedicated to giving women of history the exposure they deserve. This week, we’re celebrating Lily Parr, one of many women to play professional football during the First World War and the greatest player of her era.
Like many footballers today, Lily Parr was a distinctive-looking person. Nearly six feet tall, she had jet black hair and, like many sportspeople of the time, was a chainsmoker. As a winger, Parr flew up and down the pitch, taking no prisoners – even once breaking a male goalkeeper’s arm with the force of her strike. She was brilliant, scoring more than 1,000 goals on her way to becoming the most famous female footballer of the early 20th century.
Parr was born in St Helens, Lancashire, into a working-class family and was one of seven children. She preferred being outdoors playing football with the boys than sewing with the girls and aged 14 she joined St Helen’s Ladies. She caught the eye of manager Alfred Frankland, scouting for talent for his own team, Dick, Kerr’s Ladies, affiliated to Dick, Kerr and Co munitions factory.
Factory teams were a big thing during the First World War. While the men were away fighting, matches between female factory workers were springing up all over the country. With the promise of 10 shillings per game and a job at the factory, Parr moved to Preston to join the team.
Why was she a trailblazer?
During the misery and hardship of the First World War, football was considered to be the ideal morale-booster. A women’s league was formed, and teams drew in large crowds across the country. Dick, Kerr’s Ladies were pioneers – one of the earliest known all-female football association teams, they scandalised some with their decision to wear – gasp – shorts.
Dick, Kerr’s Ladies were soon in the spotlight for their triumphant winning streak. Their matches were being attended by enormous crowds – the audience for a 1920 Boxing Day match numbered 53,000 – with another 14,000 unable to get in (for context, Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium holds 59,867 people).
Parr was clearly the star player, celebrated for her strength and aggression. She was already famous for scoring 43 goals in her first season alone, and was also openly gay.
In 1921, Dick, Kerr’s Ladies were at the height of their popularity. But on 5 December the FA took a stand against women playing football, and called on clubs to ban women’s teams from their grounds. Men returned to the stadiums and women’s football became relegated to village greens.
The Dick, Kerr Ladies embarked on a tour of America instead, playing men’s teams. On return, they lost support of the factory and became Preston Ladies. Parr retrained as a nurse, continuing to play for Preston Ladies until 1951, and living with her partner, Mary, in Preston.
What is her legacy?
Parr died in 1978, a pioneer of women’s football and an LGBTQ+ icon. In 2002, she became the first woman to be inducted into the English Football Hall of Fame.
Main illustration: Bijou Karman. Other image: Getty Images