The name Lily Parr, who played football, may be familiar to people. Most people do not know her story or influence, or, more importantly, how it pertains to the story of women’s soccer.
Born in St. Helens in 1905, Lily Parr was a striking figure and a remarkable woman who led a remarkable life. With a lethal left foot and a height of six feet, she began her playing career in 1919, when she was just 14 years old. Alfred Frankland, manager of Kerr’s Ladies, invited her to join his already talented squad after she impressed him in her second match, playing for St Helens Ladies against Dick Kerr’s Ladies. Thus, Preston became home to one of the greatest goal scorers in women’s football history.
Founded in World War I as a works team for Dick, Kerr & Co., Dick Kerr’s Ladies were a charitable team, playing games to raise funds for the National Association of Discharged and Disabled Soldiers and Sailors. Dick Kerr’s team played unofficially as England’s representatives against the touring French side in 1920, gaining almost £3,000 in charity across four games while winning twice, losing once, and drawing once.
As a result, team members played return matches in France. When they returned to England. The team attracted large crowds (53,000 attended Goodison Park) and helped raise over £5,000 for charitable causes over several matches (over £200,000 today). Lily Parr scored five goals in a 9-1 win against the Best of Britain in 1921. Kerr’s defeated the France national side 5-1 in front of 15,000.
No Matter What The Politics Are
Kerr’s and women’s soccer were caught up in a political battle when Lily Parr, the team, and the women’s game began to gain popularity and raise large sums of money. However, as Kerr’s used the women’s game to help the Labour Movement, the FA suppressed the team because it supported the miners. The FA, which issued a statement saying “football is quite unsuitable for ladies,” further stated that a considerable portion of the earnings is spent on expenses, with an insufficient amount being given to charitable purposes.
Kerr’s went on tour to the United States, even though soccer is ‘unsuitable for females.’ During their nine games, Lily Parr was called “the world’s most brilliant female player,” according to American reports.
While Kerr’s played games to aid charities after their return, without bigger venues, they couldn’t raise as much money as before the FA’s decision. And Parr kept the scoring going. English Electric eventually acquired Dick, Kerr & Co., which sacked team members, including Parr.
In Preston, Parr and Frankland opened a grocer store, and Frankland managed the team. Whittingham Hospital and Lunatic Asylum were one of Kerr’s beneficiaries. Her long-term partner Mary was also working at the hospital when Lily Parr and Mary bought their first house in Preston. Instead of hiding their relationship, as many gay people of the time were required to do, the couple was out and proud.
The Preston Ladies have remained the strongest side in England despite the lack of support from Dick, Kerr, and Co. In 1927, they thumped Blackpool Ladies 11-2 with Parr among their scorers. Lily Parr’s reputation spread across the country as she continued to play when some of her teammates had emigrated or married and left the team.
The World’s Best
She has been described as the “best natural timer I have ever seen.” by Bob Walker, an international footballer for Scotland.
Joan Whalley recalls that her teammate had the kick of a mule. “I knew there was no one who could lift a dead ball, the old heavy leather ball, and send it over to me from the left wing with enough force nearly to knock me out.”
With Lily Parr and a 15-year-old Whalley on the scoresheet, Preston Ladies knocked off Edinburgh Ladies 5-1 to win the first World Cup in 1937. During the celebration dinner post-match, Frankland gave an enlightening speech.
The club has played 437 matches in that time, winning 424, losing seven, and drawing six, scoring 2,863 goals with only 207 against. In the United Kingdom and abroad, we have raised more than £100,000 for charities.”
If Frankland’s estimate of fundraising is accurate, Dick, Kerr’s, Preston Ladies, and their star player Parr helped raise many millions of dollars for charity.
In 1946, Lily Parr was named captain of the team after serving for 26 years and playing a limited number of games during the Second World War due to the rationing of petrol and Frankland’s roles as an Air Raid Warden. Against Scotland, she scored a goal in an 11-1 victory on 12 August 1950, her final game. Her career goals have been estimated to total over 900.
In 1967, she developed cancer after she retired from her work at the hospital and ultimately succumbed to it in 1978. This was fitting for Parr, who saw women playing on affiliated grounds made legal by the FA in 1971 after their 1921 ruling forbade it.
Lily Parr Becomes An Icon
Upon her death, Lily Parr has become a symbol for gay rights and women’s soccer. In honor of Parr and Dick Kerr’s ladies’ tours in the early 20th century, the Lily Parr Exhibition Trophy was played between teams from England, France, and the United States from 2007 to 2009, with participating teams from England, France, and the United States.
The enthusiasm for women’s soccer in her homeland has only grown over the past century, with over 85,000 people attending the Women’s Olympic Football Tournament finals in London 2012 and 45,423 spectators at the 2018/19 FA Cup Final. As a result, Lily Parr is regarded as the greatest female athlete of the early 20th century.
Main Image: Liverpool Echo