Lily Parr: The gun which dodged bullets to pioneer women’s football

We look into the story of Lily Parr, the woman who shook the world and pioneered ladies’ football in the backdrop of World War I.

It’s 2017. A brave, modern world with new, previously unimagined frontiers. Or so we’re told. In reality, women’s football is only just emerging through the cocoon of the dark age, tentatively testing its wings. For a sport that was banned for over half a century, this isn’t their fault. But positive news is afoot, and not just at the top echelons of the Football Association, the very organisation that cast the ban all those years ago.

In March this year, Patrizia Panico became the first woman to coach a male team. Rated the best female Italian footballer (110 goals for Italy in 204 international appearances), Panico, the then assistant coach, took over the management of the national U-16 side while the head coach managed the U-19s for a temporary spell. In July, Lewes FC, whose men’s team play in the Isthmian League Division One South, agreed to pay their women’s team equal to the men’s. This also includes equal resources, facilities and training equipment. In September, 18-year-old Sarah Essam became the first Egyptian footballer to compete in the FA Woman’s Premier League, when she signed with Stoke City.

Lily Parr: The gun which dodged bullets to pioneer women's football


But it begins, as all stories do, a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away. Well, just England in this case. Exactly 100 years ago, another girl, only 14 years of age, was flexing her abilities for the first time on the grandest stage of them all – in front of a crowd of more than 10,000 fans, packed into the stadium for the sole purpose of seeing her team play a football match. Her name was Lily Parr.

The fourth of seven children born to George and Sarah Parr, Lily honed her craft on waste ground in St. Helens under the tutelage of her proud brothers, shunning traditional feminine pursuits like sewing and cookery. St. Helens, in the Lancashire county of North-West England, is about a 45-minute journey to Preston, where Lily’s future awaited, unbeknownst to all. Even at that young age, Lily was eye-catching with her six-foot frame, her short jet-black hair, and her air of confidence. So it’s no surprise that Alfred Frankland, the manager of the team that would go on to define the World War I golden years for women’s football in the UK, spotted her playing for St. Helens Ladies, and scouted her with the promise of 10 shillings per game, and a job at the Dick, Kerr and Co. Ltd. factory. Thus, Lily Parr joined the mighty Dick, Kerr Ladies of Preston, and became one of upto one million war-time munitionettes in Britain.

It had been decided that competitive sport would boost the morale of factory workers and aid in a higher work-rate and production. A women’s league was formed, and a gender discouraged from the sport up until then suddenly found themselves in the spotlight, playing to crowds of thousands. Dick, Kerr Ladies was created under the management of office worker Alfred Frankland after the group of women beat the remaining men of the factory in an informal lunch-time game. As one of the earliest known women’s association football teams in England, they were pioneers – the first women’s team to wear shorts, tour the continent and the United States of America, and represent England at the first official international women’s football association game – which raised an estimated one million pounds at today’s valuation for post-war charities.

Winger Lily Parr was an inseparable part of this success, with 34 goals in her debut season, and more than a 1000 over a 31-year career. The physicality and lack of fear that allowed her to compete with boys in both football and rugby growing up, along with her speed, height and crossbar-cracking shots made her a formidable opponent even at 15. And a fierce one too, as an unnamed male professional goalie was to find out. He taunted that she couldn’t score past him, and was promptly taken off on a stretcher, after the resultant penalty, exclaiming, “Get me to the hospital as quick as you can, she’s gone and broken me flamin’ arm!

Teammate Joan Whalley would later write, “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…” Similarly, the programme from a September 1923 fixture between Dick, Kerr Ladies and Stoke calls her “big, fast and powerful, tricky, can take corner kicks better than most men, scores goals from extraordinary angles with a left foot cross drive, which nearly breaks the net.” But her skills weren’t just about force and power. Lily had vision, and technique to execute her vision. Her male contemporary, Scotland international Bobby Walker calls her the “best natural timer of a football” he’s ever seen.

Lily Parr for Dick, Kerr International Ladies in 1921
Lily Parr for Dick, Kerr International Ladies in 1921

Parr, who holds the distinction of being the first woman to be sent off in an official football match for fighting, was equally revolutionary away from the game. Openly lesbian, Lily lived with her partner, Mary, and was a hard drinker and chain smoker preferring the unfiltered high-tar Woodbines popularly called “gaspers” for their potency (she even infamously insisted to be paid in them instead of the standard 10 shillings). She trained as a nurse, and worked at the Whittingham Mental Hospital once she left the factory, continuing until her retirement in the early 1960s. From 2007-09, the Lily Parr Exhibition Trophy was played between LGBT football teams from England, France and USA, in honour of Lily, now an icon for women’s football and gay rights, and Dick, Kerr Ladies’ foreign tours all those years ago.

But it was the football that she loved most. Lily Parr dreamed of playing, just like so many before, during and after her time. And, until the age of 45, that’s exactly what she did – despite the Football Association ban on women’s football, despite the team losing the support of the factory and being renamed Preston Ladies. She didn’t let any of that get in the way. In 1946, Lily was named captain. In 1950, she scored in an 11-1 victory over Scotland and bid farewell to a sport that she had enriched. The heavy hobnail boots she wore that day are now displayed at the National Football Museum, still caked in mud. In 1971, she was alive to see the ban on women’s football lifted by the Football Association. 7 years later, she passed away from breast cancer and choose to be buried in the town of her birth and childhood. In 2002, Lily Parr became the first woman to be inducted into the Football Hall of Fame.

The word “dream” has many meanings. Merriam-Webster defines one of them as “a strongly desired goal or purpose”. Lily, and so many like her, were treated unfairly for no fault of their own, just for being born a certain gender. The ones in between dreamed in the privacy of their homes, in the solitude of the open spaces with the ball at their feet, with no sure future. Generations later, young girls can dream of being footballers, safe in the knowledge that there’s every chance of it coming true. But how many will know about one Lily Parr from St. Helens who had the world in the palm of her hand? Her dream might have come true, but it’s up to us to keep it going for her, and for every aspiring woman footballer to come. It’s up to us to remember her. Isn’t that the least we can do for the first woman superstar of the beautiful game?

Anushree Nande

Published writer and editor. Hope is her superpower (unsurprisingly she's a Gooner), but sport, art, music and words are good substitutes.