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Lily Parr

Back in 2002 St Helens born Lily Parr became the first female footballer to be inducted into the inaugural National Football Museum’s Hall of Fame. Ray Gent wrote the following article which celebrates her achievements at a time when women's football threatened the establishment.

It wasn’t just the Northern Rugby Football Union and later Rugby League that faced groundless and appalling treatment. Back in the late 19th century, women’s football was gathering momentum, though riling the Gentlemen presiding over the Football Association. Up in Scotland in 1892, the first women’s football match taking place under SFA guidelines was condemned by the Scottish Sport: “It was the most degrading spectacle we have ever witnessed in connection with football.” Pressing on regardless, Crouch End Athletics Ground hosted the first-ever “official” women’s match on 23 March 1895, in a contest between North and South London. Incidentally, the year the Northern Rugby Football Union was founded. Organised by middle-class activist Mary Hutson (pseudonym Nettie Honeyball and founder of the British Ladies’ Football Club), a rather nettled female journalist working for the Manchester Guardian wasn’t too praiseworthy in her reporting: “Their costumes came in for a great deal of attention…. one or two added short skirts over their knickerbockers…. when the novelty has worn off, I don’t think women’s football will attract the crowds.” and despite 10,000 turning up.

Commenting in the Daily Sketch on 6 February 1895, Honeyball explained at length why women’s football should be taken seriously, rather than women being considered ‘ornamental dolls’ and ‘useless creatures’ men portrayed them as. Of course, there were also grumblings in Victorian society. “Novelty” women’s matches had no place in a man’s game, it was suggested. The medical profession weren’t too impressed either, saying it could be a health hazard to women and actually called for a total ban in 1894. Of the match, it was an unequivocal success for the enigmatic Miss Honeyball. Through her high principles and stubborn stance, she became an inspiration to her fellow dissenters. It was a period where educated women fought for equality through force of argumentative challenge.

Following the baptism at Crouch End, the game spread to such places as Preston Park, Brighton and which attracted 5,000 spectators on a wet and blustery afternoon. The Green Man public house in Wigan offered its facilities for a match at Coppull Lane. Summing up, the Wigan Observer thought their attire “less than becoming”. The weather that day was appalling, the rain coming down in torrents, and the potential spectators waited outside the ground unwilling to hand over their money until they were sure the ladies would turn out. When they did, just after 3pm, there was a sudden rush to gain entry.

Elsewhere, the crusade continued with games at Valley Parade in Manningham, Hendon in Sunderland, Falcon Cliff on the Isle of Man, Taff Vale Park over in Pontypridd as well as Aberdeen’s Victoria Bridge Grounds. Horrified and appalled at the grotesque antics, the Football Association forewarned in 1902: “That charitable matches against ladies’ teams wouldn’t be tolerated.” The idea of women’s football challenged male domination in the sport. There was to be a brief revival during and after the First World War.

With men sent marching to the frontline and dug in the trenches, the ladies shed their apron strings to work the farms, drive buses, employed in munitions factories and other occupations to help the war effort. Understandably, this huge influx of women workers created problems for the factory bosses. Trying best to cater for the women, they provided recreational huts where they could darn or knit. However, those women with a tougher upbringing wanted to let off steam – and what better way than a kick-about. This was the start of something remarkable as women’s football spread to many factories across the country.

In particular, the Dick Kerr’s Ladies team formed in 1917 set extremely high standards and success along the way. Dick and John Kerr manufactured tramways and railway equipment in Preston, Lancashire, but were requisitioned by the War Office to manufacture munitions equipment. Managed by Alfred Frankland, the side attracted huge crowds wherever they played, in an effort to raise money for Wartime Charities and ‘good causes’. One such match held at Everton’s Goodison Park in December 1920 attracted 54,000, and rumour has it that a further14,000 were stuck outside trying to get in. The opposition that day were the St Helens Ladies, the second best team at the time, with the match going to Dick Kerr’s Ladies 4-0. Out of interest, the crowd dwarfed that of what the top Football League sides attracted.

Prior to this game, Frankland had taken a shine to 14-year-old Lily Parr and her fellow St Helens teammate Alice Woods on the conclusion of a match. For whatever reason, young Parr had left early and so Frankland asked Woods to contact her with a view to signing for his club and not a bad offer at ten-bob a game (worth £100 today), expenses and job.

Born on 26 April 1905, Parr was born in Union Street, Gerrard's Bridge and brought up in Pocket Nook, St Helens, and an unforgiving and tough district in the town. Pickpockets, rough sleepers and drunkards made everyday life miserable. Parr eventually preferred football to rugby league and would spend untold hours kicking a football against a lamppost. A fourth child of seven, her dad George earned his keep working at the local glass factory, as well as the family taking in lodgers and renting out backyard storage space. The wider world seemed a million miles away until one crisp November evening when Alice Woods caught up with her team-mate to give her some sensational news. Alice could hardly contain her excitement that Alfred Frankland wanted to sign them on. “Tha’d best ask me mam, then,” replied Lily, somewhat gruffly. “Come on! Watch out fer ’t pigs, and mind you don’t step in t’ shit.”(forever mindful of the family’s pigs) Lily’s mother shuffled in wearing her usual neat, clean pinafore. Lily tentatively asked if she could leave home for hopefully a better future. Mum smiled before nodding her approval.

Now established in the Dick Kerr’s Ladies team, Lily Parr returned the faith Frankland saw in her. Standing almost six feet tall and with silky jet black hair, she eventually demonstrated her repertoire of skills at home and on tour in France. Previously, Dick Kerr’s Ladies entertained the French Ladies at Deepdale, Preston NE (25,000 att.), Stockport (12,000 att.) and Stanford Bridge, Chelsea (10,000 att.). She is reputedly to have had a harder shot than men. In her first season alone, she knocked in 43 goals. A local newspaper reported: “There is probably no greater prodigy in the whole country. Not only has she excellent speed and ball control, but her admirable physique enables her to brush of challenges from defenders who tackle her. She amazes the crowds wherever she goes by the way she swings the ball clean across the goalmouth to the opposite wing.” Scoring over 900 goals in her career is an outstanding achievement and she is the only female footballer to date to be inducted into the National Football Museum’s Hall of Fame.

Sadly, the English FA eventually banned women in 1921 from playing on their affiliated grounds and lasting for 50 years. “…the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not be encouraged.” The fighting spirit though could not be diminished. In strong defiance, Frankland took his team on tour to Canada and the US. On arriving in Canada, the extraordinary prolific Dick Kerr’s Ladies found out that the FA, having snorted at their unsanctioned stardom, had asked that the association boycott them, in which they agreed. The US was more welcoming, but, to the ladies surprise, their opponents were men. Of the nine matches, they won three, drew three and with three defeats. The enforced ban eventually took its toll on women’s football to decline from its heady days, although they still played football on village greens and non-affiliated grounds. As for Lily Parr, it seems that the town has never got round to acknowledging her amazing achievements!

Lily died in 1973 of breast Cancer and buried in St Helens Cemetery.

Lily was the only woman inducted in the inaugural Hall Of Fame ceremony back in 2002. Since then the following female players have been added:

Debbie Bampton
Pauline Cope
Gillian Coultard
Sylvia Gore
Sue Lopez
Sheila Parker
Hope Powell
Brenda Sempare
Marieanne Spacey
Karen Walker
Joan Whalley

This year Faye White is due to be inducted. There’s more info here Football In Its Own Words tells the history of football in an unorthodox way.