On a cold day in Chorley in the early 1920s, a male professional goalkeeper challenged Lily Parr to beat him from the penalty spot. His tone was condescending. From his point of view a woman could never strike the ball with enough power, let alone sufficient accuracy, to beat him from 12 yards.
Parr accepted, determined to show him up. He saved her shot, and for a moment he smiled with glee. Then the pain hit him. The hard leather ball had been struck with such ferocity that it had broken 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. She had missed the penalty but made her point.
The story may be apocryphal, but it is a prime example of what made Parr so popular. She was anti-establishment, non-conformist, eccentric. She went against the norms of the day on and off the football pitch, with little regard for the opinion of the men who scoffed at her.
In the 1920s, Parr was perhaps the most celebrated footballer in England – and that included the most famous male players of the time. Women’s football had reached unprecedented levels of popularity, thanks in no small part to her brilliance.
Parr was a pioneer and a role model for female footballers across the country. But in 1921 the FA 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 most of her illustrious career battling against deeply ingrained stereotypes and 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; rather, her statements had been made on the pitch.
Born in St Helens in 1905, Parr quickly demonstrated a proficiency in sport. She had learned to play football and rugby from her brother, who was astonished at how good she became at both.
She made her debut for St Helens Ladies at the age of 14 in 1919. She was already attracting attention by this point; close to 6ft tall, she towered over her team-mates, while she also had jet black hair and a formidable stare. Before games she smoked several cigarettes, unconcerned by the potential consequences.
In her second match, against Dick, Kerr’s Ladies, Parr performed so well that the opposition’s manager, Alfred Frankland, asked her if she would consider signing for his team. Parr accepted and moved to Preston, embarking on one of the most prolific careers in the sport’s history.
Dick, Kerr’s were innovators, changing perceptions of the women’s game. Their players worked at an engineering factory when they weren’t on the pitch and were the first to wear shorts, as well as the first to tour in Europe and the United States. And at the heart of this progressiveness was Parr.
In her first season she scored 43 goals and quickly helped to attract huge crowds. Fans came just to watch her play. For one match at Goodison Park in Liverpool, 53,000 people filled the stadium. It stood as the 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.
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 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, at the age of 45, she retired after scoring in an emphatic 11-1 win over Scotland. She had, according to most estimates, scored a career total of over 900 goals.
Parr 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.
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