Though we’re approaching the end of the FIFA Women’s World Cup, one thing has looked pretty clear throughout: 2019 has been a standout year for women’s football. With big brands backing advertising campaigns and a record-breaking UK TV viewing figure of 6.1 million for England’s opening match against Scotland, it seems like women’s soccer is finally getting the recognition it deserves. And the icing on the cake? The unveiling of St. Helens-born Lily Parr’s statue at the National Football Museum in June.
It’s been far from plain sailing. Women’s football has long faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Since the first ever international women’s match took place between the Preston-based Dick, Kerr Ladies and a French XI in 1920, attracting an audience of 25,000 people, women have been repeatedly banned from the game. Despite a match between Dick, Kerr Ladies and St. Helens Ladies played at Goodison Park drawing a crowd of 53,000 people – and an additional 14,000 of whom were locked outside due to spatial constraints – the FA banned all women from playing on Football League grounds in 1921. Their reasoning? ‘The game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged’. Though this ban was eventually lifted, it didn’t happen until fifty years later.
Lily Parr was one of the women on the Dick, Kerr team who helped bring them to a 4-0 victory at what remains the most well attended women’s football game in history. Born in Gerard’s Bridge in St. Helens and growing up playing football against her brothers, Parr worked at a munitions factory during World War I which went on to form its own women’s football team to boost morale. Aged just fourteen, Lily Parr scored 43 goals in her first season alone.
Parr went on to play for the St. Helens Ladies Team before eventually being recruited for the Dick, Kerr Ladies, the majority of whom were factory workers at Dick, Kerr and Co. in Preston. 6 foot tall and routinely labelled as ‘larger than life’, Parr was a chain-smoker of Woodbine cigarettes who enjoyed playing practical jokes on teammates. She was well known for ‘borrowing’ balls after games and selling them on for a profit!
Lily Parr played left-wing against both male and female teams, and was reported to have one of the strongest left-footed kicks in football. Over the course of her career she scored nearly 1,000 goals.
Lily wasn’t the only female footballer to come out of St. Helens. Alice Woods was first and foremost an athlete, born in Sutton in 1899 to a family of colliers. Woods was the first woman to win a race under Amateur Athletic Association of England laws, and could allegedly run a hundred yards in twelve seconds. She joined Dick, Kerr Ladies in 1920 as a midfielder, going with them on a tour of France ahead of the FA ban a year later.
The ban, which came about in response to fears that the men’s game would be overshadowed as most were just returning from war, meant Dick, Kerr Ladies had to head off to the USA and Canada for their next tour. Despite being unable to play against Canadian teams under a similar ban from the Dominion Football Association, Lily and Alice were still determined to play the game they excelled at, and proved tough opponents for American teams.
Lily Parr died in 1978, aged 73. Alice Woods passed away thirteen years later in 1991, aged 92.
It is only now, in 2019, that Lily Parr has received so much recognition posthumously. The unveiling of her statue comes as part of the #SupportHer initiative at the Manchester-based National Football Museum to increase representation of female footballers to 50%. It will also host various activities celebrating women’s achievements in soccer throughout 2019.