Lily Parr. Remember the name, particularly because she should never have been forgotten in the first place, writes Liam Mackey.
There was a time, during and after the first World War, when this “tall lass” from Lancashire was one of the best-known footballers in England, a prolific striker with such a rocket of shot that she once broke a crossbar and, on another occasion, responded to the taunting of a professional male goalkeeper by taking a penalty against him – and breaking his arm.
When Lily wasn’t breaking wood and bone she was breaking taboos – she liked a Woodbine and a brown ale and lived openly for most of her life with her partner Mary.
But it was for her talent on the football pitch that she became a household name, playing in front of average crowds of 30,000, scoring forty goals in one season and amassing more than a thousand over the course of her long career.
If she is largely unknown now, that is no accident of history. It’s because in 1921, at the very height of the popularity of the women’s game in England, the Football Association effectively banned it, transforming the sport overnight from a massive crowd-puller played in the most famous grounds of the day, to a cult pursuit forced to eke out its existence in public parks and dog tracks. Astonishingly, it was only in 1971, a full fifty years later, that the ban was finally lifted.
This hidden history of “the golden age” of women’s football and the brutal and cynical way in which the football establishment brought it crashing down was brilliantly told by Clare Balding in When Football Banned Women, a documentary screened this week on Channel 4 to tie in with the station’s coverage of the 2017 Women’s European Championship Finals in the Netherlands.
With the outbreak of the First World War, it was England’s difficulty which provided the opportunity for women’s football to assert itself.
As the men departed for the front, the women took over the heavy lifting in the munitions factories and, for purposes of health and morale and also to raise money for charity, were encouraged to form football teams.
The most famous was the Dick Kerr Ladies FC in Preston, with whom Lily Parr began her playing career at the age of just 14. One of her team mates was 16-year-old Alice Woods, a midfielder who, her proud grandchildren were happy to attest, retained her love for the game into very old age. To Balding’s evident delight, they were able to produce a photograph of a white-haired granny in a floral print dress, still showing off her keepy-uppy skills at the age of 90.
But even more startling was the sepia-tinted footage of the Dick Kerr Ladies and other women’s teams in action during and after the war years, when crowds thronged the grounds to watch them play. Even with the resumption of men’s football, the appeal of the women’s game continued to grow. In December 1920, the Dick Kerr Ladies broke the attendance record at Goodison Park, drawing a crowd of 53,000, with another 14,000 locked outside.
Yet, just one year later, in December 1921, the FA instructed their affiliated clubs that they should no longer make their grounds available for women’s football.
The minutes of the fateful meeting referred, in part, to the Association’s concerns that too much of the money being raised for post-war charities was going on expenses – code, charged one historian interviewed by Balding, for their being unable to get their hands on it themselves.
And, despite the fact that, just a couple of years before, the Establishment had been only too happy for women to engage in the dangerous manual labour of producing thousands of shells a week in munitions factories, now the FA suddenly decided that the game of football was “quite unfit for females”, citing supposedly expert opinion in Harley Street that “kicking is too jerky a movement for women and the hard knocks on a football field are bad for future mothers.” But academic Dr Ali Melling told Clare Balding she believes that a nakedly political agenda was also at work. Many of the women’s teams had their roots in pit towns and, during a time of industrial unrest and political volatility in the early 1920s, had begun to use the proceeds from their games to help the impoverished families of striking miners. Women’s football, Dr Melling argued, had become a radical threat: “too big, too class-oriented and therefore too revolutionary and too dangerous.” The women had gotten too big for their boots, as it were. They had to be stopped. And with one stroke of a pen, they were.
The effect of the ban on the development of the women’s game as a whole was devastating — and heartbreaking for the individual players.
Away from the spotlight, the Dick Kerr Ladies FC continued playing until it finally folded in the mid-60s.
At 83, Jane Gregson is one of the last living links with the club, having played for them in the early 1950s when, remarkably, the great Lily Parr was still donning her boots. Getting to play alongside the woman she called “my idol” was a cherished memory for Jane who, as a young girl with a huge love for the game, had been forced to watch her father throw her first pair of football boots into the fire.
“I didn’t give two hoots, I was determined to play,” she recalled, speaking with passion about the sense of independence she got from playing football.
For her, the ban was “one big insult, tragic – I found it disgusting.” It was all those things, and more. Recent years have seen considerable growth in the women’s game but, as Euro 2017 continues to unfold in Holland, one can’t help wondering just how much bigger an event it might have been had history taken a different course.
As Clare Balding put it near the end of this riveting film: “The ban was catastrophic, a hammer blow from which women’s football is still struggling to recover. It shaped the image of football we have today.”
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