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Lifting the lid on the hidden history of women's football

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STAR: Lily Parr, who scored 900 goals in her career

At almost six foot tall, with an enormous appetite for food and a love of chain-smoking Woodbines, Lily Parr was not your typical elite footballer.

Yet this tough-talking Northerner, with a “kick like a mule” and an ability to cross the ball that left male contemporaries open-mouthed with wonder, had a record which even today takes some beating. During a career spanning 1920 to 1950, she scored 900 goals.

Decades earlier, the aptly-named Nettie Honeyball had toured the country with her female team, who played in blouson shirts and knickerbockers. At their first match 10,000 people turned up to see “north” beat “south” 7-1.

“Ask people about women’s football today and most people think it’s this new thing,” says Jean Williams, of De Montfort University’s Centre for Sports History. “Actually, it’s not a recent phenomenon at all, but people seem to believe it is.”

Next week, Jean will give a lecture on the history of women’s football at the National Football Museum in Manchester. It’s part of a series of monthly talks about the beautiful game which will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Football Association and the only one to look at the contribution women made to the game.

It was here in Leicestershire that the women’s football found a champion in the dazzlingly radical Lady Florence Dixie. The world held no terrors for Florence: she was a war correspondent, travelled in the depths of South America, explored unchartered countries and had a pet jaguar.

Florence, who lived at Bosworth Hall with husband, Sir Alexander, agreed to take up the mantle of president of the British Ladies Football Club in 1895, on condition that “the girls should enter into the spirit of the game with their heart and soul”.

In an article for the Pall Mall Gazette, Lady Florence expanded on her dream of women playing on equal footing to men: “In that school of the future, which looking ahead, I see arising on the golden hilltops of progress above the mists of prejudice, football will be considered as natural a game for girls as for boys, as will also cricket, athletics and all national games.

“If the British public will only give encouragement to the idea, which is now being put into practice, of football for women it will soon take a firm hold and become an approved custom.”

The public, at first, got behind the teams. After their first game at Crouch End, Nettie and the players embarked on a tour of the country, playing to an average crowd of 5,000 at games around the country and in Ireland during the 1895-96 season.

A decade later, women’s teams were regularly staging charity matches. The most famous team was Dick, Kerr Ladies, for whom Lily Parr had played since she was 14. In 1920 they were filmed by Pathe News winning the title of best women’s team in England. As a result of this game, the Unemployed Ex-Servicemens’ Distress Fund received more than £600 to help people in Preston - the equivalent of £125,000 in today’s money.

Lily, who had moved from St Helens to Preston, was a star.  “Lily Parr was the kind of woman you’d want to go for a pint with,” says Jean, admiringly. “She was the first female football superstar. She was a celebrity in her own right – people would turn up to watch her in their droves. It was like entertainment. You’d get all sorts of stars turning out to kick off their matches.”

One person who kicked off a match in Washington, USA, was the then American president Warren Harding. Lily was feted as the best female football player in the UK and while in America she and the team were introduced to political dignitaries, Hollywood stars and celebrities.

But in 1921, the FA banned women’s football, amid rumours that not all the money going to charity was being donated.

It was also, said the FA, an unsuitable game for a woman. In a statement, it said: “Complaints have been made as to football being played by women, 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.”

Without the larger venues to play in, women’s football was unable to bring in the big crowds to watch games, and it dwindled.

Lily Parr continued to play up until 1951 on village greens or other non-Association grounds. Team mate Joan Whalley later wrote: “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.”

“The ban effectively killed off women’s football,” says Jean. “The same year, 1921, the FA expanded from two to three, and eventually four leagues, and there was a theory that the ban helped protect these revenue streams.”

The ban stayed in place until 1970, five years after Lily’s team Preston Ladies had folded. Lily became the first women admitted to the inaugural Hall of Fame at the English National Football Museum in 2002.

Last year, Lydia Nsekera, president of the Burundi Football Association, was the first women co-opted on the FIFA executive Committee in 2012. Next month, FIFA is due to elect the first woman onto its executive board and two more women will be co-opted onto the committee.

After the popularity of Team GB women’s football at the Olympics – they made it to the quarter-finals and attracted a record crowd of 75,000 to their first game - the BBC has pledged to give more coverage to the sport.

As England Ladies set their sights on the Euros in Sweden this summer, does Jean think that Lily would have been pleased? “I think she would have wondered what took the FA so long to change their minds!” she said.

• “Mrs Graham to Lily Parr – A History of Women’s Football 1895-1926” will be given by Jean Williams at the National Football Museum, Manchester, on April 17. The series is free.

Posted on Friday 12th April 2013

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