Lily Parr and the Dick, Kerr Ladies: the banned women’s team who raised almost £10m for charity

Lily Parr and the Dick, Kerr Ladies: the banned women’s team who raised almost £10m for charity

There are cupboards at the Football Association where skeletons reside. Shadowy enclaves that English football’s governing body is never particularly comfortable about when they are forced to open them up so the public can peer inside.

On 5 December 1921, the FA banned women’s football from taking place at the grounds and stadiums of its member clubs. A little under a year earlier, Dick, Kerr Ladies had played before a crowd of 53,000 spectators at Goodison Park, on a day when an estimated 14,000 more were locked out. The popularity of the women’s game was at its peak. To put those numbers into context, the 1920 FA Cup final between Aston Villa and Huddersfield was attended by a crowd of 50,018.

When World War One ended in November 1918, if the FA had expected the inexorable rise in popularity of women’s football to subside in the wake of the return of the Football League and FA Cup, then the events of 1920 had delivered a serious shock to the system. Citing the ludicrous and spiteful claims that football was physically unsuitable for women and raising hypocritical questions over how and where the gate receipts to matches were absorbed, the FA big-wigs of the early-1920s, in an act of self-preservation toward the men’s game – and perhaps in a bid to kill off a growing social and sporting women’s revolution – delivered the ultimate hammer blow to women’s football.

On a busy Monday at 42 Russell Square, London, the former, and reputedly haunted, headquarters of the FA, the powers that be also discussed the concept of professional footballers being allowed to turn out in amateur games, without impacting upon the amateur status of those teams involved. They also passed on the recommendation to the finance committee that the 1922 FA Cup final take place at Stamford Bridge.

While news of the planned venue of the FA Cup final and the politics of professionals playing in amateur games were warranted as being noteworthy, in the limited sports pages of the following day’s newspapers, the damaging turn of events revolving around the women’s game was given little mention. It was nothing short of a cruel and underhand ban, which took the FA 50 years to begrudgingly reverse. By then, of course, the damage had been done to women’s football, and of those who could remember the glory days of Dick, Kerr Ladies, they were definitively of an ageing generation.

Founded in Preston, at Dick, Kerr & Company, a locomotive and tramcar manufacturer in peacetime and a clandestine munitions factory in wartime, Dick, Kerr Ladies were the product of a war which was raging across the world. With thousands of women employed, taking the place on the factory floor of the men who had taken up arms, Dick, Kerr and Company were making 30,000 shells a week at the height of the war. It was physically demanding and dangerous work. Explosives could go off without warning and workers risked their lives to provide weapons for their loved ones on the frontlines.

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In a way to raise their own morale, the women of the factory floor began to play impromptu games of football in the yard against the men who had been spared the battlefields to instead train this new army of women munitions engineers. These games soon inspired the forming of a works team, which reached out to other factories across the region with the idea of staging charity games, largely to raise funds for injured soldiers and their families, who had little in the way of systematic financial support.

In 1917, Dick, Kerr Ladies played their first organised game. St Helen’s Ladies were the opponents and they would soon become a regular on-pitch rival. The game was a success and around 10,000 spectators showed up to watch the game and support the cause.

Under the guidance of Alfred Franklin, they went from strength to strength and they were flooded by invitations to play across the country. Within this, they were able to attract talented players from other teams. One such player was the iconic Lily Parr, an outside-left of immense skill and power. Plucked from St Helen’s Ladies, she was a phenomenon by the age of 14.

Billed as possessing one of the most powerful shots in the history of the game, across both sides of the gender divide, she reputedly broke the wrist of one Football League goalkeeper after the validity of her talents with the ball were challenged by him. Legend has it that she also broke a crossbar during another game.

Parr was a trailblazer of women’s football, while she also became an icon to the LGBT community, having openly embraced her love for her partner, Mary, at a time when community sensibilities were set to intolerant. Parr took to football and life with wonderful enthusiasm, often with a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other.

Other stars of the team included Alice Woods, a tough tackling and driven midfielder, a woman who was still showing her family how to kick a ball into her 90s, and Joan Whalley who, like Parr, was inducted into the National Football Museum Hall of Fame.

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That the women’s game escalated so quickly between 1917 and 1920 was a testament to the skill and talents of Dick, Kerr Ladies. They became so valued that on one trip to London the team stayed in a modern and stylish hotel, where Parr and Woods were so amazed by the concept of electric lights that they stayed up all night switching them on and off.

During 1920, in what was an unofficial women’s league, Dick, Kerr Ladies scored 133 goals in 30 games and ventured onto the continent, where they beat a French representative team, in what has since been recognised as the first women’s international game. Over the course of the games they played in the name of charity, Dick, Kerr Ladies raised the equivalent of approximately £10m, of which detailed financial records were meticulously kept.

Behind the closed doors of the FA, however, on 5 December 1921, there was no interest in such “trivialities” as evidence. The story had been spun and the verdict handed down. Rather than prove their bizarre theories, the FA opted for the propaganda of conjecture from Harley Street doctors, who were more than happy to see their names in print.

Dick, Kerr Ladies defiantly played on and in 1922 they set off for a tour of Canada and the United States. When they reached Canada, however, they found that their games had been cancelled, while in the United States they were pitted against men’s teams. On their return to England, Dick, Kerr Ladies were reduced to playing their games at dog tracks and at local parks; all a far cry from playing in front of 53,000 at Goodison Park. 

In 1926, after a dispute between Franklin and the Dick, Kerr and Company, the team changed its name to Preston Ladies FC, and while they carried on playing until 1965, inclusive of the continued involvement of their star player, Parr, until 1951, as they drifted into obscurity. It is ironic that Preston Ladies disbanded a year before the England men’s team won the World Cup. The tournament acted as a catalyst for a renewed push for the overturning of the FA’s draconian ban on women’s games being played in professional stadiums.

While the women’s game of today continues to grow, it is still suffering due to the dark arts performed by the FA in 1921. The reasons why Dick, Kerr Ladies came together were noble; the reasons why the FA banned women’s games from taking place at their club’s stadiums were nothing short of pitiful.

By Steven Scragg @scraggy_74

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