Dick, Kerr Ladies: Mapping out the unfulfilled potential of women’s football (part one)

dick kerr ladies part two

Dick, Kerr Ladies capsulized a generation of women that proved they could be more than just mothers. In WWI, while men were forced onto the frontline, women’s jobs at home extended to the railways, the police force, munitions factories, and other roles traditionally considered a man’s job.

Also, during this period, those that kept England afloat found that they weren’t too bad at kicking a ball either. At first, it was jobs that were being replaced. But soon, women were leaving their stamp on all parts of life. Born from the intention of goodwill, Dick Kerr Ladies became the first women’s football team to monopolise the sport.

In the end, their impact on the women’s game was limited by fear. However, as the WSL becomes king, newcomers mustn’t forget when Women ruled football in the 20s. While Arsenal are great, and Chelsea arguably even greater, they weren’t the first to do it.

A new team in town

Dick, Kerr Ladies FC was founded in Preston, Lancashire, as a WWI-era works team for the locomotive company Dick, Kerr & Co. Although women of war were initially advised not to indulge in football, it became an excellent way to boost motivation and productivity.

The team played charity matches against equal opposition from across England, not knowing they’d be a success outside their support for the country. They raised money for servicemen during and after the conflict, all while producing ammunition and keeping the railway in order.

All changed when an in-house friendly between the men of the factory and the women was arranged. The women won. It was a pre-cursor to the future of the women’s game.

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Under manager Alfred Frankland, who had started out by watching the factory women play football through his office window – during a time of low production for the factory in October 1917, the sport was used as a pastime during tea breaks and lunch. It didn’t take too much longer, though, before crowds began to appear. Hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands.

British Prime Minister David Lloyd George encouraged the participation, seeing it as a way to reinforce the image of women doing jobs normally done by men serving in the military. Shortly after his plea, games between factories started to take place, promoting its popularity.

On Christmas Day of the same year, Dick Kerr prevailed 4-0 against Arundel Coulthard Factory to a crowd of 10,000 people at Deepdale and a pay of 10 shillings. It was the first signifier of how successful women’s football could become.

Though traditionally a contact sport for men, Dick Kerr vindicated their worth. They played intelligently and fluently, their ball control was impeccable, and they could blow teams away with their stamina. It also helped that their team was fronted by English football’s greatest-ever goalscorer.

Lily Parr

As Dick, Kerr Ladies played against both men and women, it was Lily Parr of St. Helens who was the star. At just 14 years old, in her debut season in 1919, she scored 43 times.

Parr was 6ft, which was tall for a woman back then, and she was reputed to have a harder shot than most men. One shot was so powerful it broke a goalkeeper’s arm.  She was also a heavy smoker and she asked that some of her payments for playing were supplemented by packs of Woodbine cigarettes.

In the book “The Dick, Kerr’s Ladies”, Barbara Jacobs says of Parr:

She was as adept at rugby as she was at football, spending hours on her own perfecting the technique of the power kick. She’d sorted that out by the time she was thirteen and in football could score from any place on the pitch, or in rugby kick the finest penalty or drop goal. A left-footer, her ability was natural, magic, but honed by her refusal to conform to the art of being a woman. She wasn’t having any of it.”

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It didn’t matter whether she was male or female, she was one in a billion. If she had played in today’s game, Ronaldo and Messi would have had a run for their money. She’d have been drug tested after every game. She would be hailed queen of footy.

Joan Whalley, who played with Parr, later wrote:

She had a kick like a mule, 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. When she took a left corner kick, it came over like a bullet, and if you ever hit one of those with your head….I only ever did it once and the laces on the ball left their impression on my forehead and cut it open.”

Some of her most impressive achievements during her time with Dick, Kerr Ladies include scoring five goals in a 9-1 win over a Best of Britain team to an attendance of 25,000 and scoring all five in a 5-1 win over France in front of 15,000 people at Longton Park.

Her career total by the time she retired was 900+ goals between 1919 and 1950, making her the number one talis(wo)man in English football. She is also the only female to be inducted into the Football Hall of Fame at the National Football Museum in Preston.

Without her attacking prowess and sharpshooting traits, you could argue how great Dick, Kerr Ladies actually were. But that’s just because she was simply that phenomenal.

A women’s game

Other stars that shone brightly in Preston’s new favourite football team included captain Alice Kell, centre-forward Florrie Redford, and hard-hitting defender Lily Jones. Together with Parr’s clinical edge, they moved mountains to become one of the greatest football teams to assemble.

They were also quickly becoming pioneers for the women’s game. This was proven when a crowd of 53,000 congregated in Goodison Park on Boxing Day of 1920 to watch them take one St. Helens Ladies. The attendance was a record that lasted for another 98 years.

As a result of a French tour, the team gained popularity through regular appearances on Pathé newsreels, while Parr and Alice Woods became crowd magnets that propelled Dick, Kerr to the top.

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Not only was 1920 historic for the big match down at Goodison Park. But also, it saw the first-ever international women’s game be played. Dick, Kerr beat France 2-0 to further accentuate just how good they were.

In the absence of men, women were conquering the sport they left behind. While today’s argument for women’s football is because they are more technical than men, they play with more intelligence and less rolling around – that opinion was felt back then also.

Remarkably, they did it all on a shoestring budget. All their money really did go on munitions and funds for the servicemen. No fancy training, no top class facilities, and certainly no revolutionised tactics. Just 11 women that wanted to show the country what they could do in times of need.

Before each game, rather than warmup routines, the pre-match ritual would be to lay a wreath on the pitch every week to pay tribute to those that had been lost at war in the seven days prior to kickoff. The conditions for football were essentially torrid. But that couldn’t stop them.

In many ways, it’s astonishing to think about where women’s football would be now if Dick, Kerr Ladies never faltered. If the women’s game was given full freedom to progress, we may be talking about men’s football in the opposite manner.

From zero to hero, Dick, Kerr Ladies, who were spotted by Frankland only ever thought about others when it came to sport. The funding of hospitals and charitable causes. However, in the years to come, they were the crux of equal rights.

Soon, the progress they made would crash. In 1921, women were back to work as mothers and carers. All had been undone. War was over. Dick, Kerr Ladies were over. But only in physical form.