GB Rugby League Lionesses on the 1996 Lionesses tour to Australia - Donna Parker bottom left
GB Rugby League Lionesses on the 1996 Lionesses tour to Australia - Donna Parker bottom left

Hull exhibition inspires next generation of women in Rugby League

‘Life with the Lionesses’, a heritage project which aims to raise awareness of the incredible role models who pioneered Women’s International Rugby League, will be staging an exhibition at Hull History Centre on Worship Street from tomorrow (Thursday 6) to Thursday 13 October.

There will also be a chance to meet several former Rugby League Lionesses, including Nikki Carter, team manager from 1996;  Lisa Hunter, Donna Parker, Teresa Bruce, Debbie Bruce (nee Rice) and Nicola Benstead, who will be sharing their experiences of playing international rugby league at a special launch event on Friday (7 October) 7 – 8.30pm.

Stories collected during the course of the project, including that of Donna Parker from Hull, will be used as part of the exhibition which is touring to 10 venues across the North of England.  They will also be shared on social media, as part of the Women in Rugby League archive at Heritage Quays at the University of Huddersfield and on a dedicated website. 

Donna, a legend in Hull, and in rugby league, was included in the 1996 tour to Australia.  She started her career playing for Hull Vixens and then for Yorkshire  in the Lancashire county games in the 1980s and the 1990s and played with the notorious Wildcats.

“I was in my 20s when I started and played for around 15 years,” said Donna. “I absolutely love Rugby League and I was privileged to be the Vixen’s Captain.”

Donna’s kicking game was her strength and so it was no surprise that she got picked to play for Great Britain against Australia in 1996.

“My family and friends were so supportive – they were buzzing.  I received cards and lots of people congratulating me at work.  It was phenomenal.

“We had to fund ourselves to go out there.  I worked at Birdseye and I received some sponsorship off them, which was lucky.   We would do walks over the Humber Bridge and bucket collections.  It was hard work but it was well worth it in the end.

“Playing at international level was more disciplined and it gave me confidence in my own abilities.  We were the last team to beat the Australians in a three-  match series and I still can’t believe it.

“My message to young women is, if you want to play Rugby League you’ve got to work hard, play hard and stay on the right path … you’ll get there in the end.”

The Life with the Lionesses exhibition showcases the personal journeys of the women pioneers of international Rugby League.  Visitors will be able to follow their groundbreaking journey on and off the field and see their stories and experiences brought to life, from fundraising their own tour to playing on an equal stage with their male counterparts in this year’s World Cup.  They will also hear from the women themselves.

The Life with the Lionesses project is led by Julia Lee, originally from Hull, one of the first women to referee men’s Rugby League in the 1980s.  It aims to engage with the wider community, both inside and outside of Rugby League, and to deliver a programme of activities that will celebrate the history of the women’s game.  In addition, it will showcase the achievements of women involved in Rugby League and use the stories of rugby’s women pioneers to inspire new generations.

Julia, who has spent many years working to get the role of women in Rugby League recognised, said:

“We are delighted to have been offered a platform for our exhibition in Hull.  Women had to work so hard to get recognition for their achievements in Rugby League and we are keen to tell their stories to a wider public.

“Now that there is going to be a Women’s Rugby League Hall of fame, it’s even more important to get the message out there and celebrate those early trailblazers.”

The exhibition will be situated in the main foyer of Hull History Centre with additional memorabilia in the education room.

The project, which runs over the next 6 months, is working alongside Rugby League Cares, the Rugby Football League, the Rugby League World Cup 2021 and Heritage Quay at the University of Huddersfield to build a permanent public archive.  Activities will focus around Huddersfield, Hull, Leeds, St Helens, Sheffield, Wakefield, Warrington, Wigan and York.

‘Life with the Lionesses’ was awarded funding by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.  For further information contact Julia Lee on, visit Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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Ludwig Grüner, Jewel-Cabinet, 1851. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2022