The kit and caboodle of the game

140430 milkjug bootThey used to be called sports outfitters, those knowledgeable shops in Britain’s High Streets, often in university towns, run by retired sportsmen who really knew their sports equipment.

Like Jack Hobbs Ltd in London’s Fleet Street. It first came about when the greatest ever run scorer and the first professional cricketer to be knighted, Hobbs, opened a sports shop in 1926. Since Jack was still a full time cricketer, one of his younger brothers, Sidney, ran the shop, until returning to Cambridge to open his own store in Trinity Street in 1931.

In the same town, Grays Sports shop had already been established since 1855, founded by Harry Gray the World Champion Rackets player. He later forged a long relationship with the Gilbert family, makers of the famed “Gilbert rugby balls. Gray’s business grew in size and reputation as generations appreciated the personal service of a quality sports store, like the long-striding Wilf Wooller at Christ’s College, a “blue” who played for Wales in the 1930s.

In recent years, Grays and Hobbs merged and now trade as Hobbs Sports in larger premises in Sidney Street.

Another traditional sports shop, Elmer Cotton established in 1911, is situated in the heart of Oxford as long established suppliers to clubs and colleges throughout the UK. Found at the north end of the Turl, they became an institution to generations of sportsmen and women alike who passed through the store since the early part of the last century.

One such rugby customer, Alexander Obolensky (who was at Brasenose College in the 1930s) recognised the importance of pace — he was once timed at 10.6 seconds for the 100 yards (91.4m) — and spent hours in this sports shop looking for ways of producing ever-lighter boots. These were the times when combining one’s cricket pullover with rugby kit was de rigueur, unlike the dull track-suits of today.

There have been many fine sports outfitters, but perhaps the Grande Dame of them all was Messrs. Lillywhites of Piccadilly, London. 

Sports outfitters to the gentry

LillywhitesJames Lillywhite, Frowd & Co. was a full service sporting goods manufacturer and supplier, established in 1853 and publishing each year a full catalogue of their goods in the “James Lillywhite Cricketer’s Annual”.

The shop was originally established in the Haymarket in 1863, but moved to the beautiful early Victorian building on the edge of Piccadilly Circus shown in the photo in 1925. The shop has attracted the greatest sportsmen, celebrities and royalty (it was once a Royal Warrant Holder) for well over a century. It was unrivalled in its service and quality. It was a quintessential working example of an old English department store, with knowledgeable staff who helped customers select their sporting goods. The business had been built by a keen cricketing family, and the shop’s founder James Lillywhite had captained the England XI playing the very first test match in Australia.

It catered for a vast array of sports. From bespoke rugger jerseys to golf clubs, cricket bats and croquet mallets, they stocked the best products of the time.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, the company like many British businesses adapted itself to assist the war effort. They used their clothing and equipment expertise by making items (cold weather trousers and gloves) for the Royal Air Force flight kits. After the war, in 1953, Lillywhites provided the goggles and other climbing gear to support Sir Edmund Hillary’s Expedition in the first successful ascent of Mount Everest.

Over six vast floors they supplied everything a rugby player needed. Imagine then, you are transported back to that time. You have arrived at the store and made your way up the creaking oak staircase to the rugby department, in an atmosphere not dissimilar to that of the old BBC sitcom “Are You Being Served?” I recall, as clearly as if it were yesterday, receiving the following assistance -and it was assistance -not self-service:

… Cotton Oxfords? What size Sir? The Manfield-Hotspur is favoured by three-quarters. It’s their lightness you see Sir. I always recommend extra studs, useful bit of kit Sir. Socks of course and traditional button fly shorts, with pockets .. in navy blue? Umbro are the best — it’s the Manchester cotton and attention to detail, you see, Sir. Of course Sir will need an athlete’s support, or, as some of my “northern” gentlemen clients refer to it, a “jockstrap”. What waist size was it Sir?

These “athlete’s supports” were Litesome Sportswear manufactured by Fred Hurtley & Son of Keighley Yorkshire. This was of course long before spandex compression shorts were available.

Oh, you’ll need a tin of Wren’s Dubbin of course, It’s for waterproofing, highly recommended by our Northampton boot manufactures Sir. It softens and preserves the boots you see -it will add three times to the life of the leather Sir. 

Yes of course, a cheque will be fine Sir.

Before you knew it, you had spent a sizeable portion of a month’s salary. It was an extraordinary experience.

Times change, the company was sold. The name remains but what was once a stylish flagship store and a living encyclopaedia of British sport has faded. Losing its Royal Warrant in 2003, some ceiling plasterwork remains but its once glorious oak-panelled staircases are now a shadow of their former selves. The remains of a once great sporting institution, has become essentially just another peddler of tracksuits and trainers.

Photograph, boot: totalflanker.blogspot.com.

Photograph, Lillywhites: Wikimedia Commons (adapted).

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