Watching over Eros at the heart of Piccadilly Circus is what remains of a retail institution. For well over a century the name of Lillywhites was synonymous with quality and service, its London store a place of pilgrimage for amateur and professional sportsmen alike. From its earliest days supplying cricket bats and cigars – essential tools for the gentleman of the day – through to the move into the majestic five-floor Regent Street building it still occupies, the acquisition and subsequent transformation of Lillywhites into yet another branch of the megastore which so dominates sports retail in the twenty-first century has been a particularly sad chapter in the story of our declining high street.
Beneath the sign on the wall outside, however, is one last connection to its past. Etched in gold is the image of a batsman, sleeves rolled as he takes his guard. Top-hatted and gloveless, stance perfectly straight, it is a portrait heavy with the symbols of a golden age of English cricket, one of gentlemen, players and halcyon days on the village green.
It is a tribute both to the founders of the company and the sport at which they excelled. Beginning with round-arm pioneer William and continuing through his sons John and Fred and nephew James, the Lillywhite family played a pivotal role in the evolution of cricket through the nineteenth century. Yet although the reality behind the picture has a harder edge than those rose-tinted visions it inspires, the story of the remarkable team in which John Lillywhite played uncovers a connection to the most historic club in Scotland, too.
Established in 1821, Kelso Cricket Club has a history predating the formation of Sussex, the oldest of the English county teams, by eighteen years. Based at Shedden Park since 1851, the club was a founder member of the historic Border League and continued to play in the competition until its disbandment in 2011.
Proof that cricket flourished in the Borders long before it was formally organised, though, is found within the pages of a precious volume from the Kelso archives. Beginning with the visit of Berwick on 7th August 1850 a meticulously kept scorebook details every match played in the town from then until September 1865. With regular games against Edinburgh’s Grange and local rivals Melrose, Hawick and Wilton, Selkirk, Galashiels and Dunse – later to become Manderston – as well as Tynmouth, Middlesbrough and Newcastle from the North of England, cricket in Kelso visibly thrived.
The book offers a fascinating insight into what was plainly a very different game to the one we know today. Cricket may have tilted more in favour of the batsman in recent years but the treacherous pitches of the Victorian era ensured that it was a red-letter time to be a bowler.
Kelso’s match against Berwick provides a graphic illustration. Having taken twenty overs to dismiss the visitors for a mere 31 the home side managed just 23 in reply, and after Berwick fared a little better with a second innings of 52 Kelso’s 31 all out in the final innings of the game meant they fell short by 29 runs.
The quirky finds its place into the records, too. ‘Married’ played ‘Single’ in a two-innings match beginning on 10th August 1860 (‘Married’ triumphing by 12 runs in what seems to have been either a social experiment or a good excuse to put on a game) whilst the Kelso Chronicle of July 12th 1850 reports on a match played between ‘two elevens of Kelso Cricket Club’ at Kelso Race Course ‘for strawberries, to be paid [for] by the losing side.’
The victors ‘met in the Queen’s Head Inn…and partook of the fruit, with the requisite adjuncts, and spent the evening in a social and agreeable manner,’ the piece continues.
‘The playing of this Club is carried on with great keenness and spirit,’ it concludes. ‘Many of the members have already attained a proficiency which would not discredit those of a much longer established club.’
There is also the curious. In nineteenth century cricket ‘odds’ matches were commonplace, with a particularly strong eleven taking on a team of inflated numbers to even up the contest. Kelso, for example, played a representative Sixteen of the Borders at Shedden Park in September 1858, a match which featured twelve second innings wickets for Reynolds as the hosts claimed a seven-wicket victory.
But there is one other such encounter which particularly catches the eye.
More than 130 years before Kerry Packer revolutionised the modern game with the launch of World Series Cricket, another group of players-for-hire were hitting the road for the first time. With the Victorian railway network rapidly expanding and the demand to see top-class cricket growing, a group of hand-picked professionals began to tour the country and take on local sides keen to test their skills against the very best the English game had to offer.
The brainchild of William Clarke, cricketer, businessman and the original owner of Trent Bridge, the All-England Eleven played their first match at the end of the 1846 season. With their dapper uniforms of red-spotted white shirts, white trousers, neckerchiefs and stylishly tall hats the team proved extremely popular and crowds flocked to see such big-name players as Nicholas Felix, Fuller Pilch and Alfred Mynn show off their skills. Clarke was inundated with requests for fixtures and took his team across the length and breadth of the nation, doing much to spread the popularity of the game in the process.
Clarke was no philanthropist, however. Although his players were rewarded with better wages than those paid by either the counties or Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) the entrepreneur helped himself to by far the largest slice of the pie, and with his dictatorial style also beginning to grate on some of his employees a group of players led by John Wisden and Jemmy Dean broke away to form a group of their own, the United All-England Eleven (UAE XI), in 1852.
With match organisers recouping the costs of hiring the team through a paying audience the new venture continued what had been demonstrated to be a lucrative business model, and the UAE XI, to Clarke’s evident disgust, proved to be similarly popular – and profitable – as they travelled the country.
And thus, beginning on 28th September 1857, the UAE XI played Twenty-Two of Kelso in a three-day match at Shedden Park. It was a team packed with stars. As well as Wisden – seven years before he published the first edition of the iconic Cricketer’s Almanack which still bears his name – and Dean, all-rounder William Caffyn, wicket-keeper Tom Lockyer and fast round-arm bowler James Grundy were amongst those who took the field.
Also playing at Shedden was thirty year-old John Lillywhite. In addition to his appearances for the UAE XI William’s eldest son played for Sussex, Middlesex and MCC in a first class career which spanned a quarter of a century, taking 223 wickets at an average of 11.56 in the process. With two centuries and thirteen fifties to his name, too, the Hove-born all-rounder was very much a player to continue the family tradition.
It was Caffyn who excelled with the bat in Kelso, however, as he posted what turned out to be the highest score of the match. His 37 set his side on their way to a first innings total of 112, and although the Kelso bowlers gave a good account of themselves, Brampton taking 5-48 and Sewell 4-27, the hosts were going to need to take full advantage of their superior numbers to compete.
There was to be no fairytale, however. Only two Kelso batsmen reached double figures as the home side limped to 72, and despite the UAE XI managing only 71 in their second innings, Grundy and Lillywhite making the only significant contributions, a remarkable bowling performance from John Wisden put the final seal onto the result.
Bowling unchanged in partnership with Caffyn for 54.1 (four-ball) overs the Sussex bowler ran amok, taking 15-20 as Kelso were routed for 52 in their second innings. With ten wickets in the first innings, too, Wisden finished the match with the extraordinary figures of 25-45. Whether it was with his medium pace round-arm or slow underarm – Wisden bowled either – the Kelso batsmen, with a total of seventeen ducks over the course of the match, had clearly found him too much to handle.
More than a century and a half later we can but marvel at the team which arrived in Kelso that September. Just two years later five members of the side – Wisden, Caffyn, Lillywhite, Lockyer and Grundy – were part of a twelve-man party to visit North America on what was the first-ever overseas tour by an English team.
And so, as the bicentenary of Scotland’s oldest club approaches, Kelso Cricket Club can look back on a history that will forever be associated with some of the most famous names in the annals of the game. As the current generation of Kelso cricketers walk out onto Shedden Park today, they do so in the knowledge that they are following in the most distinguished of footsteps.