When it comes to gear, there are places to get just anything and then there are places where you can get the very best. In the past, they were deemed sports outfitters, generally located in proximity to some of the best schools and operated by former athletes that knew everything there was to know about suiting you up.
One of the shops was called Jack Hobbs Limited and was owned and run by one of the top cricketers of the early 20th century. He opened the shop while he was still in the game so his brother was also involved, managing the day to day until he branched out on his own and opened another one in Cambridge close to his own alma mater. The major competition was a shop founded by rackets champ, Harry Gray, which had been around for about 50 years before Hobbs hung out his shingle. Eventually the two amalgamated and completely cornered the market in the area.
These shops were everywhere that cricket and rugby players converged which is why they were frequently based in university towns. In Oxford, Elmer Cotton’s was the place for the athletic to shop and it was the home base for the inventor of a reduced weight boot for players.
Among the most elite of sports outfitting shops was Monsieur Lillywhites of London which was established in the mid-1800’s. It is said that all of the greatest athletes and sports celebrities have frequented the shop, including princes, lords and ladies and it attempts to uphold the highest levels of customer service. Beyond that, the merchandise found there is of absolute distinction. The proprietor, James, was formerly a cricket captain in Australia although it tries to sell gear for other elite games as well such as golf, croquet and tennis. Throughout the war, they thought it best to support the efforts of the troops and rather that cater to the sporting world, they provided gear to air force.
The store covered a vast six levels and thus, there was no question you would be able to locate exactly what you needed. From socks to athletic supporters in every make, model and colour, the selection was absolutely brilliant. Customers were treated with immaculate manners and were able to make recommendations and assist one in finding anything possible. When one was shopping at Lillywhites, you were treated like royalty. This was definitely reflected in the exorbitant cost of everything available and many of the items were exclusive to the store. It wasn’t unusual to walk out of the shop after having spent more than your monthly living costs. It was all worthwhile, however, and the experience itself was spectacular, never mind that you would then own some of the finest athletic gear money could buy.
Sadly, time has moved rapidly on and the company was sold to other owners, with a lesser concern for the ritual of catering to their clientele with knowledge and finesse. The beautiful décor and elegant ambience have faded considerably and what remains of the original façade has fallen into a state of disrepair. But perhaps the saddest part of the days of refinement falling by the wayside is that now when you walk into the shop, you will no longer find the elite and exclusive sporting wares that once used to inhabit the racks but instead, the mass marketed “sporty wear” of rappers and armchair athletes.