July 1992

The survival of Wisden

Murray Hedgcock traces Wisden's progress through good times and bad, recession, depression and German bombing


Murray Hedgcock traces the company's progress through good times and bad, recession, depression and German bombing



John Wisden: he started it all off © Getty Images

Fitzgerald Avenue is a quiet, curving street in the south-west London surburb of East Sheen, an area famous for nothing much: it is a place you drive through en route to other places, like Richmond Park, Twickenham, or the Surrey countryside.

Sheen grew out of the village of Mortlake, known for Watney's Brewery - a landmark on the final stage of the Boat Race - and the ornate, desert-tent-like tomb of explorer Sir Richard Burton in the Catholic churchyard. Fitzgerald Avenue meanders just off Upper Richmond Road by Beverley Brook, consisting mostly of small terrace houses of the 1880s.

From 1925 until 1944, this little residential street concealed an unexciting group of buildings which owned the right to display the coat of arms of King George V, and were contributing substantially to the world of sport.

You can still turn up a pathway between houses No. 14 and No. 16 on the east side to reach the backyard of Brook Court, a block of council flats fronting on to Priest's Bridge. For those 19 years, this yard was the site of the Fitzgerald Works, the factory and head office of John Wisden and Co. Ltd.

Today, when sports goods are largely imported from the Far East, most remaining British factories are in the provinces, but between the wars, London boasted works dotted through the capital. None was as significant - nor as forgotten today - as the Fitzgerald Works, proudly labelled: `By Appointment - Athletic Outfitters to the King'.

What precise use His dignified Majesty George V had for an athletic outfitter is unclear. His sporting interests were more those of an English country gentleman operating on the old principle: `It's a lovely day. Let's go out and kill something.'

John Wisden made neither shotguns nor cartridges, and was not a supplier of angling equipment. But publicity material of the 1930s proudly labelled the company as manufacturer and exporter of all requisites for: `Athletics, badminton, basketball, baseball, bandy-sticks, boxing, cricket, croquet, fives, football, golf, hockey, lawn tennis, lawn bowls, lacrosse, netball, polo, quoits, racquets, squash racquets, stoolball, table tennis, water polo.'

If the Monarch made little use of the products of Fitzgerald Works, his subjects worldwide, and sport enthusiasts outside the British Empire, maintained constant demand for the top-quality goods poured out by the factory and its skilled craftsmen.

John Wisden in 1931 issued the third edition (others appeared in 1917 and 1922) of a publicity brochure The Past and Present of Wisden's, with some interesting sporting notabilia 1850-1931. This includes a delightful article by an unnamed visitor to the works, telling us that `Mail days at Mortlake are very exciting days indeed.' The packing department `becomes filled with parcels, large and small, and work is carried on at high pressure for, if one of those parcels should miss a mail, it generally means a delay of a week.'

The writer looks at consignments sent outside Europe, starting with tennis balls for Rabat -`in this wild country of Morocco'- and for the Cape Verde Islands. Next was Ashanti: This parcel contained tennis racquets, strung with a patent tropical gut, and the only kind possible for use in such a humid part of the equator. They are carried by steamer from Takoradio, that fine new harbour from where they send our cocoa, after which these racquets, which first saw the light of a dreary English winter's day, progress by rail and car to Kumasi. It may be that some have a further journey to take into Tamale of the Northern Territories. No railways there, and in the rains, no roads either. Only the broad back of a native to carry our racquets. What a journey for this parcel lying here!'

And so on: cricket balls for Cape Town, bats for Kimberley, tennis balls for Bulawayo, a large quantity of tennis balls for Egypt, cricket and tennis equipment for Jerusalem, more for Aden, onwards to Persia with tennis balls and racquets, parcels for India (`too many to be noted'), squash balls for Afghanistan, and parcels for Mandalay, Penang, Malacca and Singapore.



John Wisden & Co. manufactured bats and equipment for a range of different sports, not just cricket © Getty Images

`Sumatra, Java and New Guinea also had their parcels, but I was most interested to see one for the Cocos Isles, the most lonely place to which we send our goods, for only three relief boats visit it per year, and if we miss a mail it may be that these Englishmen, whose task is to protect our cable service, will be deprived of their tennis for many months.'

The imaginary journey goes on with supplies for Australia and New Zealand, China and Japan, Chile, Buenos Aires (squash equipment), West Indies, Mexico City (`implements for their own national game'- what could that be?), big supplies of badminton gear for Montreal, squash racquets for New York - and `back again at Mortlake where the packages are being piled into a red Post Office van to leave us for ever'.

The brochure (at 96 pages practically a book) includes full-page advertisements detailing equipment produced at Fitzgerald Works, with tennis racquets including The Valkyrie Tropic, The New Wisden, The Tenax - Astus - Cosmos - Exceller - Blue Comet - Cranbourn - Impetus. The area link comes with a racquet named `The Sheen'- do any still exist, tucked away in local lofts? (Sheen was the ancient name for Richmond.)

Also based at the Fitzgerald Works was Denbys Hard Courts Ltd, a subsidiary making artificial-surface lawn-tennis courts. More detail comes in Wisden Cricketers' Almanack of the same year (1931), a full-page advertisement declaring simply that the company provides `The best hard courts'.

The final message of the Wisden brochure declares firmly: `We desire to inform our customers and friends that we do not pay commission or pecuniary consideration of any kind to famous players whose names may appear in connection with a brand of article marketed by us. We feel this announcement to be necessary, as we find that a section of the public believe that where a famous name appears in connection with any article, commission or royalty is paid, and so cost of the particular article increased.'

If this were the continuing Wisden attitude, in an increasingly commercial age it is no wonder we rarely see the name in sports shops, alongside all the flashy branded gear recommended - at big fees - by the stars of sport today.

Wisden had no trouble getting the sports heroes of a less greedy age to recommend its equipment, notably in cricket, the sport in which the name has held its most special significance. Past and Present of John Wisden prints photographs of more than 100 bats displayed in its West End showroom museum at 15 Great Newport Street, alongside Leicester Square station. Four bats are signed by the turn-of-the-century Australian captain Joe Darling: two bear the inscription that each (unusually by today's concept of personal equipment) was `shared by Trumper, Noble and Darling during the tour of the 1902 Australian XI and there was over 2000 runs made with it. Beautiful bat to drive with'.



'Cricket was always the showcase of Wisden, primarily because the founder was one of the great cricket names of his day: John Wisden' © Wisden

Another bat has, stuck down on the blade, headed notepaper of the Crystal Palace-based London County Cricket Club, dated Oct 27,1900, to say the writer had promised to score a century with it, and had made more than 1000 runs with it, so would like two more like it. The signature: W. G. Grace, the most towering figure in the history of the game, the man who lifted cricket from a rough and ready pastime into a national passion.

A list of `Odds and Ends' records famed players doing great deeds with Wisden bats: Wisden hockey balls used in international matches, and the visiting Australian women's team using Wisden hockey sticks; a Wisden tennis racquet taken to the Gold Coast and `flung into the corner of a grass hut, giving good service as a swotter' before being returned intact to the works; the Wisden Standard squash ball used regularly in the England Amateur Championship; Wisden boxing gloves used exclusively for Albert Hall contests; and so on.

But cricket was always the showcase of Wisden, primarily because the founder was one of the great cricket names of his day. John Wisden was born at Brighton on Sept 5, 1826, and played for Sussex from 1845 to 1863 as a bowler of three distinct styles. He began as a fast roundarm bowler, in the days before the arm was allowed to be raised above the shoulder; after 1857 or there-abouts, he dropped his speed to bowl medium-pace - and also bowled slow underhand.

He shared cricket history by touring North America with George Parr's team of 1859- the first overseas trip by English cricketers. The visitors won their eight matches easily in Montreal, Hoboken, Philadelphia, Hamilton and Rochester, and the worst part of the tour was the return voyage when the Atlantic was at its roughest, one player declaring piteously he would `never see land again'.

Wisden was one of the best bowlers of his time, right from his teenage entry into the game at an insignificant 5ft 4ins in height and 7 stone. He earned a nickname, `The Little Wonder', and before his pace slowed, batsmen were said to fear his `very fast and ripping deliveries'.

But Wisden was no bullying fast bowler: he was known for unfailing good humour, a genial disposition, as well as great keenness and tremendous stamina. He was also a correct, patient batsman who was a regular member of the All-England XI, the professional team which toured England playing all sorts of opponents in the days before an organised County Championship, let alone international cricket.

A sprain received while playing racquets, which led to increasing trouble with rheumatism, look Wisden out of first-class cricket in 1863, and one year later he launched the most famous sporting annual in the world. This is Wisden Cricketers' Almanack, which in 1864 sold at one shilling for its 112 pages. Today that issue will cost you probably a couple of thousand pounds, if you can find it.

Wisden has come out every year since then, including two world wars. Its traditional daffodil-yellow dustjacket is a sign of spring and the new cricket season when it is launched in mid-April. It is the foundation of any cricket library, its 129 issues demanding 15ft of shelving, and worth perhaps £20,000 all told.

Wisden began selling cricket gear in 1850 at Leamington, and in 1855 opened a `cricket and cigar shop' at No. 2 Coventry Street, off the Hay-market. In 1870 it became officially `John Wisden & Co.', removing to 21 Cranbourn Street, Leicester Square, in 1872.