Before Southampton had its Parrish Art Museum, before the Rogers Memorial Library had settled into its original home at the corner of Main Street, and long before Jobs Lane became a posh place for discriminating shoppers to graze the displays of fancy boutiques, Harry Lillywhite & Son was supplying bicycles and sporting goods to the village’s resort sports, fitness fanatics and Great Outdoors enthusiasts.
In 1895, when Harry and his son opened the landmark Southampton business at the foot of Jobs Lane, their neighbors were John Hen’s saloon, notorious for serving a raucous Saturday night crowd, and Agawam Hall, where the entertainment ranged from vaudeville acts to high-toned oratory.
From the day it opened in 1895 until it was sold to Roy and Polly Stevenson in 2001, Lillywhite’s, operated by succeeding generations of the family, was the place to go for sports equipment, bicycles, games and eventually toys. For anyone raised in Southampton before the turn of the 20th century, the trip to Lillywhite’s—the heavy door, the creaking
floor, the manly aroma of leather mitts, the enticing array of bikes and balls, and the favorable odds of leaving with at least a balloon—stands out among childhood’s indelible memories.
What may come as news to many in the Hamptons who look upon Lillywhite’s as a uniquely local phenomenon, is the family’s historic renown in the world of sports, and the breadth of its reach in that world. An exhibition opening on Saturday, June 14, at the Southampton Historical museum titled “Sporting Life in the Hamptons: The Lillywhite Family Collection” will illuminate the prominent roles Lillywhites have played in the development of cricket, tennis, golf, biking and even baseball since the mid 19th-century, when Frederick William Lillywhite, a superb cricket bowler, led the British team to victory over Australia for the first time in many years and became a national hero. In 1844, he had also established himself in London as a cricketing and sports outfitter, operating the business out of his home.
Jack Lillywhite, Frederick William’s great-great grandson and curator of the exhibition, has drawn from his extensive collection of Lillywhite sporting goods, paraphernalia, ephemera, photographs, documents and books for the Historical Museum show, which focuses not only on the Southampton establishment but on branches in St. Augustine, Palm Beach and Hamilton, Bermuda. Mr. Lillywhite, who spent his early childhood in Southampton when his grandfather, William, and later his father, James, and Uncle Harry were running the store, has been collecting seriously since 1995 and operates a private Lillywhite museum in Palm Coast, Florida.
The Lillywhite Family Museum, in fact, is one of three sponsors of the exhibition in Southampton, along with Harry Hackett III and Louise Collins M.D.
Outlining the family history in an e-mail, Mr. Lillywhite noted that a six-year residence in England, where the family originated, enabled him to study his forbears’ history in detail. In addition to Harry, who first came to America in 1856 as an 18-year-old cricket professional and made the U.S. his permanent home in 1886, three other members of Frederick William’s large brood followed in their father’s sporting footsteps:
John became an illustrious cricketer, playing for his country numerous times, even facing his brother Harry on a North American cricket pitch. His brother Frederick accompanied the English team as a scorer, journalist and promoter and later wrote a seminal book titled “The All England Cricket Team’s Trip to Canada and America of 1859.” And James Sr. also became a well-known cricketer and originated the famous Cheltenham Cricket Festival in England.
James later became a senior partner in a sporting goods business, which, after several mergers and moves, settled into quarters on Piccadilly Circus as the premier sporting goods store in the British Empire.
Among the brothers, it was Harry, Jack Lillywhite’s great-grandfather, whose sporting and business interests brought him to Southampton with his son William and daughter Charlotte, a nurse who in 1908 was put in charge of Southampton’s first hospital facility. After a stint with Wright & Ditson, supplier of tennis balls for American enthusiasts, Harry left the company in 1889 to supervise the building of the original tennis courts at Congress Spring Park, Saratoga, designated site of the National Lawn Tennis Tourney. It didn’t take long for word of Lillywhite’s expertise to reach the Meadow Club, which invited him to Southampton to plan and install courts that became known as some of the finest grass courts in the country.
After five years as superintendent at the Meadow Club, Harry opened his business on Jobs Lane with his son. A 1913 survey of Southampton businesses published by the Sea-Side Times lauds Harry for his expertise “in making cricket grounds, bowling greens, croquet and tennis courts” and notes that “he has been doing this work for many aristocratic clubs on Long Island, as well as for many private parties.”