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The Lillywhites

The Lillywhite family can be a confusing bunch. All told five of them play significant roles in the history of the way the game of cricket is played and/or the development of its literature. It isn’t always straightforward to work out who was who, some duplication of Christian names certainly not assisting.

The story begins with William, known as ‘The Nonpareil’. William’s main claim to fame is as one of the leading bowlers of the early part of the nineteenth century, primarily responsible for the establishment of round arm bowling. Born in 1792 William first played in a match now recognised as First Class at the age of 32, and from then until he was 61 he took more than a thousand wickets at a cost of just over ten runs each.

In 1844 William gave his name to Lillywhite’s Illustrated Handbook of Cricket. Available in three different versions it had 22 pages of text that set out the laws of the game and contained some instructional passages. The narrative content was common to all three versions. The difference was the choice of a single portrait of Lillywhite, four portraits of professional cricketers or, most expensively, a variation bound in cloth and containing portraits of four amateurs as well as the four professionals.

As one of the earliest books on the game Lillywhite’s Handbook is a collectors item today, albeit it is not as rare as some of its contemporary publications. A copy of one of the cheaper versions will set a purchaser back a little more than £1,000, and a complete hardback six times that amount, but for anyone of modest means who happens to be interested there is a McKenzie facsimile reprint from 1988 that is available for less than £20.

William had nine children who survived infancy, five sons and four daughters. Three of his sons, James (born 1825), John (born 1826) and Frederick (Born 1829) made their lives in cricket. John enjoyed a long and successful First Class career. James was also a cricketer albeit he only played 20 times at First Class level over 10 years. Frederick seems not to have shared the talent of his father and brothers, his only appearance on Cricketarchive being for 16 of Sussex against the All-England Eleven in 1851. His involvement in that game was limited as well – he batted at number fifteen and was bowled for nought, ironically enough by John Wisden.

Fred was 20 in 1849, the year he published The Young Cricketer’s Guide. The following year he went into business with his father and brothers John and James. Unsurprisingly they chose a sports store. The family firm then produced a similar publication to The Young Cricketer’s Guide under the title Lillywhite’s Guide to Cricketers. The book described itself as being edited by Frederick Lillywhite junior and was to appear each year until 1866, the year Fred died.

‘Fred’s Guide’ was not the first cricket annual, and would certainly not be the last, but it remained alone in the market until Wisden came along in 1864. When ‘Fred’s Guide’ began there was an instructional section, written by William, as well as a brief historical summary of the game, although that contained no new research. Most interesting moving forward were the rudimentary averages that appeared as well as a ‘Who’s Who’ containing details of around 150 current players.

‘Fred’s Guide’ also contained a section on ‘Celebrated Cricket Grounds’ and the laws. There were in addition, from 1851, some potted scores of schools matches but no full scorecards for some years. This may seem strange in view of full scores having appeared before in the likes of Britcher and Denison, but the explanation is straightforward. The Lillywhites also supplied printed scorecards of major matches and clearly had they included those scores in their guide the demand for their scorecards would have been adversely affected.

The family partnership was dissolved in around 1855, perhaps in part for reasons connected with William’s death in 1854. It was Fred who carried on with the publishing activities for three years in partnership with Wisden. Fred was to organise a tour of North America in 1859, and Wisden was one of the players. Fred took his printing press with him to the USA and Canada and wrote and published the very first tour book on his return. The trip cannot have been an entirely happy one however as, following their return, Fred and Wisden went their separate ways. 

Fred only had the market to himself until 1864 when, as all who are reading this will be aware, Wisden launched his little annual. Rather bulkier was another 1864 venture by Captain Bayly, although that one lasted just a year.

In 1865 another competitor to ‘Fred’s Guide’ arrived, and to Fred’s obvious displeasure the publisher was none other than his brother. The title was John Lillywhite’s Cricketers’ Companion for 1865, and it became better known as the ‘Green Lilly’. To rub salt in the wound the ‘Green Lilly’ was cheaper than ‘Fred’s Guide’, and 36 pages longer.

The extent of Fred’s displeasure with his two former partners and now rivals can be discerned from his remarks about them in the ‘Who’s Who’ section of his 1865 edition in which, being accomplished players, both featured and had done without criticism for some years. Amongst other barbed comments brother John is described as poaching for another idea, without licence, and of Wisden Fred wrote he was a “good ‘un” but now “does nothing” for his county.

In 1866 however Fred died at the early age of 37 and his guide did not appear again. For the following year of 1867, as Wisden reached its fourth edition, the ‘Green Lilly’ proclaimed, the copyright in ‘Fred’s Guide’ having been bought by John, that it incorporated Lillywhite’s Guide to Cricketers for 1867. Further on the continuity theme John ‘absorbed’ the reputation of the previous Guides by describing the 1867 ‘Green Lilly’ as the 23rd edition.

Meanwhile the third and eldest brother, James, was employed as cricket coach by Cheltenham college, and had been since 1855. To supplement his income James also opened a sports shop in the town, and in 1863 he went into partnership with George Frowd in order to open up in London. That partnership lasted for a decade until 1873 when James retreated back to Cheltenham, and Frowd carried on in capital with Lillywhite, Frowd.

In 1872 James went into competition with his brother and published the first edition of James Lillywhite’s Cricketers Annual. The book was very similar to John’s in content although rather sturdier in that it had red linen covers, hence being known as the ‘Red Lilly’ and, running to a reprint in that first year, it must have justified its existence. But who was behind the venture? As it remained with Lilllwhite, Frowd after the split it would seem possible that it was Frowd’s brainchild all along.

In 1874 the Lillywhite family was bereaved again with the death of John at the age of 47 and it is at this point that the main scope for confusion arises. Initially the firm of John Lillywhite simply continued and the ‘Green Lilly’ and the ‘Red Lilly’ appeared each year, but there was a change in 1879 when James Lillywhite joined the surviving firm who became John and James Lillywhite and Co, although the title of the ‘Green Lilly’ remained unchanged. This was not however James Lillywhite, formerly of the ‘Red Lilly’, but a cousin of John, James and Fred, and the England Captain in the first ever Test match.

The last of the original brotherhood, James, died in 1882 at the age of 57 although, as indicated, it seems he had not been involved with any cricket annual since 1872.

Just to confuse matters the name of the ‘Green Lilly’ did then change in 1884 at which point James Junior acquired the whole of John’s old firm and so the 1884 ‘Green Lilly’ was James Lillywhites’ Cricketers’ Companion, competing with the Red ‘James Lillywhite’s Cricketers’ Annual’, a book which, to add to the confusion, had no Lillywhite involved in its publication at all.

The last year in  which the ‘Green Lilly’ and the ‘Red Lilly’ both appeared was 1885. At the beginning of 1886 the two firms finally merged, and it was the ‘Red Lilly’ that was chosen as the annual to survive. It continued to appear each year until 1900 when, limping into the twentieth century, that edition was its last. In fact by now there was no Lillywhite involved once more. James Junior had left the firm several years previously and indeed by the late 1880s was expressing himself to be in some financial difficulty.

There was, inevitably, rivalry between Wisden and the various Lillywhite publications, all of which were competing for the same customers. An interesting example of the rivalry arises out of that first ever Test match back in March 1877. Although at the time the match was not recognised as the beginning of international cricket it was still an important fixture. Led however by a Lillywhite Wisden chose to ignore the whole tour, unlike the ‘Red Lilly’ and the ‘Green Lilly’ both of which covered the trip.

Looking back from the comfort of the 21st century in the early years of the three way rivalry the Lillies were in many ways more interesting books than Wisden and, following John Wisden’s death in 1884 without an heir it is perhaps surprising even that his almanack continued at all, let alone that it saw off the opposition within two decades. The reason, possibly, is that the man who did buy Wisden’s business from his estate, Henry Luff, chose not only to continue to publish Wisden but to broaden its scope to provide much more coverage of the rivalry with the Australians than its founder ever had, and indeed more than the Lillies did.

Since the demise of the ‘Red Lilly’ Wisden has never had a serious rival and although the almanack has had its travails over the years it has continued and the rarest editions now command substantial five figure sums at auction. ‘Fred’s Guide’ too features a couple of five figure books amongst its 24 editions (although it lasted only seventeen summers in some years more than one edition appeared). Some of the books are relatively common and for several prices drop to less than £500, but the first two and sixth editions are virtually unprocurable and there are no more than a handful of full sets in existence.

As for the ‘Green Lilly’ the first edition is exceptionally rare, a good copy being worth at least £1,000, although there is a modern facsimile of that one. None of the other editions however are anything like so difficult to find and decent copies of almost all can be had for under £100. As for the ‘Red Lilly’ the first edition from 1872 is likely to set a purchaser back more than £200, and none of the editions from the 1870s are easy to find, but most of the rest can be acquired for no more than around £30 and, oddly given that sales were presumably dwindling, the final editions do not seem to be any rarer.

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