Wisdens – 120 years of Sport in the Community
What is the sporting centrepiece of Hastings? Footballers might choose Pilot Field, tennis players the courts of Amherst or The Green, athletes the track at William Parker, hockey players the all weather pitch at Horntye. Older cricketers, still in mourning for the lost Central Cricket Ground, might opt for the memorial statue at Priory Meadow. But if you had to identify one institution in town held in universal acclaim by the Hastings sporting community as a whole, it would have to be Wisdens, the shop in Trinity Street, sellers of clothing and equipment for most sporting activities over an uninterrupted span of 120 years.
Mark Wisden, current joint managing director of the business, is, he believes, fifth generation of his family to run it. The celebrated nineteenth century Sussex cricketer John Wisden (“the Little Wonder”), founder of Wisdens Cricket Almanac and also a sports equipment retailer in later life, was a relative. Perhaps the family name gave an early boost. At all events it was Mark’s great-great grandfather Arthur Wisden who started trading from 1 Trinity Street in 1896.
Cricket equipment and whites were no doubt always significant items for sale. But in the early days sport for the middle classes who could afford purchases of leisure items meant predominantly huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’, so the original Wisdens sold guns, camping equipment and fishing tackle. The shop passed through Mark’s great-grandfather and grandfather Alan Wisden (who went over the top in the Battle of the Somme on 1 July 1916 but survived unscathed and came back to play pro football for Brighton) to his father Vic Wisden. Vic began working in the shop in 1951 after completing his National Service. He was still helping with the book-keeping 65 years later, but sadly passed away in November.
Mark himself started as “Saturday boy” in 1977 at age 12 and full-time from 1981 when he was 16. Joint managing director with him, Ian Gill, joined him within a year or two, so the two of them have worked alongside each other for more than 30 years.
There has been an expansion of floor space along the way. Number 2 Trinity Street was added, then about 20 years ago the adjacent premises of 19 Claremont Street and, in the latest redevelopment, number 18 as well. Guns and fishing materials have long gone. But consumer demand is ever-buoyant for increasingly sophisticated equipment in cricket, tennis, hockey, rugby and even athletics – not just bats, balls, stumps, rackets and sticks but head guards, gumshields, protective clothing, and shoes for every different activity and playing surface (up to 40% of the business). A large selection of ballet and other dance shoes are also supplied. Then there are the perennial rounds of trophy engraving. What sporting household of Hastings is complete without a trophy shelf where the most prized memorials come courtesy of the Wisdens engraver?
As to competition there is no sports retailer providing a comparative range of stock this side of Lewes or Tunbridge Wells. There is of course the unmentionable Sports Direct with its shiny location in Wellington Place and two further stores in Eastbourne, where you can buy the most popular brands at unmatchably low prices from underpaid and uninformed counter staff. But Mark Wisden can live with that. Serious sportsmen, women and their aspiring kids who want to equip themselves with better quality accessories come to the scruffier Trinity Street premises to discuss what may be appropriate for them and get knowledgable advice from people who have half a lifetime’s experience of providing it.
Over the last few years the internet has provided a much greater challenge, as to all retailers – a major threat but also an opportunity. The modern young enter retail shops of all sorts with their smartphones informing them at the click of their thumbnails what prices they could get on Amazon or direct from manufacturers. Wisdens, like others up and down the high street, have to respond: not trying to beat this competition but joining it. Mark says that up to 80% of their business is now done on line. He admits that he misses the buzz of old-style Saturday mornings when a scrum of schoolkids and their parents swarmed through the lobbies to be served by a small army of staff. They have up to 11 full and part-time staff these days but most are employed at constant pressure through the week to fulfil internet orders. Turnover goes up and up, though margins are worn thinner all the time.
However there is still pleasure in providing a reliable bespoke service to the sporting community of the town. As a consumer you will get generous individual discounts from Mark and Ian if you present yourself as a member of a club that buys its materials from them. Conversely, if you run a club and suddenly need some last minute engravings to make a success of the trophy evening, you’ll thank your better self for sticking with them through the years rather than falling for that seductive “marked down” special offer up the road.
Mark has five children. The eldest two have done part-time stints behind the counter in teenage years but are not necessarily destined, he says, for the family business – in fact they are currently off at uni getting other qualifications for their future lives. But it would be an honourable calling and, no doubt, much to the town’s continued benefit if in due course a sixth generation Wisden carries on the family tradition.