Sixty six and not out

Sixty six and not out

The once renowned cricketer and international badminton coach Maurice Robinson died in 1994. But the eponymous sports shop he opened in 1948 is still going strong in the hands of Wendy Bill, his daughter. Ros Dodd reports

Sixty six years ago, international badmintonpersonalities Maurice and Cicely Robinson opened a sports shop in Kings Heath, Birmingham. Today, Maurice Robinson Sports is still there, now specialising in racquets and swimwear. It is the only retailer of its kind in the Midlands and one of the oldest independent sports shops in the UK.

It remains a family business: Wendy Bill, Maurice and Cicely’s daughter, has worked there for 40 years and now manages it, carrying on her father’s legacy. Shops and businesses have come and gone in York Road – part of the Kings Heath Birmingham Improvement District (BID) – but Maurice Robinson Sports has not only survived, it has expanded into adjoining premises either side of the original retail outlet and now attracts customers from all over Britain and abroad.

“The shop has gone from being a general sports shop, where we sold everything sports-related, including fishing tackle, to being much more of a specialist shop,” explains Bill, herself a former county tennis player. “With every product, there’s so much more choice these days. For example, we used to sell half a dozen badminton racquets; now we sell 150. It’s the same with tennis racquets: if there were 25 on sale before, now there are about 250.”

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The shop also runs a racquet-stringing service. “We do a lot of stringing for international badminton players, and professional tennis player Dan Evans, who is ranked number six in Britain, is also a customer.”

Not many of today’s customers will remember Maurice Robinson, and few will know anything of his glittering sporting career. Maurice was born in Northern Ireland and came to Birmingham just before the start of World War Two as an apprentice professional cricketer with Warwickshire. “He also played badminton,” recalls Bill, “and just round the corner from Edgbaston, at St Ambrose Church Hall, was a badminton court and it was here he met my mother, who was a very good badminton player and played for England in 1953.”

When war broke out, Maurice joined the RAF and was made a Sergeant Major, training troops first in Weston-super-Mare and then in India. While stationed in Hyderabad, he was summoned by the Nizam of Hyderabad to coach his daughters in badminton. When he returned to Britain in 1946, Maurice was stationed in St Athan, South Wales and Glamorgan asked if he would play cricket for them while he was there.

An all-rounder, Maurice won his county cap in his debut season with Glamorgan; in 1949 he scored a career-best 190 against Hampshire at Bournemouth while sharing what still stands as a club record fifth-wicket partnership of 264 with Stan Montgomery. Bill adds: “He loved playing for Glamorgan and continued to do so for a while even after he was demobbed and returned to Birmingham, where he also played for Warwickshire until 1952.”

Maurice and Cicely – she’s still alive aged 96 and is Britain’s oldest surviving international badminton player – opened the sports shop in November 1948. “It was quite ‘the thing’ in those days for sportsmen to open shops and he’d worked for a while in a sports shop in Cardiff,” says Bill. “My mother, who was previously a company secretary, ran it
with him.”

Cicely was often left in charge of the shop, as Maurice concentrated more and more on badminton coaching, travelling the world to train some of the it’s top players. “He was a world-renowned coach and became national coach for both Holland and Germany. He went to the 1972 Munich Olympics with the Dutch badminton team and witnessed the kidnapping of 11 members of the Israeli team, who were eventually killed.”

Maurice also did a three-month coaching tour of New Zealand, during which he visited every badminton club in the country. “University sport was also a big part of his life,” says Bill. “He was the president of the British Universities’ Badminton Association, which at one time held the largest tournament in the UK.”

Cicely, meanwhile, was also an accomplished tennis player, once winning the Easter Tournament at Tally Ho in Birmingham. Wendy Bill has followed in her mother’s footsteps, playing county tennis for 25 years and being part of Edgbaston Priory’s and Barnt Green’s first team for almost as long. It is through her contacts, and those of the shop’s racquets manager, Andy Hartley, who is one of only two Yonex ‘super coaches’ in the country, that the reputation of Maurice Robinson Sports has spread far and wide in the years since its founder died.

“We have a great network of coaches linked to the shop, which helps people know about us,” says Bill. “What we offer that other sports shops may not is specialist advice such as what type of racquet to use. We quite often have people come in who bought a racquet on the internet but found it wasn’t suitable for them.”

It is this personal service and expert advice that has kept the shop, which employs six staff, ahead of the game, despite the inexorable rise of internet shopping. “One of the things we’re looking to do in the near future is to have a new website, as it’s important to be web-faced these days,” explains Bill. “But I would never want to be just an internet retailer, because I like meeting people and discussing their needs face-to-face.”

That is not to say that the shop hasn’t been through some tough times. As well as having to weather several recessions, increased overheads and a squeezing of profit margins due to internet shopping, a fire that gutted next-door Cash Converters store last March caused extensive damage to the shop’s stock.

“The fire was awful,” remembers Bill. “The road was closed for three days and the smoke damage to our shop was horrendous. There was a thick film of dirt on everything. We had to have a major clean-up and sell the clothing half-price. But the fire brigade were fantastic – they saved our building.”

Happily, business has bounced back and the future is looking rosy. Do major sporting events, such as the Olympics, Wimbledon and the Tour de France bring in a new generation of sports enthusiasts?

Yes and no, says Bill. “You do get a bit of a rush after certain events, especially badminton. After the Yonex All England Open Badminton Championships at the NIA in Birmingham, lots of people come into the shop wanting branded shirts, shoes and racquets as worn by top player Lee Chong Wei. The Olympics, on the other hand, didn’t have much impact. While it was a wonderful experience for London to host the Games in 2012, we didn’t see a corresponding rise in business.”

Bill believes the only way to really get the country up and running in terms of greater sports activity is to provide more, and better, facilities and quality coach training, such as the badminton coaching seminars held at the University of Worcester’s Motion & Performance Centre. “Facilities are the most important thing – and local facilities,” she says. “If you want to get more young people taking up sport, that’s where the money should go. From what I see, the areas that need facilities the most are the ones least likely to get them.”

At least Maurice Robinson Sports will continue to play its part in equipping and advising amateur and professional sports people from across the country. “I am proud to still be running the shop that my father founded, and to be carrying on his legacy,” says Bill. “I like
to think he’d be proud of me too.”

Kings Heath going from strength to strength

The Birmingham suburb of Kings Heath has long been home to a bustling, diverse community of independent retailers and businesses. Today, thanks to its Business Improvement District (BID) status, it is thriving as never before.

Nearly half (47%) of businesses in Kings Heath describe themselves as independents. These 140 outlets include shops selling a wide range of goods, from vintage clothing to garden plants; restaurants, pubs and cafes, estate agents, hair and beauty salons, financial and community services. Just 7% of commercial premises are vacant – considerably lower than the 12% national average. In the past year, more than 15 independent businesses have taken on new premises in the area.

In York Road, just off the High Street, every business is an independent. Maurice Robinson Sports, which opened in 1948, is thought to be the longest-standing independent shop, although the 1904-built Hare and Hounds pub – where UB40 played their first gig, in 1979 – classes itself as an independent.

Kings Heath BID is administered by the Kings Heath Centre Partnership (KHCP). Town centre manager Kate Smart says: “Kings Heath is not only an up and coming area. It has been doing its own thing and doing it remarkably well for decades, as is evident from the longevity of businesses like Maurice Robinson Sports and the unrivalled and enviable success of our retail offering and low percentage of vacant premises.

“My job is to ensure that the businesses, residents and visitors get the most out of Kings Heath, and we are doing everything we can to provide a safe, clean, vibrant environment for people to enjoy. We take every opportunity to shout about how fantastic our local, independent businesses are – and they are just one fraction of the total, exciting melting pot that is Kings Heath.”