Professional players in the early part of the 19th century tended to be employed as Markers in public billiard rooms or subscription rooms (private clubs). Alternatively, and perhaps more commonly, they would be “hustlers” who frequented these rooms looking for money matches with gullible patrons. As a result billiard rooms were generally looked upon as gambling dens and not to be frequented by the better class of person, although there is plenty of evidence that subscription rooms in particular were attended by people of all ranks, including the nobility.
As the only way to make a decent living at billiards was to play money matches, most “professional” players tried to disguise their skill rather than display it, so as not to frighten off a prospective victim or to have the handicap of conceding start to a lesser player. Many players would additionally use a pseudonym in order to reduce their exposure to publicity, for to become known as a good player could result in an end to their livelihood. These players have often been recorded in history by these pseudonyms, with their real identity forever a mystery.
The first professional player to achieve universal recognition for his outstanding ability was John Carr. John, generally known as “Jack” Carr began life poor if not honest, and as a youth filled the humble capacity of junior “boots” in the Grand Pump Room Hotel, Bath then much frequented by the bucks and beau’s of the period, not to mention the sharps. Going round early one morning to collect boots, Carr heard a heated conversation going on in the apartments of the well-known Mr. Beau Brummell. That celebrated gentleman was then going pretty strongly, it being before he “took the knock,” and his argument was with no less a personage than His Royal Highness the Prince Regent. They had just finished playing hazard with Charles James Fox, the great statesman-gambler, and Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and the discussion was on Beau Brummell’s claim that he would find a marker in Brighton able to beat all the markers in Bath, “one down the other to come on”, for 1,000 guineas. Carr heard no more, but this was enough for him to realise the great possibilities of a billiard marker. The following day should have been his day off, but, to the amazement of the hotel marker, he made a voluntary offer to remain in and help in cue-tipping. The following week he even more generously helped to mark the games, and two months later he helped the marker out with his boxes and the day afterwards helped himself to the marker’s job.
Carr was later employed as a marker for Mr. John Bartley, who was proprietor of the Upper Rooms in Bath. When business was slack Bartley and Carr used to amuse themselves by placing the red ball on the centre spot and attempting to screw into one of the middle pockets without bringing the red into baulk. It should be remembered that with the solid list cushions and course cloth, the table which was much slower than its modern counterpart. In addition, the leather tip for cues had only recently been introduced to England and players were only starting to come to terms with the possibilities it afforded.
For a long time Mr. Bartley was the only person who could achieve this feat and at last he confided to Carr that it was accomplished by striking the cue ball on its side. This well chronicled story is generally regarded as evidence that John Bartley discovered “side”. However, articles appearing in 1806 indicate that these effects were known at that time. This was well before the invention of the leather tip when chalk was applied to the plain wooden tip. No doubt the effects achieved by Bartley would have been more dramatic with a good tip, but it would explain why Bartley was so reluctant to make any claim to be the inventor of the effects which Carr would exploit so successfully.
Carr recognised its potential immediately and once the “secret” had been revealed to him he proceeded to develop the skill, rapidly overtaking the ability of his instructor. He regularly mystified the patrons of the billiard rooms with the performance of apparently impossible, shots with utmost certainty, time after time. To disguise his technique and maintain his secret, Carr would always aim his cue at the centre of the cue ball, only changing direction at the instant prior to contact.
Seeing an opportunity for easy money, Carr informed the patrons that the stokes could only be accomplished by use of his special twisting chalk, which he would supply as a powder in small pill boxes, for half-a-crown. If this had been the first time chalk was used then perhaps the purchase could be considered a wise investment, but the pill boxes were filled by grinding the sticks of white chalk which were freely available in Mr. Bartley’s billiard rooms. In fact the use of chalk to prevent miscues had been common knowledge for some time and billiard room proprietors chose to supply sticks of chalk rather than have players grind their cue tips into corners of the ceiling or walls. Mr. E. White, a contemporary of Carr, in referring to the use of un-tipped cues at that time, recommends that the point of the wood should be made rough with a file or “rubbed over with chalk”. This single venture of Carr was perhaps the greatest testament to his skill as a salesman and gives an insight into his entrepreneurial flair.
Unfortunately for Carr, in addition to his talent for making money, he had an equal ability to lose it just as readily through an incurable addiction to gambling and in particular to a fondness for a game of “Hazard”. After a particularly bad run of luck, Carr decided that a change of scenery would be appropriate and embarked on a trip to Spain. The Spanish game at this time was essentially the same as that played in England with the exception that five wooden pegs were also placed on the table and additional points were scored for knocking these over. Carr’s business instinct was well founded, as he beat all comers in the Spanish billiard halls. He made a tour of all the principal towns, amazing all who saw his exhibition of the “side twist”. However, Spain was even more amply furnished with billiard rooms than England, and although he managed to amass a great sum of money, he lost it as quickly as it was acquired.
He was eventually required to return to England in rather abrupt circumstances arriving in Portsmouth almost penniless. Despite his evident appearance of poverty, a visit to a local billiard room managed to find an opponent from whom he was reputed to have won the sum of £70. Carr proceeded to use some of the money to equip himself in a suit of clothes more befitting a gentleman and returned to the same billiard rooms the next day. His gullible opponent of the previous day was there and not recognising Carr in his new clothes, promptly challenged the stranger to a game, with of course the same result. After the game the gentleman expressed the opinion that he was truly unfortunate to have met two such good players on successive days. Carr then enlightened him of his mistake, thanked him for his money, and bid him good day.
In 1825 news came to England that in Cork there was a player named Jerry Flanagan who had accomplished the unprecedented feat of pocketing the red ball ten times in succession.
Some young bloods brought him to England and on 17th February 1825 Carr was matched to play best of five games, 100 up, against Flanagan who used the pseudonym of “The Cork Marker” for 75 guineas at the Four Nations Hotel in the Opera Colonnade, London. Carr won the first three games, 100-92; 100-49 and 100-75 to win the match. In the second of these games he astonished all present by making a run of 22 consecutive spot strokes. The feat was considered exceptional, although the editor of Annals of Sporting and Fancy Gazette which reported the match, makes comment that he had seen Carr previously make a run of 35 consecutive hazards.
“The ‘Cork-Marker’ made good play at starting, the first game being most beautifully contested and eventually won by Carr; his opponent, however, being within eight points of the 100. Certainly Carr was never in finer play; the execution was brilliant, and he made short work of the match, winning the first three games, and rendering further contests on the part of the ‘Cork Marker’ needless. The room was crowded by the billiard sporting world, and at the conclusion of the match Captain S-, Carr’s backer, challenged the metropolitan table, on behalf of his protégé for 100 guineas. In the second game Carr made 22 hazards off the red ball on the spot successively. Twenty-two! Indeed! We have seen him make 35 in succession off the red ball-Annals of Sporting and Fancy Gazette ”
An offer was immediately made by his backers to meet all comers for 100 guineas a side. Carr is regarded by many to have established himself as the first professional champion with this victory. There is no evidence that Carr was universally superior to all other players, apart from the willingness of his backers to support him. But perhaps this in itself is enough to justify the claim.
Edwin “Jonathan” Kentfield
However, Carr’s tenure of the “championship title” did not last very long. Shortly after he issued his challenge in 1825, it was accepted by Edwin “Jonathan” Kentfield. But Carr was fêted and treated altogether too kindly and on the eve of a match against Kentfield, he died. In the absence of any other challengers, Kentfield assumed the title of Champion which he would retain unchallenged for almost 24 years.
[It is known that Kentfield had played at least one game against Carr previously at Brighton, defeating him 100-99, as this is mentioned, without further context, in Mardon’s book “Billiards” published in 1844]
Edwin Kentfield, better known as Jonathan, was born in Yorkshire although he spent most of his playing career in Brighton. He was a man of refined taste, very fond of gardening and other country pursuits. Generally not the type of person that would be expected to frequent the confines of a billiard room.
During his time as Champion, Kentfield was proprietor of Subscription Rooms in Manchester Street, Brighton and spent a great deal of his time developing ideas for improving the equipment and tables used for billiards. In this he was supported by John Thurston who operated his own firm of cabinet makers who had switched to the exclusive manufacture of billiard room furniture in 1814. Indeed, this appears to have been Kentfield’s main contribution to the game, as his record as a player, barely merits his retention of the Championship title for so long. However, John Thurston had a high regard for Kentfield’s advice which he turned to great commercial advantage, developing his company into the leading English manufacturer of billiard tables and accessories. The association of Kentfield and Thurston was very important to the improvement of playing conditions over the following years and Kentfield’s subscription rooms were always equipped with the latest innovations.
[Mardon suggests that Kentfield’s Room had only one table]
Kentfield was adept at the spot stroke, but did not generally approve of its use or consider it to be true billiards. His preference was the in-off game played at gentle strength. To restrict the spot stroke he developed a table with Thurston which had very small pocket openings and it was on this table that Kentfield always practised. One of the patrons of his Subscription Rooms described it as follows “The table is extremely difficult. It is perhaps the fastest in England and has pockets of the smallest dimensions. The spot for the red ball is barely 12″ from the cushion, the baulk circle only 18″ in diameter and the baulk line only 22″ from the bottom cushion”.
It is difficult to gauge the ability of Kentfield compared to the Champions who succeeded him, as the equipment and playing conditions, even in Kentfield’s “state of the art” billiard rooms, were much inferior to those found later in the century. Games also tended to be of much shorter duration, commonly being no more than 24 up. This gave little scope for Kentfield to demonstrate his ability to compile large breaks, although it is recorded that he would regularly complete a game of 24 up at a single visit.
But if conditions were bad for Kentfield they must have been many times worse in most public rooms at the time, where a game of 24 up would have been considered a true test of a player’s skill. There is however a record of Kentfield having made a break of 196 and a run of 57 “spots”, but it can safely be assumed that these breaks were not made on his special table with the 31/4″ pockets, and additionally, there is no record of him having played against any significant opponents.
Regardless of any comparison of his ability to later players, there is no doubt that he was held in the greatest respect during the period of his “reign” as champion. During this time he helped to introduce the slate bed, rubber cushions, finer bed-cloth, and an increase in the size of balls from 1 7/8″ to 2″. All of which were sure to have appeared in his Rooms in the 1830’s.
John Roberts Senior
While Kentfield was consolidating his position as Champion in Brighton, a young Lancashire player called John Roberts began to make a name for himself.
Born in Manchester he spent some time in Oldham, then while still in his teens he moved to Glasgow around 1844 and it was here that the first stories arose of his big-money matches. He narrowly lost a match against professional player John Fleming, who was also a well known billiard table maker from Edinburgh. The match was 500 up for £100, which was a very substantial sum in those days. With the scores at 485 all, Fleming fluked a six shot after missing the cannon he actually tried for, and subsequently ran to game.
In 1845 John Roberts moved to Manchester where he became Marker of the Billiard Room at the Union Club, where he stayed for the next seven years. It was here that he was taught the “spot stroke” by Mr. Lee Birch who was regarded as one of the best amateurs of his day, and who had seen the stroke played in London during a visit to the capital. Roberts realised that an enormous advantage could be gained by any player who could master it and devoted many hours of practice exclusively to this stroke. It was to be Roberts skill with the “spot stroke” which would raise his game above all other professionals at that time.
Continuing with his money matches, Roberts defeated Tom Broughton in a match of 500 up for £100 in Broughton’s home town of Leeds. Although a second encounter had been arranged for a venue in Huddersfield, Broughton preferred to forfeit his guarantee of £10 rather than risk so large a sum again.
Kentfield’s long and tranquil reign ended in 1849 when Roberts arrived at his Subscription Rooms from Manchester with £100 note and the intention to test himself against the best player in England.
Roberts own account of events, given in his book published 20 years after this meeting, was as follows “I remember perfectly my first meeting with Kentfield. It was in the beginning of 1849 at Brighton where I went on purpose to see him play. On entering his rooms I met John Pook, who was at that time the manager. After sending up my name, Kentfield came in and inquired my business. I told him that I was admitted to be the finest player in Lancashire, whence I had come to find out if he could show me anything. He inquired if I wanted a lesson. I told him I did not and asked him how many in 100 would be a fair allowance from a player on his own table to a stranger, provided they were of equal skill. He replied 15. I told him 20 would be nearer the mark, but I was content to try at evens. He said ‘if you play me it must be for some money’ on which I pulled out a £100 note and told him I would play ten games of 100 up for £10 a game. He laughed and said I was rather hasty and eventually we knocked the balls about and then commenced a friendly 100 up on level terms. He had the best of the breaks and won by 40.
In the second game I pulled off a few North Country shots and won by 30, but he secured the third. Then he put down his cue and asked if I was satisfied he could beat me. I said ‘No, on the contrary, if you can’t play better than this I can give you 20 in 100 easily.’ He replied ‘Well, if you want to play me you must put down a good stake.’ I asked how much and he answered £1,000. I said ‘do you mean £1,000 a side ?’ Upon which he told me he thought I was a straightforward fellow and he would see what could be done. He then sent Pook back to me and I explained to him how things stood. He replied ‘You may as well go back to Lancashire, you won’t get a match on with the Governor’. I tried afterwards to arrange terms but he never would meet me.”
Although it may appear bold for Roberts to express his superiority having lost two games in three, it is likely that the match had been played on Kentfield’s “special” table with 31/4″ pockets and Roberts’ opinions were based on his chances playing on an “ordinary” table. In the event, Roberts’ challenge was never met by Kentfield who had been undisputed champion for almost 30 years. He obviously felt that he had much to lose from the challenge and preferred to be known as the “Retired Champion”. So in 1849 John Roberts assumed the title of Professional Champion and began a dynasty which would reach into the following century.
At this time it was doubtful that the title of Champion would have provided Roberts with any significant financial advantages as he would have found it difficult to obtain matches for money and anyone he did meet would have expected to receive a sizeable start. Probably as a means to capitalise on his title, Roberts promoted a series of exhibition matches with other leading players. This also had the effect of increasing the popularity of the game as such events were practically unknown before his initiative.
William Cook was one of a group of young players who were coming to the fore at the end of the 1860s. He was for some time a pupil of John Roberts and during December 1868 was taken on a tour of the Lancashire area with Roberts and his son, playing a series of exhibition matches. It was around this time that Cook developed a friendship and intense rivalry with the son of the Champion, John Roberts Jnr; which was to last throughout their playing careers.
Within 12 months Cook had improved to such an extent that he scarcely play two games of 1,000 up without making a break in excess of 300. As a result, his challenge for the title in the Autumn of 1869 became inevitable. Roberts took some time in responding to the challenge and it was known that some of his friends tried to convince him that he had nothing to gain from the match and should retire undefeated.
As Roberts contemplated his response, Cook continued to demonstrate exceptional form. On 26th October 1869 he increased the record break with 361 (112 spots) against John Roberts Jnr at Manchester. In another match against Roberts while in Manchester he made breaks of 329; 243 (78 spots) and 311 (99 spots). At this time Cook was playing so much better than the younger Roberts that he would beat him three games out of four.
To complete the year Cook extended his record break to 394 (112 spots) in a match against John Roberts Jnr at the Maypole Hotel in Nottingham on 28th December 1869.
Our grateful thanks go to Billiards Historian Peter Ainsworth for allowing us to reproduce this work.