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.
The Professional Championship (February 1870) – First Contest
Eventually Roberts agreed to meet Cook for the championship in a match of 1,200 up for a £100 a side, at the St. James Hall, Regent Street. The date set was 11th February 1870.
As Kentfield and Roberts had held the title for almost 50 years between them without ever playing a Championship match, there was great public interest in the announcement. At this time there was no governing body for billiards and several variations to the rules existed between billiard rooms around the country. It was therefore agreed that a committee would be established to draw up a set of rules specifically for the championship. This committee was selected from those deemed most likely to compete for the title and representatives from the three leading billiard table manufacturers Cox & Yemen, Burroughes & Watts and Thurston’s. John Roberts (Champion) took the chair of this committee, the other players being William Cook, Joseph Bennett, John Bennett, and Tom Morris. It was agreed that the table manufacturers would provide the championship trophy and take turns to supply the match table. The committee met at Bennett’s Rooms to draw up articles for the championship and Alfred Bowles & William Dufton were given the task of making preliminary arrangements for the match.
However, Roberts was well aware that the young Cook (he was still only 20 years of age) was currently the best player of the “spot stroke” in the country and to reduce this advantage it was arranged to play on a modified table. Roberts convinced the committee that the truest test of a champion would be a table which required the greatest accuracy in the playing of hazards. Drawing on his experience with the special table developed by Jonathan Kentfield for this very purpose, he proposed that a virtual replica was constructed by Thurston’s for the match. A model was set up for the players to try. Cook made a sequence of 30 spots and gave his approval for the design. However the cut of the pockets was again changed before the match with the result that the spot stroke became virtually impossible. The pockets of this “Championship Table” were 3″ wide instead of the then normal 3 5/8″ and the Billiard Spot would be nearer the top cushion (121/2″ instead of 131/4″) designed to limit Cook’s superiority. The baulk-line was set at 28″ from the bottom cushion and the radius reduced by 11/2″ to 10″. Despite his input to the committee decisions, young Cook evidently did not fully appreciate that the smaller pockets would handicap him to a greater extent than his opponent who did not rely so heavily on this specialist stroke. Conditions were also laid down that the winner must respond to future challenges within two months and any player who held the championship for a continuous period of 5 years would retain the trophy.
Although he was champion, Roberts was not favourite for the match. Cook’s brilliant play in recent months had encouraged the gambling fraternity to back Cook regardless of the type of table to be used. “Bells Life of London” reported “Many considered the result a foregone conclusion for Cook, nevertheless it began at the outset to excite the most lively interest. When the match was announced the odds laid on Cook were 5-2; but after Roberts had subsequently defeated Joseph Bennett at the Prince of Wales Club, with the spot stroke barred, the price fell to 9-4 and 6-4 was accepted in some quarters at the beginning of the week in consequence of Cook having come off second best in more than one of his late exhibition matches.
So brisk was the demand for tickets, of which 500 were initially issued at £1 each, that the players were obliged to engage the larger room at St. James’ Hall. They were thus able to accommodate another 300 and yet from the commencement of the week no tickets were available from advertised sources and enterprising speculators, who bought up two or three dozen with a view of making a quick profit, were able to command exorbitant prices. In fact it no sooner emerged that the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) would witness the match than the tickets, even the back seats, rose immediately in value and seats in the front row were being offered at £5 each.
From 7 o’clock the hall began to fill and soon every seat was occupied with some spectators in the farther seats coming equipped with opera glasses. It was estimated that over 1,000 people had crammed into 800 seat venue. Extraordinary precautions were in place with the entrance to the grand hall being barricaded and police stationed at all the pay stations. The table was in the centre of the vast hall with a cordon of scarlet rope about three yards all around. In one corner was placed a chair which would be the official post for the referee. Interestingly, the referee for this match was Joseph Bennett who would himself become Champion later that same year. Outside the rope the tiers of benches began sloping up to the galleries and constructed to reach up and beyond the ordinary balconies.
The spectators included representatives of all the leading sports with a significant number of bookmakers and general racing fraternity having secured positions immediately surrounding the table. A private box had been allocated to the Prince of Wales at the left hand corner of the chief balcony.
It was common practice in those days for bets to be shouted across the room with odds given and wagers taken not only on the outcome of the match, but often on the result of individual strokes. Indeed, it was by no means unusual to stop an important money match to enable all the bets to be recorded to the satisfaction of the spectators.
Shortly after 8 o’clock the spectators began to grow impatient and calls for a start to the match resulted in the appearance of William Dufton who informed the assembly that the players were only waiting for order and they would make their appearance. He was followed by an official who proceeded to weigh the balls. He managed to keep the crowd quiet as he cleverly managed to spin out this operation for a full ten minutes. However the fascination of watching the perfectly balanced scales raised and lowered eventually gave way to impatience once more and the noise from the hall became louder than ever.
When the players eventually made their appearance at 8.15 pm they were received with enthusiastic cheering. Although both were dressed in black and were without jackets, the portly figure of Roberts’ contrasted very much with Cook whose extreme youth surprised those who had not previously seen him play. Roberts, as usual, was wearing his wide brimmed felt hat.
William Dufton then commenced a brief address in which he announced an interval of a quarter of an hour at the completion of the sixth hundred and gave the assembly some advice on the best means of regaining their seats should they have cause to vacate them. This latter remark caused some unintentional amusement, as with over 200 people standing it was clear to all those present that the chance of regaining a vacated seat would be practically nil.
With at least two thirds of the company smoking, the atmosphere soon became painfully close and oppressive, but with perfect order having been attained with some difficulty, the match started at 8.27 pm.
Shortly after the start the Prince of Wales and his party arrived so quietly that for some time their appearance was unnoticed. The only ladies present were the wives of Cook and Joseph Bennett who were accompanied by several female friends. The young Cook more than once looked up and smiled in confidence at his partner.
The tight pockets of the match table quickly made their effect on the game with both players testing this handicap by attempting reds from the spot. When Cook first gained spot position he was greeted with a round of applause, but he could not fulfill the expectations of his supporters, making only five in succession before breaking down. The Prince of Wales watched this with the greatest interest and there was a general feeling of disappointment when the break came to an end. The red ball needed to be played with the greatest of care or it did not go in. In addition, possibly due to the change in the position of the spot, when the red was made, position for the next stroke was invariably lost. As a result, early play was very close with several small breaks from both players.
Cook’s bearing during the play was reserved and modest, while Roberts performed in his usual jaunty fashion, constantly offering to back himself. Roberts paused early in the match to hand £10 up to Mr. Steel who was seated several rows from the front and had offered Roberts £20-£10. Shortly afterwards one of Cook’s supporters placed £200 to £100 on his man and Steel not relishing this bet too much attempted to lay it off in smaller amounts.
The players were level at about 450 when Roberts got in. With Cook’s ball and the red almost touching, he quietly dribbled them down the table making six or seven very pretty cannons in succession. He followed this with a regular ‘gallery’ stroke, potting the red at tremendous pace, the cue ball striking several cushions before making the cannon. This shot fairly brought the house down for the first time in the match.
The interval was taken at 10.45 pm with Cook holding the advantage 625 -521. During the interval £100-£40 was offered on Cook, but found no takers. It was generally considered that to this point Roberts had played in too off-hand a manner, giving way to a number of indiscreet shots and showing too little respect for his opponent.
With the resumption of play at 11.20pm, they moved along evenly until Cook was 701 to Roberts’ 593. Directly afterwards, Cook with a series of strokes (some of them the most delicate strength) produced a break of 80 points. At the conclusion of this magnificent performance the clapping of hands lasted for two or three minutes, the Prince of Wales joining heartily in the demonstration.
The jaunty air which many though affected Roberts in the early stage of the play had quite disappeared and he now strained every nerve to catch his youthful opponent. With such steadiness did Roberts now play that in spite of a dashing 63 from his opponent, he immediately responded with a break of 62, his best in the match. At 12.50 am the game stood 1,016-899 to Cook, but at this point Roberts turned the game which had run in favour of Cook until this point. He put together breaks of 39, 31 and 41 to take the lead at 1,041-1,037. The excitement at this point knew no bounds, the company being scarcely diminished in numbers and each stroke was loudly applauded, with the betting reduced to 5-4 and evens. Still Cook’s nerve did not fail and while Roberts contributed 7 and played for safety the youngster made 26 and 31 to take a crucial lead 1,132-1,083. Then, starting with a fluke cannon Cook put together an unfinished break of 68, the winning stroke being a losing hazard off the red into the middle pocket.
So it was that at 1.38am and amidst great jubilation from his many supporters, William Cook was proclaimed the billiard champion of England by margin of 117 points. Roberts was bitterly disappointed at his defeat but recovered himself after a little while, receiving much support from his friends who crowded around him to offer their consolations. The Prince of Wales meanwhile, had retired at midnight having expressed the opinion that he would have preferred to see the larger breaks which could be achieved on “ordinary tables”
Cook was awarded with the new championship trophy which had been purchased at the cost of £120. Half a dozen gold enamelled Maltese crosses, at a cost of £5 each were also manufactured, one of which will be given to every holder of the Championship.
Roberts’ son, who also attended the match, had these comments about his fathers defeat “In vain his friends put before him the value of retiring with an unbeaten record. He knew as well as anyone what Cook’s abilities were and could not disguise from himself that it was by no means an easy task. The offer made by Lord Dudley, while the match was in progress, to give my father £1,000 in the event of him winning, rather upset his play for a time and I have little doubt that it defeated its own object by making him too anxious to win. If my father had won this match he would probably have retired. If he had not done so he would only have been putting off the evil day as he must have been defeated within a very short time. After the match he had the intention of trying to regain his title, but his play got worse and with Cook and myself improving daily, he soon saw it would be useless to make the attempt. Had he taken the advice of his friends and retired without playing Cook, he would now, doubtless, be quoted by competent authorities as the greatest billiard player of any time.”
The loss of the Championship marked the effective end of John Roberts career. Although he still played in public for several years and recorded the occasional success, he eventually faded from the scene as he was overtaken by the new wave of younger players.
The Professional Championship (April 1870)
Cook was immediately challenged by Roberts Jnr to a match for the Championship with a friend in the North of England promising to put up the required £100 stake. After an initial scare that his backer would not be able to come up with the money, the match was eventually arranged for 14th April 1870, again at the St. James’ Hall. It was played under the same conditions as the first championship except that the match was reduced to 1,000 up in an attempt to avoid another late finish.
The game was in its early stages when an unusual incident occurred. Roberts was into a break of 22 with the scores standing at 123-122 in his favour when he played for a cannon by gentle strength off the top cushion. Cook thinking that his opponent had not scored walked up to the table. Roberts claimed a cannon and Cook appealed to the referee who asked the marker, who had also been unsighted. As Roberts was standing in front of the referee during the shot it was impossible for him to decide without an appeal to the spectators sitting at the spot end. To this end Cook, urged by some of his supporters, refused to agree, arguing that the game should be restarted or the whole audience questioned on the point. Roberts, who declared that he had scored, refused to do this and the referee proposed a toss of a coin to resolve the matter. The players agreed and Cook winning, followed on with the balls in the position which they were left. Evidently with the intention of gaining nothing from this advantage, he played the balls for safety, which was greatly appreciated by the audience who gave him tremendous applause. The Sportsman Newspaper subsequently took a poll of several impartial witnesses, sitting in the best position for seeing the stroke and they unanimously declared that Roberts had made the cannon.
With the game standing at 714-299 to Roberts, Cook improved his position with a break of 22 but according to the Sportsman Newspaper he “continued to be unfortunate. Either the white found a pocket or one of the balls remained in baulk.” Roberts seeing how things were going took a bet of £100 to £10 from a spectator that he would win by 500 points. But Cook soon after this ran up a break of 53 and Roberts lost his wager. However, Cook manage to score just 522 before Roberts reached game. Exclusive of the interval and the time occupied by the dispute, the match lasted just 3 hours and four minutes. Speaking of Cook the Sportsman said “At the outset he looked haggard as if travelling and too much play had done him no good. When the pinch came and his physical powers were called on, he gave way altogether and only made 100 while Roberts was making 250.”
The Professional Championship (May 1870)
Immediately after his victory, Roberts was challenged by Alfred Bowles and the match took place on 30th May 1870. There was always some doubt as to the ability of Bowles who was generally considered to be 300 in 1,000 inferior to the elder Roberts. The strength of his game was in cannon play and it was probably the small size of the pockets on the championship table which lead him to think he had a chance of winning the match. St. James’s Hall was again the venue, but this time the smaller of the two halls was used. The lack of public interest reflecting anticipation of an easy victory for Roberts. At the outset the betting was 10-1 on the Champion and before the score had reach 300 one spectator unable to secure a bet, offered 20-1 against Bowles, which was immediately taken by Roberts! The match was a pedestrian affair with Roberts taking an early lead and never loosing it. Although the cannon play of Bowles drew much applause, his hazard play was poor and although he improved somewhat after the interval, Roberts seems to loose interest in the contest and in winning by a comfortable margin of 246 points, he did not produce anywhere near his best form. This was reflected in the time taken to complete the match which lasted 4 hours 45 minutes. The best breaks were 57 for Roberts and 47 for Bowles. After this match Bowles seemed to accept that he could not win the championship, for he never challenged again.
The Professional Championship (November 1870)
Roberts was challenged for the title again in 1870. This time by Joseph Bennett and the match was played at St. James’s Hall on 28th November 1870. Prior to his championship challenge, Joseph Bennett had played in a series of matches at the Palais Royal and the standard of play he exhibited gave his backers increased confidence and moreover he showed greater facility at spot stroke striking than he had ever previously shown.
The match was played on a table built for the occasion by Cox & Yemen of Brompton Road which as described as “a beautiful specimen of their handicraft” William Cook officiated as referee and the marker was C. Stanton.
There appeared to be almost as much interest in this match as the first championship between Roberts snr; and William Cook. During the progress of play there was much excitement and an immense amount of money was wagered at all sorts of prices. For some time prior to the match Roberts had been favourite at odds of 5-4, but fine form displayed by Bennett, who had been playing with Cook the previous week on a championship tables at his own rooms, caused him to have many supporters.
Although play was scheduled for a 7.30 pm start, the crowded state of the hall delayed the start until just before 8.00 pm. Play progressed slowly but at the interval Bennett had gradually forged ahead and offers of 7-4 against Roberts found few takers. With the scores standing 718-553 to Bennett, the balls which had broken badly for Roberts throughout the evening, now lay more favourably, and pulling himself together he gradually reduced the gap with his opponent. The supporters of the champion were now in ecstasies and so well set did Roberts appear, that it seemed he would snatch the match out of the fire. But Bennett played coolly and with small breaks reached his ninth hundred 136 points ahead of Roberts. With neither player making any significant contributions from this point, Bennett held his lead eventually winning by 95 points. Major Broadfoot observed that “Bennett with repeated safety misses and double baulks, fairly wore down his opponent.”
After the match Roberts considered that Bennett’s victory was very much in the nature of a fluke and was more due to him having become careless in his play which had deteriorated due to keeping late hours and not taking care of himself generally, than due to the excellence of Bennett’s game. He said that “the strength of Bennett’s game lay in his losing hazard play and though he played what may be described as a splendid mathematical game, he ought not to be classed with those players who have the resource to make a game for themselves when they get into difficulty.” Bennett always regard this win as his greatest achievement and in later life he took out a standing advertisement in the “Sportsman” newspaper which proclaimed him as “The only man living who beat John Roberts for the Championship”
So it was that after 50 years without a match for the championship, 1870 saw four such contests which produced three different champions.
The Professional Championship (January 1871)
Roberts lost no time in challenging Bennett for the championship and the match was once more held at St. James’s Hall on 30th January 1871. Roberts was supremely confident that he would reverse the result of the previous match and this was reflected by the pre-match betting which had him a 6-4 favourite.
The table on this occasion was provided by Burroughes & Watts. Bells Life says “It is one of the most elegant tables we ever saw, treated in decorative gothic manufacture of handsome walnut wood, suitably relieved by ornaments and friezes of light oak, elaborately carved forming a very pleasant combination. The bases of the legs are of walnut, surmounted with richly cut walnut columns and oak niches in which are carved lions supporting shields. The panels are alike varied and full of detail. One of Burroughes & Watts improved illuminated marking boards was used on this occasion. The marker was Mr. C. Stanton.
Bells Life reports the match “The room was very full but not so uncomfortably crowded as on their previous meeting. A great deal of speculation took place on the event, Bennett having many supporters at even money. Notwithstanding that, Roberts had been playing with Cook in Manchester on one of Messrs Orme’s championship tables and had made break of 91 which was the largest break hitherto attained with the small pockets. Bennett who has been unwell for some time, was not up to his usual play, the dash and exquisite manipulation of Roberts almost put him in the shade.”
It was realised shortly after the start that no referee had been appointed and a foul stroke claimed by Roberts was waived in his opponents favour under the circumstances. A well known amateur player was appointed to the office and no further incident occurred to mar the progress of play.
At one point in the match Bennett had his cue knocked out of his hand by a passing waiter just as he was about to make a stroke. Some of Bennett’s backers subsequently asserted that this was done intentionally although it was more probably the result of carelessness.
During to progress of the game Bennett complained that he was playing with a lighter ball than that used by Roberts and it is to be regretted that it was not discovered before the game commenced. Ivory is such a difficult material to deal with that it is almost impossible to avoid such problems. When the balls came to be weighed during the interval, Bennett’s conjecture was found to be correct, there being a discrepancy of 240th part of an ounce. This however, was not considered sufficient to cause a change of balls and the game continued with the original set.
With Bennett trailing 262-173 Bell’s Life report “Roberts whose luck had deserted him for some little time the placed 55 to his account followed by 24 and 26 and presently 33, reaching 401 while Bennett had only gone as far as 199, and offers of £50 to £10 found very few takers.” The game progressed with Roberts gradually drawing further away from Bennett, eventually completing the win 1,000-637 in the relatively fast time of three hours twenty two minutes.
The Professional Championship (May 1871)
It was largely because of the recent poor results by Roberts that Cook started clear favourite when the two met for the championship on 25th May 1871. The venue was again St. James Hall and the match was 1,000 up. The Referee was John Bennett and the marker Mr. T. Hubble.
At the interval Cook was 150 points ahead, but Roberts passed him in the 620’s and the scores remained close thereafter. As with their earlier championship match, there was once again a dispute over a cannon made by Roberts. The referee being unable to decide put the matter to a show of hands from the audience, which resolved the matter in Roberts favour. With the game called at 925-921 to Cook, Roberts took the advantage by establishing a lead of 985-965. At this point he was faced with what seemed to be an easy screw cannon which would leave the balls together and winning a virtual certainty, but he missed the shot and left the balls in perfect position for Cook. This was considered all the more incredible because this type of shot was seen as one of Roberts’ greatest strengths. Amidst scenes of great excitement and encouragement from the capacity audience, Cook proved equal to the occasion and scored the necessary 36 points to land the championship by only 15 points.
The period between 1871-1875 was undoubtedly the zenith of Cook’s career, when he could defeat all comers on any type of table. The strongest part of his game was undoubtedly his delicacy of touch. He was not attracted by the forcing hazards played at “railroad speed” so appreciated by audiences. More than any other player at that time, he seemed to realise the rewards of gently nursing the balls and bringing them together, which he could achieve time after time, with perfect strength.
The Professional Championship (November 1871)
Cook next defended the championship against Joseph Bennett at the St. James’ Hall, Regent Street, on 21st November 1871. It was on the same day that Cook’s wife gave birth to their first son. Attendance was greater than at any championship match apart from the first, when Cook had played Roberts Sen. Large placards had been posted around the building announcing that no betting was to take place. Consequently the traditional shouting of bets across the room was absent. In a slow match, the scores remained close for much of the game, but towards the end Cook forged what seemed to be a conclusive lead of 919-839.
Bennett, whose game had been deteriorating to this point, then rallied and amongst much excitement made a break of 93, which was the highest seen in the Championship to that date. However, Cook replied with a 40 to retake the lead and with an unfinished break of 38, took the championship be a margin of 58 points.
The Professional Championship (March 1872)
On 4th March 1872, Cook played Roberts once more for the Championship. The match again took place at St. James’ Hall, Regent Street and drew a particularly large attendance. John Bennett was the referee and the marker Mr. W. Hunt of Southsea.
Roberts recalls he was “dead out of form on that occasion, while Cook was in very good trim.” Roberts best break was 47, but Cook made the first ever Championship century with a break of 116. When this break stood at 84 Cook brought the balls together near the left hand top pocket and played a sequence of twelve nursery cannons, finishing with an eight shot and a double baulk. When the interval was called at 9.35pm, Cook was leading 501-385. Cook maintained his lead to the end, winning by 201 points. The effect of the championship table on the use of the spot stroke may be gauged by the fact that Cook in winning this match made only one spot hazard!
The Professional Championship (February 1874)
On 24th February 1874 Cook again played Roberts for the Championship, at St. James’ Hall, the pair having been regular adversaries in exhibition matches since the time of the previous contest. The referee was Mr. T. Cook who spotted the balls in addition to officiating and the marker was Mr. D. Ingarfield. At the very start of proceedings Cook made a break of 121, commencing with a difficult cannon and breaking down with an attempted screw back into baulk for another cannon. He gained spot position twice during the break, but only attempted to hold the position for two or three shots on each occasion. This break set a new record on a championship table. Amidst great applause Cook then went further ahead with breaks of 82 and 40, the scores being called at 244-18 in favour of Cook. Although Roberts responded with some fine play which was loudly applauded by his supporters, by the interval Cook held a 537-397 lead. Cook had the best of the running after the interval and completed his victory by 216 points, just before 11.00pm.
The Professional Championship (May 1875)
The next challenge to Cook’s championship occurred on 24th May 1875 and was again made by Roberts. On this occasion the match was played at the Criterion and was as usual 1,000 up, the referee being Harry Evans and the marker D. Ingarfield. Obviously impressed with the arrangements, one journalist reported that the seats for spectators were covered with cushions “for the first time in recollection”.
Roberts started the match well, taking an early lead and at the interval the score stood at 518-375 in his favour. At this point bets were laid of 7-4 on Roberts, although the takers would soon experience some worrying moments. After the interval Cook opened up with a 52, but Roberts immediately responded with 42. Cook’s cannon play then came to prominence and with several beaks in the 30’s and 40’s he took the lead for the first time. There was tremendous cheering from Cook’s supporters when the score was announced at 582-596. However, Cook was having difficulty in containing Roberts who was performing some excellent hazard play and was trailing 844-811 when breaks of 30, 39 and 40 took Roberts well clear. Cook was unable to close the gap on this arch-rival, losing the match by a margin of 163 points. Up to this point Cook was widely regarded by public opinion to be a far better player than Roberts on both “championship” and “ordinary” tables, being the holder of the highest breaks on both types of table. However, this loss to Roberts marked the turning point in both their careers as Roberts would confirm his supremacy and forge clear of his closest rival and all other players.
The Professional Championship (December 1875)
This period had seen a general a decline in public interest for exhibition matches. However, this was not evident when Roberts played Cook once more for the championship on 20th December 1875. The room at St. James’ Hall was packed throughout the match although the presence of the Prince of Wales would certainly have helped box office sales.
There was much complaint from the press due to the absence of reserved seating and the poor lighting. The reporter from Bells Life commented on the conditions of the match by apologising that he was unable to give a description of the “beautiful strokes made by each player, but the room was so dark, the only lights being over the table, that we were not able to write a line, more especially in the ‘black seats’ usually afforded to the press on these occasions.” Many reporters did not manage to gain access to the match at all and with those that did unable to take detailed notes, many newspapers failed to give any account of the match.
The game itself was very closely fought with the lead changing hands regularly. Cook was in front 505-478 at the interval but Roberts with a fine break of 51 eventually took the score to 936-817 in his favour and appeared secure. Cook however was not finished and with the aid of a 38 break pulled up to 961-865, But this was to be his last score as Roberts finished the game at his next visit, winning by 135 points at 11.20pm. Roberts best break was 85 and Cook’s 54 .
The following year Cook wanted to play again for the championship, but as Roberts was intending to leave on a tour of Australia on 6th April 1876, he declined the challenge. Roberts having failed to meet the original condition that the winner must respond a challenge within two months, Cook assumed the title of champion.
The Professional Championship (May 1877)
Prior to his return Roberts had issued a challenge to Cook who had assumed the championship in his absence. Roberts arrived back in England on 6th April 1877 having made about £7,000 from his Australian trip. Although Roberts had beaten Cook in the last two championships, Cook was well fancied, having recently made a break of 156, the highest ever seen on a championship table, during a match for £400 against Billy Moss (Manchester).
The match was played on 28th May 1877 at the Gaiety Restaurant. The room was generally considered too small to meet the needs of the occasion and the heat was so intense that it was uncomfortable for spectators and players alike. Due to Roberts refusal to allow the usual facilities to the press, the match did not receive the coverage which it may normally have expected.
In the match, Roberts took an immediate lead, with the best of the running and some observers remaking that Cook was not looking himself. However, Cook put together a fine 59 break, including a series of nursery cannons and several brilliant hazards, and when the score was announced at “204 all” it was greeted with a loud cheer. When Roberts was leading 515-496 Cook proposed an interval due to the oppressive heat. Roberts whose turn it was to play, did not agree and went on to make a break of 35. When Cook took the table and was also into a small break Roberts himself suggested an hour’s rest. Cook consented without finishing his break and went into the interval at 10.20pm with the score standing at 621-501 to Roberts. Some thought this gamesmanship on the part of Roberts for after the interval Cook never had a look-in as Roberts extended his lead with a break of 118 which was the highest ever made in the championship and this put the game beyond Cook’s reach. Roberts won the match by 221 point at 11.55pm. Bell’s Life reported “the popularity of Cook is so great that if good wishes could have ensured success, the result of the contest would have been different. Cook played nervously and though at time played brilliantly, he seemed to be labouring under the knowledge that he had more than met his match.”
Towards the end of 1877 Roberts left for an extended tour of India and Australia. With the tacit approval of Roberts, Cook claimed the championship by issuing a challenge on 2nd May 1878 and receiving no response within the statutory two months, the title and the cup was passed to him. However, in August of that year Cook left to join Roberts on his tour, and resigned the title, returning the cup to the Billiard table manufacturers who had donated it. The title was held in abeyance until another match could be arranged.
Cook returned to England on 26th January 1880 from Australia, having travelled there from India and separating from Roberts. The tour had not proved to be a financial success as he was unable to find any Australian opponent capable of giving him a worthy match even when conceding 600 in 1,000. As a result, most of his exhibitions were against Yorkshireman Louis Kilkenny who had also been on tour in that country.
John Roberts returned to England in May 1880 and Joseph Bennett immediately issued a challenge to play for the Championship. However, Roberts withdrew his claim to the title in favour of Cook and arrangements were made for a match between these two later in the year.
The Professional Championship (November 1880)
The match for the Championship between Cook and Joseph Bennett was arranged for St. James’ Hall on 8th November 1880. The stakes were £200 and the match, as usual, 1,000 up. It was to be one of the most exciting and closest championships ever seen.
Bennett took an early lead and aided by an opening fluke added a break of 77 to establish a lead of 242-127. At this point there was some dispute over the balls which were changed, but Bennett continued to increase his lead, aided by some general good fortune. At the interval the match stood 508-386 in Bennett’s favour. Bennett maintained his lead to 795-698 the luck remaining with Bennett and against Cook. At this point however, Cook made an excellent break of 107 which took him in front for the first time and with the scores standing at 938-864 to Cook, the betting was odds on for Cook and the match seemed to all present to be effectively over. Bennett however, not to be deterred, continued the match with impressive calmness and resolution. He first made 15 leaving the balls so safe that Cook was forced to play a miss. Then, aided by a fluke, made 37 followed by several small breaks which took the score to 993-941 in his favour. Cook appeared to have a chance but when he had made just 6, the balls were left touching and had to be spotted. This was too much for Cook who added only a few more before Bennett made the points he needed, so regaining the title he held for a mere 2 months some 10 years earlier. The match was completed in 4 hrs 8 minutes, which was almost exactly the same time as Cook and Billy Mitchell had taken to play 2,000 up on an Ordinary table the previous month.
The day after his championship match, Cook played an exhibition 1,000 up against Roberts on the same table at St. James’ Hall. In the course of the game he made a break of 165 which at that time was the highest ever recorded on a championship table. Shortly after this Cook and Roberts left on a tour of India billing themselves as “Ex-Champions”.
The Professional Championship (January 1881)
On 12th January 1881 at St. James Hall a Championship contested was begun between Bennett and Tom Taylor. The match did not command much public attention, for although Taylor was recognised as a capable player he was not regarded in the same class as Bennett who had regularly been conceding 50 points in 500 to the same player in handicap tournaments for several years.
The match was played on a Burroughes & Watts table and started 20 minutes after the advertised time of 7.00pm. Bennett began by displaying the same good fortune that had assisted him to take the championship from Cook. In trying for a cannon he put his opponents ball down and after potting the red gave a miss in baulk, shortly afterwards fluking a white loser. But Bennett did not capitalise on his fortune and the scores remained level to the first 100. However, a break of 125 by Bennett, a new record for the championship, opened a gap of 375-129. At this point the balls were changed at the request of Taylor and the improvement was immediate with his next two scores being 79 and 40. Taylor continued to improve and took the lead at the interval, which was taken at 10.00pm. Play resumed after only 20 minutes in an attempt to compensate for the slowness of the play and the players remained level for some time until Taylor, starting with a lucky 5 shot, rattled up a 53 break followed by a 23, 37 and 16, and looked like going away from Bennett with the scores standing at 678-554 in his favour. The play continued in a very cautious manner and some of the spectators were evidently getting tired of the constant misses and double baulks. At length an opening came for Bennett who drew within 77 of his opponent with the score at 703-626. Further breaks of 70 and 45 Bennett took the lead 743-728.
Licensed premises at that time were obliged to close at 12.30am and with this time fast approaching and the careful tactics of both players being unaffected, it soon became apparent that the match would not be finished. Time was called with the scores at 976-882 to Bennett with Taylor in play on 26 with the balls well placed. The referee, J. H. Smith then arranged for the match to continue at 3.00pm and on resumption Taylor only managed to add 2 points to his break. Bennett then tried for a cannon, missed, but fluked his own ball into the centre pocket and scored the remaining 22 points to take the match 1,000-910.
Shorter’s aborted challenge
Fred Shorter then challenged Bennett for the title and the match was arranged to be played on 13th April 1881 at the St. James Hall. Shorter had made a deposit of £10 but failed to make good his final stake money and so at the last minute forfeited the match. However, as expenses had to be met Bennett offered to play Shorter in a non-championship match, offering 100 points start in 1,000 up with the gate money being split between the players (as was normal at that time). The match was played on the same night and venue proposed for the Championship and Shorter actually won by 193 points although the match was exceptionally tedious with neither player showing good form.
Cook reclaims the title
At this time Delabois Richards looked as though he would be the next challenger for Bennett’s title. Richards was displaying sustained good form, typified by a defeat of Billy Mitchell in a level match of 1,000 up on a championship table during May 1881. Unfortunately, before arrangements for a championship encounter could be concluded, Bennett suffered a severe carriage accident causing him to be disabled for a considerable time. Bennett was very fond of riding and driving, in both of which he was an adept, although that did not prevent his being thrown out of a trap. He broke his arm in two places and never really got sound again. Indeed, he always believed that this led up to the paralysis, which eventually caused his death many years later. Upon his return to England in September 1881, Cook challenged Bennett for the Championship, but Bennett felt that he was insufficiently recovered from his accident and the title passed by default to Cook.
John Roberts asserts his superiority – Cook remains champion
January 1882 saw a significant turning point when John Roberts, for the first time, conceded Cook points in a match of 5,000 up at the Palais Royal. Allowing his opponent 500 start he won easily by 1,658 points for the significant sum of £1,000. This match clearly established Roberts as the leading “all-in” player of the time although some speculation remained that Cook could still mount an effective challenge at the “spot barred” game, or on a championship table. Roberts thereafter called himself “Champion of the World” and although Cook then challenged Roberts to play for the Championship shortly after this defeat, Roberts wrote to the Sportsman newspaper stating that he had no intention of ever again playing for the cup.
The formation of the Billiard Association
Sunday 1st February 1885: Following the publishing of a critique on the existing rules by Alf Burnett, a journalist for The Sportsman, he and Peter Jennings contacted the professional players to see if they could be brought together with a view to revising the current rules. On 1st February 1885 a meeting was called at the offices of the Sportsman newspaper to discuss the formalising of a common set of rules for the game. It was attended by most of the leading players and trade representatives with Mr. A. H. Collis-Orme chairing the meeting. Here it was proposed by the Chairman that an Association be formed.
At this stage there was still no though of forming an Association and it was only after a suggestion by Mr. Collis-Orme that this was agreed. Hardly underestimating their own importance the full title given to the association was “The Billiard Association of Great Britain and Ireland, India and the Colonies”.
A group of players were charged with producing a set of rules which would become the standard for the game. The players involved were John Roberts Jnr (Chairman) John Roberts Sen; William Cook; Joseph Bennett; Fred Bennett; W. J. Peall; Billy Mitchell; John North; Tom Taylor; Joe Sala and George Collins. The Billiard Association, as it was known, met week by week in a room set aside for them by Messrs. Bertram & Roberts in the dining gallery at the Royal Aquarium. The task was eventually completed on 21st September 1885 and the new rules were published shortly afterwards
Sydenham Dixon, then on the staff of The Sportsman newspaper, which was the prime mover behind the formation of the Billiard Association. His proprietors backed him, his many friends helped and in this the first example of billiards government was set in motion. From the first however, this thinly disguised “newspaper control” was opposed in quarters that mattered.
The predominant influence still maintained over the new association by the Newspaper would soon result in an irrevocable split with John Roberts, who would refuse to recognise the authority of the Association for the rest of his life. However, in its earliest days, Roberts comforted by his prominent position in re-drafting the rules now decided to play for the Championship again. He issued a challenge to Cook who had been allowed to hold the title for over three years. As Cook failed to respond within the stipulated time the title and trophy was passed to Roberts in February 1885.
The Billiard Association Championship (April 1885)
Apparently regretting letting the trophy slip so easily from his grasp, Cook immediately issued his own challenge. This was immediately accepted and a match was arranged for the end of March 1885.
The format of the championship had been changed under the new Billiard Association rules to 3,000 up played over three days and the venue was set at the Argyll Billiard Hall, (previously known as the Palais Royal) Argyll Street, London from 30th March-1st April 1885.
Roberts had been suffering from an attack of Malaria which had prevented him from touching a cue for a week prior to the match and he was reduced to hobbling around the table during the match itself. Indeed, at one point it seemed as though him might forfeit rather than appear in such discomfort.
Roberts’ lack of practice was particularly evident, but Cook played no better. Both men continually failed at the simplest of shots, and the spectators must have wondered that they were not watching an amateur game. Cook was the first to make a significant break with an effort of 84, breaking down at a difficult red winner. This seemed to inspire Roberts who replied immediately with a 67 break and worked steadily to overhaul Cook finishing the first day 1,000-971. Play on the second day started dreadfully slowly again. But the Roberts started to display some form. A 50 break was marred by his missing a simple losing hazard into the middle, but on his opponent failing to score, he made a break of 129, which was a championship record. Cook’s best on the second day was a 67 break, but at the close he was still right behind Roberts at 2,001-1,929. On the final day Cook moved in front 2,570-2,531 with three breaks over 50, the closeness of the game compensating to some extent for the generally low standard of play and the final day was very well-attended. Roberts however, responded with his second century of the match, a break of 123, and drew steadily ahead, with Cook having little run, until he was at 2,905-2,723. Although Cook made a valiant effort to recover, he was eventually beaten by a margin of 92 points.
The Billiard Association Championship (June 1885)
Immediately following the conclusion of the Championship match with Cook, Bennett, who now felt sufficiently recovered from his accident, challenged Roberts for the championship and the match of 3,000 up was arranged at the Royal Aquarium, Westminster for 1st-4th June 1885.
Bennett, who was still not in the best of health, did not start the match well, and in contrast to his some of his previous championship matches had little luck. Each time he seemed about to make a break the balls ran awkwardly and the first day finished 751-182 to Roberts. The second day started no better for Bennett, with Roberts first visit producing a break of 109, finishing with a double baulk. This was followed by an 83 break and further breaks of 121 and 127 unfinished concluded the second day’s play with Bennett trailing 1,500-422. The third day saw Roberts take his unfinished break to 155, a new championship record. Bennett however played much better and contributed several breaks over 60 including a best of 92. Roberts, however, in fine form himself, finished the session with a break of 147 bringing his lead to 2,259-1,029. With Roberts’ position appearing secure, the final day of the match was not well attended. The pattern of the match was duly followed with Roberts making a best break of 82 while Bennett only managed a 28 break. Roberts retaining the title with absurd ease, recording a final score of 3,000-1,360. Another Championship record set by Roberts in this match was a sequence of sixteen spot strokes.
This was to be the last match played for the Billiard Association Championship until the rules were changed in 1892. As Roberts was not called upon again to make a defence within the mandatory five year period, the trophy became his property in February 1890. This also saw the end of the Championship table, which was not used for matches again, except by special agreement.
By this time Roberts had discarded the “all-in” game, first brought to prominence by his father and played “spot-barred” in all but a few matches after this date becoming the acknowledged master of this type of game, while W. J. Peall, who claimed to be “Champion of Ordinary Billiards”, and Billy Mitchell, became acknowledged masters at the unrestricted “all-in” game.
Unofficial “All-in” Championship (October 1887)
In early October 1887, W. J. Peall and Billy Mitchell played a match at the Royal Aquarium which was billed as the “All-in Championship” although it carried no official recognition as a championship match. However, these two players were unquestionably the greatest exponents on the “spot-stroke”, Peall having set a new World record with a break of 2,413 just a few months previously.
Mitchell appeared to be heading for defeat as he came to the final day of the 15,000 up match almost 2,000 points behind Peall. But with almost consecutive breaks of 349; 297; 265; 141; 288; 644; 801; 349; 912 and 53 unfinished, made an aggregate of 4,427 to win the match by 1,267 points. Mitchell had earlier recorded a break of 1,117 against breaks by Peall of 1,159 and 1,086.
These performances show the stark contrast between the “all-in” matches being played on ordinary tables at this time and the contests on the “Championship” table, which by the nature of the high scoring involved were invariably fought over tens of thousands of points.
Unofficial “All-in” Championship (March 1888)
Mitchell and Peall contested their second unofficial “All-in Championship” at the Royal Aquarium between 12th-17th March 1888. Peall started favourite having recorded a break of 1,314 against Fred White in the week prior to the match.
He found no difficulty repeating the feat against Mitchell winning by no less than 8,247 points, though Mitchell was playing well. His best break was 2,031, containing 633 consecutive spot-strokes, a record then, in its way. He also made breaks of 1,498, 1,203, 1,192, 1,125, 957, 956, 928, and other huge runs.
George Wright & Co – Championship of the World Tournament (January 1889)
With the Billiard Association Championship remaining dormant, Messrs. Geo. Wright and Company, the well known firm of table makers, introduced and promoted a “Championship of the World Tournament,” and presented a Silver Cup, value £100, to be played for in heats of 1,000 up, “all-in,” the cup to become the property of the first winner of three tournaments, and in addition the winner of each tournament to receive a gold medal.
This was commenced at the Royal Aquarium on January 14th, the following players taking part:-W. J. Peall, Hugh McNeil, Tom Taylor, John Dowland, Billy Mitchell, Fred White, George Collins, and Fred Bennett. The tournament eventually resolved itself into a fight between Mitchell and Peall when they met in their particular heat. Mitchell, however, proved to be in extraordinary form, for soon after the start of the game, with his score standing at 13, he secured position for spot play and ran right out with a splendid unfinished break of 987 (319 spots), leaving the scores: Mitchell. 1,000 Peall, 20; and he finally won the first tournament and became “Spot Stroke Champion” on January 28th, 1889.
George Wright & Co – Championship of the World Tournament (February 1890)
The second Championship Tournament was won by W. J. Peall on February 25th, 1890, at the Royal Aquarium, the following players taking part in heats of 1,250 up:-Billy Mitchell, W. J. Peall. John Dowland Fred White, George Collins. Hugh McNeil, Harry Coles, and Fred Bennett. The issue once more was decided in the heat between Peall and Mitchell, the former made breaks of 416 (137 spots) and 531 (176 spots) to win 1,250-121.
George Wright & Co – Championship of the World Tournament (February 1891)
The third and final “Championship of the World” tournament promoted by George Wright & Co Championship was played at the Royal Aquarium on May 30th, 1891, and won once more by W. J. Peall. Four players only competed on this occasion-W. J. Peall, Billy Mitchell, John Dowland, and Charles Dawson-in heats of 2,500, up.
Mitchell and Peall played off, and in the first half of the game Mitchell only scored 78 points. Peall made breaks of 773 (256 spots), 390 (7, 28, and 90 spots), and 655 unfinished (214 spots); Mitchell made a break of 650 (213 spots). Scores: Peall, 2,500; Mitchell, 776.
The Billiard Association Billiard Championship (1892)
The Billiard Association, recognised that this situation regarding the “spot-barred” and “all-in” games could not easily be resolved and at their meeting on 28th April 1891 decided to take action. Seeking to reconcile both parties, they decided to stage both a “spot-barred” and “all-in” championship, both for professional and amateur competition. The first of these contests being scheduled for the following season. In addition, the Billiard Association abolished the “championship” table with its 3″ pockets and adopted the dimensions of an ordinary table with pocket openings of 3 5/8″ as the “Standard” for all future championship matches.
But Roberts sabotaged their plans by declining to play in either of these championships and in April 1891 left for a tour of South Africa and Australia. As a result, and despite the best plans of the Billiard Association, the new competitions became meaningless in the view of the general public.
Not to be deterred by the absence of Roberts, the Billiard Association went ahead with their Championship matches. The first to be played was the “All-in” Championship which was officially called the “Billiard Championship” had eight entrants including, W. J. Peall, Billy Mitchell and Charles Dawson. The competition was staged at Orme & Sons Showrooms, Soho Square and was concluded on 9th April 1892.
The Championship cups were given by the proprietors of The Sporting Life, The Sportsman, and two or three of the billiard-table manufacturers. These gentlemen met, and various silversmith’s submitted designs for cups to cost about £100. Messrs. Carrington’s, of Regent Street, offered them a cup which was not a new one. It appears that it was originally given as a £250 prize for something connected with stag-hunting, and the jewellers had bought it back. It was such a bargain that it was purchased at once and allocated for the Billiards Championship For both championships, cups would become the property of the player winning three times in succession, or six times in all, or holding the title for three consecutive years.
A condition of the championship was that a new cloth should be fitted each day, as it was considered that tracks worn in the nap from repeated potting from the spot, made the stroke easier. The heats were 5,000 up with Peall drawn to play Charles Dawson in the first round with Mitchell receiving a bye. In the event Peall disposed of both Dawson and Mitchell with ease, the scores being 5,000-1,699 against Dawson and 5,000-1,755 against Mitchell. In this latter match Peall made a break of 2,099 unfinished. Peall’s supremacy with the spot stroke remained unchallenged over the next three years and the championship trophy became his property.
The Billiard Association Spot-barred Championship (1892)
The “Spot-barred” championship attracted five entrants and was played at Thurston’s Showrooms in the Strand on 25th April 1892. Heats were 4,000 up. The entrants, each staking £100, were Billy Mitchell, W. J. Peall, John North, William Cook and Harry Coles.
Peall was defeated by 140 points in the first round by Harry Coles, who turned in one of the best performances of his career. Billy Mitchell defeated William Cook and John North received a bye. North then defeated Coles and met Mitchell in the deciding tie. Mitchell won by the comfortable margin of 3,000-2,697 to take the title of “Spot-barred” Champion. [19 p.97/145][1 p.136][06b p.7]
The Billiard Association Spot-barred Championship (189e)
On 25th February 1893, Mitchell was required to defend his Billiard Association “Spot-barred” championship against John North at the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly. Mitchell managed to retain his title very easily with breaks of 236; 231 and 212. North’s best break was 190 and the final score 9,000-6,525 to Mitchell.
The Billiard Association Spot-barred Championship (1894)
Mitchell was challenged for his Billiard Association “Spot-barred” Championship title by Charles Dawson and the match took place at the National Sporting Club, Covent Garden, on 13th January 1894. Mitchell retained his title over a week’s play with the final score being 9,000-8,163. Mitchell made twenty seven breaks over 100, with the highest being 306, and Dawson had nineteen century plus breaks with a best of 257. Mitchell not only took the stake of £100, but also took possession of the trophy having won it three times in a row.
Mitchell’s Championship cup was later pawned to Tommy Mander, who kept the Green Dragon in Fleet Street, and years afterwards it became a challenge trophy for the Press Billiard Handicap and the last winner was Mr. J. H. Warland of The Sportsman. It was left in charge of the firm who gave the use of the hall the competition was played in. They got into difficulties and the Official Receiver came in and captured the cup, which has not been heard of since.
The Billiard Association Championship (1899)
In new rules which came into operation on 1st October 1898 the Billiards Association finally accepted overwhelming public opinion and barred the push stroke. The rules now stipulated that “If the striker push his ball, or strike it more than once, he cannot score, such stroke to be a foul”. The Spot Stroke was also effectively banned by the adoption of a rule which stated “After being pocketed from the billiard spot twice in consecutive strokes by the same player, and not in conjunction with any other score, it shall be placed on the centre spot”. The rule was something of a compromise over the most used “spot-barred” condition previously applied on a voluntary basis. This allowed only one pot with the red returned to its spot and the stipulation that a different scoring stroke be made before another pot red.
The player most adversely affected by the new rules was W. J. Peall. His invincibility with the spot stroke vanished overnight when the Billiards Association introduced their “spot barred” rule. But Peall never complained, having previously recognised the damage caused to spectator interest and typically putting the best interests of the game ahead of his own. In fact Peal supported the change and voted for the new rule.
Soon after issuing the revised rules, the Billiard Association announced an open championship. The terms of the competition were that the game by 9,000 up, played on a “Standard” table, each competitor to stake £20. The winner would receive three quarters of the stakes, a gold medal from the Association and £100 per annum so long as he held the championship. The runner-up would take one quarter of the stakes and the gate money (after deducting expenses) would be shared equally between the finalists.
In the first contest Billy Mitchell, John North and Charles Dawson were the only entrants, but Mitchell later withdrew leaving North and Dawson to fight for the title. The match took place at the Gaiety Restaurant, Strand from 9th-14th January 1899 and Dawson proved an easy winner by 4,285 points.
Our grateful thanks go to Billiards Historian Peter Ainsworth for allowing us to reproduce this work.