Henry Upton Alcock
The rise to prominence of Billiards in 19th century Australian life has been widely acknowledged as due significantly to one man: Henry Upton Alcock, the ‘father of the Australian Billiards Trade’.
Alcock was born in Dublin in 1823. Having learnt the billiard trade in London, he arrived in Melbourne in April 1853, and set up in business in Fitzroy with four workmen. Alcock managed to gradually build this tiny enterprise until it became one of Melbourne’s most substantial businesses in the latter period of the 19th century with branches in Sydney, Adelaide, Brisbane, Perth, and Wellington, New Zealand, and an agency in Tasmania. He developed a reputation for the quality of Alcock billiard tables throughout the English-speaking world.
Alcock commenced billiard table manufacture with two aims in mind: to make a really excellent table; and to use local materials and products wherever possible. Alcock saw the value and beauty of Australian timbers: blackwood, mountain ash, oak, maple and tulip wood at a time when most people thought that high quality furniture could only be constructed out of the traditional walnut or mahogany from Europe.
By 1877 Alcock’s factory in Russell Street was capable of producing tables at the rate of one every four hours and by 1883 there were 140 staff on the company’s payroll. Alcocks carried out virtually all of the processes of billiard table making under the one roof at Russell Street.
Timber was brought in as logs, milled and seasoned. Table frames were built, legs turned, slates cut to size, dowelled, bolted and finished. Cushions were made, billiard balls turned out of ivory and cues and other accessories were crafted.
In 1864 the then ‘Champion Billiards Player of the World’, John Roberts Senior, arrived in Melbourne. He said of the Alcock table used during matches at the Albion Hotel “I never played on a better table in my life”. Roberts returned to London taking an Alcock table with him for his billiard room. That table became a prototype for the ‘John Roberts’ table, one of which takes pride of place at Victoria’s Government House in Melbourne.
In 1867 during the visit to the Colonies by Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh (second son of Queen Victoria) Alcocks was commissioned by the Government of Victoria to prepare a table as a gift, since the Prince was fond of billiards. Alcocks developed a distinctive table which became the prototype of the famous ‘Duke of Edinburgh’ model table, still today the prized possession of a fortunate few billiards enthusiasts.
Henry Upton Alcock died in Melbourne in 1912 aged nearly 90. He left behind thousands of billiard tables and a legacy of excellence which continues to this day.
John Roberts Junior
In 1876 Alcocks sponsored the Australian tour of World Billiards Champion John Roberts Junior (1847-1919), part of a highly lucrative world tour from which Roberts made around seven thousand pounds (approximately $5 million in today’s money). A group of Roberts’ Melbourne friends commissioned Vienna-born master silversmith Edward Fischer to create a highly ornate gold trophy cup to be presented to Roberts. The trophy, now held by the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, features a winged angel holding a billiard cue atop a stylised Alcock Exhibition Prize billiard table. The trophy also features billiard balls, wreaths, triangles for the game of pyramids and more billiard cues.
John Roberts Junior made several more tours of Australia, and on his final tour in 1911 he met with the pioneering Melbourne billiards player Miss Ruby Roberts. Ruby Roberts was the niece of the Australian Professional Billiards Champion Charles Memmott. So impressed was John Roberts with the play of Miss Roberts that he took her on tour with him to the Far East and Europe where she gave numerous exhibitions. In Adelaide against a young Walter Lindrum Ruby Roberts made breaks of 109, 107, and 90 with many further breaks over 50. Her highest break in practice was 234.
Melbourne’s Early Champions
The first recognised Australian Billiards Champion was the Englishman, Harry Evans, who had settled in Melbourne. Evans won a magnificent Exhibition Prize billiard table provided by Alcock & Co, and later founded a billiard table manufacturing company which is still trading today. Later champions included Charles Memmott, who in England recorded 413 consecutive screw-back red pots into the same pocket, Frank Smith and Joseph Byrne.
The first player to really make a mark was George Gray, born in the Melbourne suburb of Albert Park in 1892. Gray was a relentless exponent of the red ball game. On his first tour of England in 1910-11, then aged only 19, George Gray scored 23 breaks over 1000 with a highest of 2196. In an era when there was no limitation on hazards, in one match he made 289 consecutive middle pocket in-offs. But Gray, who was used to playing with composition balls, was far less effective using ivory balls, and for that and contractual reasons he never seriously challenged for the world championship.
Fred Lindrum III
Around the same time as George Gray another outstanding talent emerged, Frederick William Lindrum III, born at South Melbourne in 1888. Fred Lindrum III (1888-1958) was a member of the famous Lindrum family of billiards prodigies which included his grandfather Friedrich Wilhelm Von Lindrum (1828-1880), his father Frederick William Lindrum II (1865-1943), his younger brother Walter Albert Lindrum (1898-1960), and his nephew Horace Norman Lindrum (born Morrell) (1912-1974). Fred Lindrum III was coached at billiards by his father Frederick William Lindrum Il in Perth, where he helped his father to manage a billiard room and won the Australian title in Sydney in 1908 by defeating the incumbent Charles Memmott. The year 1911 saw the peak of his career when in a match against the visiting English professional Tom Reece he made breaks of 830, 840 and 1239 – the last an Australian record, beating Memmott’s all-in record of 1238 made in 1892 by one point. Fred was the most elegant of players and a great showman, but after a disappointing English tour in 1911-12 he never again looked a world-class competitor and was soon eclipsed by his brother Walter.
Volumes have been written about Walter Lindrum, the greatest billiards player the world has ever seen. Much of it has been written by Australians, who might not be completely objective in their estimation of Lindrum. But perhaps the most telling tributes came from England. Willie Smith, who held the world record break of 2743 before Lindrum broke it three times, wrote: ‘Lindrum is the super cannon player to an extent which makes the limit of 35 cannons ball-to-ball look ridiculous. The cushion is a fourth ball to Lindrum. He is never in danger of losing position through having to play on to a cushion first. He makes this contact as easy as playing direct on to the ball. With his all-round skill, he can beat us all practically as he likes’.
After Lindrum’s death, Joe Davis said: “Walter Lindrum was the greatest billiards player there has ever been or is ever likely to be”. In 2012, the editor of Snooker Scene and doyen of billiards and snooker commentators Clive Everton wrote: ‘Lindrum was, simply, a genius who conquered his sport more thoroughly than any other player has conquered any other’.
Lindrum’s Australian biographer Andrew Ricketts in Walter Lindrum – Billiards Phenomenon drew parallels between Don Bradman and Walter Lindrum. Both Australians emerged as superstars on their first visits to England, Lindrum with his record break of 3262 in December 1929, and Bradman with his record innings of 334 at Headingley in July 1930. Neither could be described as perfect stylists – the celebrated cricket writer RC Robertson-Glasgow said of Bradman: ‘About his batting there was no style for style’s sake … his aim was the making of runs, and he made them in staggering and ceaseless profusion’. Lindrum scored at billiards with equal profusion – his remarkable record includes thousand breaks in five consecutive sessions (1516, 1412, 1054, 1875, and 1052) against Clark McConachy: successive breaks of 2835, 451, 1796, and 2583 against Tom Newman, and his world record break of 4137 against Joe Davis. Robertson-Glasgow again: ‘Like his fellow countryman Walter Lindrum in billiards, he (Bradman) sought and achieved a numerical standard not previously contemplated’. Neville Cardus, the greatest of cricket writers, wrote in his 1930 essay on Bradman: ‘And now that a Bradman has come to us, capable of 300 runs in a single day of a Test match, some of us are calling him a Lindrum of cricket!’
The 1934 World Billiards Championship in Melbourne
After defeating Joe Davis to win the World Championship for the first time in London in 1933, Walter Lindrum caused great controversy in the billiards world by announcing his intention to defend his title in his native country.
Predictable outrage in England was stymied by the fact that Lindrum was undoubtedly the best player, and that he had brought the Championship trophy with him back to Australia. Lindrum’s 1934 title defence was organised by the Australian Amateur Billiards Council to coincide with Melbourne’s Centenary celebrations. The Championship was staged at the Victorian Railways Institute Ballroom at Flinders Street Station in October 1934 and opened by the Australian Prime Minister Joseph Lyons at the invitation of Captain AM Treacy OBE, the President of the Amateur Billiards Council.
Lindrum, having defeated New Zealand’s Clark McConachy in a heat, met Joe Davis in a match of two weeks’ duration. Davis led for the first week, and the lead alternated during the first three days of the second week before Lindrum, helped by a 1475 break, hit the front and was not headed again, winning 23,553 to 22,678.
Davis returned to England and turned his attention to snooker. Lindrum remained in Australia and retained the title of World Billiards Champion, unchallenged, until he relinquished the title in 1950. Billiards languished, killed off by the excellence of its leading practitioner and surpassed in popularity by snooker which now holds the premier position in cue sports held for so long by billiards.
Horace Lindrum was another famous member of the legendary Lindrum family. After growing up in Sydney, Horace Lindrum moved to Melbourne during his teenage years where he lived in the Lindrum family household with his grandfather Frederick and uncles Fred and Walter. Horace became the Australian professional snooker champion at 19 and was runner-up to Joe Davis in the World Snooker Championship three times before finally capturing the championship in 1952 by defeating Clark McConachy.
Horace Lindrum made over 1000 century snooker breaks in public and over a dozen thousand breaks at billiards, including breaks of 1129, 1086, and 1431 in the 1934 Australian Professional Billiards Championship.
And so, three members of the one family – Fred, Walter, and Horace – are members of that most exclusive group, the Thousand Break Club.
Melbourne also has a proud tradition of leading amateur billiard players. Between 1936 and 1970, the Australian Amateur Billiards Championship was won either by Western Australia’s four-time World Amateur Billiards Champion Bob Marshall, or by a Victorian. Foremost among the Victorians were Tom Cleary, five-time Australian Champion and the 1954 World Amateur Billiards Champion, who made a world record break of 682 in that event and whose highest four-hour aggregate was 3185, and six-time Australian Champion Jim Long, who was runner-up in the World Amateur Billiards Championship in 1960 and made a 472 break in the 1967 Australian Championship. In the 1930s when in their twenties, Cleary and Long often studied Fred, Walter or Horace Lindrum at close quarters as they practised at Lindrum’s Billiard Parlour in Flinders Lane Melbourne. What an opportunity! Both Cleary and Long, great rivals on the table and great friends off it, became leading masters of the floating white top of the table game, and between them they won 11 Australian and 33 Victorian Championships.
In more recent times leading Melbourne players have been eight-time Australian Champion George Ganim Junior, who made a 423 break in the 1979 Australian Championship and twice made breaks over 400 in World Championships; four time Australian Champion David Collins; and dual Australian Champion and 2002 World Amateur Snooker Champion Steve Mifsud, who made a 575 break in the 2019 Australian National Billiards Championship.
Australian triple World Billiards Champion Robby Foldvari was born in Melbourne in 1960. Robby became the youngest winner of the Victorian and Australian Billiards Championships aged 22 in 1982 and the following year set a world record break for amateur billiards of 615 under new rules. Around this time Robby came under the tutelage of the well-known New Zealander Murt O’Donoghue who lived in Sydney, 900 miles from Melbourne.
In the days before the internet and email a large part of Robby’s tuition was conducted by mail – Robby would draw a diagram of a position, send the diagram to Murt, and several days later receive an annotated reply with the recommended shot to play.
Robby won the 1986 World Professional Billiards Championship in England, becoming only the second Australian after Walter Lindrum to win that title. Further world championships followed in the World Matchplay Billiards Championship in 1997 and the IBSF World Billiards Championship in 1998. During this period Robby also competed on the professional snooker tour becoming the only player in the modern era to win a professional tournament in both billiards and snooker.
Robby is the Resident Professional at the RACV Club in Melbourne and has come out of retirement to contest this year’s Championship at his home club.
Thanks to David Pitt for sharing this article. As featured in the 2019 World Championship programme, published by the Australian Billiards and Snooker Council.