The formation of the Billiards 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.