English School 19th, Century
Children Playing Billiards
Children Playing Billiards
oil on canvas
165.10 x 205.74 cm. (65 x 81 in. )


Modern billiards really developed from the turn of the 19th century. To a great extent, this was brought about by improvements in facilities and equipment.

The first development emerged from the wholesale adoption of the cue. Although some players had been using the cue well before this time, the aim had been to strike one's own ball at dead centre as had occurred with the mace. Where a player put spin on the ball by failing to hit it at dead centre, he was regarded as making an error. However, early in the 19th Century players began to put spin on the ball in a controlled manner which led to great changes in the game. One of the first techniques for controlled spin was to strike the ball below the centre giving a reverse spin to the ball. This was called the low stroke. Experimentation also started with strokes which promoted the ball rolling forward after striking the opponent's ball (the high stroke). The high oblique stroke was also used (it seems somewhat similar to a "massé shot") which allowed the ball to leap and the player could thus force his ball over a nearby ball. Several players claimed to have invented these techniques. One of the most famous was a French infantry captain, Mingaud, who, in 1807, introduced the leather tip on the cue to give it additional gripping power and to promote the use of spin. (It is said that Mingaud developed techniques of controlled spin while playing billiards in prison. His dedication was such that at the end of his sentence he requested further time in prison to allow him to develop his techniques further.) Soon afterwards chalk began to be used to increase the traction between the point of the cue and the ball, and methodical use of horizontal spin was developed. A marker in a billiard room in Bath, John Carr, was credited with the invention of the "side stroke" which became known as "English". Carr became "England's champion billiardist" and explained his prowess as due to a special brand of "twisting chalk" which he sold to other players for considerable sums of money. 

The rise of the cue as the striking implement, the advent of the leather tip to the cue and the appearance of billiard cue chalk to increase the friction on the cue tip, meant that the game of billiards underwent revolutionary change.

Such change in the game in turn led players to place further demands on their billiards equipment: improvements which had to be developed by the billiards industry.

John Thurston of London was responsible for major improvements in the functioning of the billiard table itself. This in turn led to further changes in the standard to which the game could be played. In 1799 John Thurston established "The House of Thurston" as a billiard table and general cabinet making firm. From 1814 he concentrated exclusively on making billiard and bagatelle tables and billiards furniture. In co-operation with the player "Jonathan" Kentfield, Thurston expended great effort on improving the billiard table.

Thurston first focussed his attention upon the bed of the table. As indicated above, until this time most table beds had been of wooden construction, although a few had been made using marble. Around 1826 Thurston began experimenting with the use of slate for the table bed. Slate was suitable as it was heavy and therefore helped make the table solid but it was also a material which could be worked relatively simply to produce a smooth surface. By use of slate Thurston achieved a table bed which would not warp, sag or bow provided the underlying frame supported it adequately. Slate was produced generally in four or five pieces for a full size table each doweled together and ground with precision. By 1834 Thurston was offering for sale his "Imperial Petrosian Billiard Table". It was an immediate success; by 1840, in England at least, billiard tables with slate beds had largely superseded those with beds made of wood. By the 1850s billiard tables with slate beds were being constructed in America by Michael Phelan and in Victoria, Australia, by Henry Alcock. Slate beds were adopted generally a little later in France.

Next Thurston turned his attention to the cushions of the billiard table. In 1835 he constructed a set of cushions using India rubber. This rubber was made in sheets, and cut into strips which were then glued to the main cushion rail in layers just as the list had been. However, unlike the slate bed, rubber cushions were not immediately acclaimed by players. These cushions had greater and more even resilience, but the angle of response was somewhat different from that which had occurred with list cushions. These rubber cushions were also affected by climate; they tended to lose elasticity in cold weather. To counteract this problem, players had to use metal "cushion warmers" which were filled with hot water and placed alongside the striking surface of the cushion for a period before a session of play.

By 1845 through continued experimentation Thurston patented a cushion made from "vulcanized" rubber. This cushion provided more accurate angles of reflection and was much less affected by changes in the weather. The problems with rubber cushions were generally solved (although some further modifications occurred later in the century). Yet in North America rubber cushions were not adopted until the 1850s nor in France until the 1860s.

During the 1850s in North America, Michael Phelan and his associates began making a significantly different American style of billiard table. The cushions were lower than previously and the pocket openings became "sharply cornered" in contrast to the gradual curvature of the English cushion. Over time, Phelan became recognized as "the Father of American Pocket Billiards".

Billiard tables had been covered in a woollen material for several centuries (possibly as early as 1500). Charles Cotton (1674) commented "the finer and more free from knots the better it is". However, as skills improved and with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, a truly fine woollen billiard cloth was made in quantities which meant that it was available at reasonable cost, with a nap having a distinct influence on the travel path of a slow ball.

The next great development was change to the balls. As the 19th century wore on the demand for ivory for balls increased markedly. Records show that in 1890 approximately 750 tons of ivory for making balls came into England via London alone. It was said that at its peak usage some 12,000 elephants were slaughtered each year to supply England with billiard balls. Ivory balls became expensive; and people began to feel a moral repulsion about such slaughter. 

In 1868 John Wesley Hyatt of New York began making balls largely out of cellulose nitrate. This ball was the first commercially successful synthetic plastic which he called "celluloid". In 1869 Hyatt patented this composition and began marketing his "Bonzoline" ball. By 1900 a similar ball was being made in England under the name "Crystalate". These balls could be produced with more equal weights and were not subject to weather changes. However, acceptance by "top" players was very slow. Crystalate balls were not used for the English amateur championships until 1926 and the professional championships until 1929.

Finally, the changes achieved in billiard table lighting during the 19th century were dramatic. During the early 1800s tables were lit by candles, but to avoid wax falling on the table drip trays were necessary. These trays tended to markedly reduce the amount of light. Candle light was replaced by oil lamps, but a tray was still essential to prevent drips of oil from damaging the cloth on the bed of the table. By the 1860s gas lighting was available and this led to radical changes in player performance. (Electric lighting of billiard tables was not predominant until the 20th century.)

During the 19th century, billiards achieved a huge following, particularly in England. Famous owners of billiards tables during the period included King George IV (1820-1830), King William IV (1830-1837), Queen Victoria (1867-1901) - who had billiard tables both at Buckingham Palace and Osborne House – and the Prince of Wales. The Duke of Wellington, victor of Waterloo in 1815, had a billiard table. Thurston exported many tables during the 19th century including one for the use of Napoleon during his exile at St Helena (and another for the Garrison of English soldiers guarding him). A number of new English table manufacturers emerged including Thomas Padmore in Birmingham, (1830); Burroughs & Watts in London (1836). And the game spread due to colonization. Billiards became popular among some of the native rulers in India, in South Africa, Australia, the South Pacific, etc. Billiards was also popular, although more of the French style, in Italy, Spain, Holland, Austria, Germany and Russia.

In North America the game continued to grow in popularity. By 1850 in New York there were 50 to 60 billiard rooms. In 1859 there were a half a dozen billiard parlors in San Francisco. By 1860 it was claimed that there were billiard tables in every State of the American Union. Phelan-Collender's factory was producing an average of approximately 100 tables at any one time.

In 1845 John Brunswick commenced operations. His firm later joined with the Phelan-Collender Group which finally became known as the Brunswick Corporation in 1960.

Attesting to its popularity throughout the 19th century, the game of billiards was often referred to by prominent novelists including Jane Austin in "Mansfield Park", Charles Dickens in "Domby and Son", and William Makepeace Thackeray in "Vanity Fair". Of course, late in the century Mark Twain, the American novelist, was intensely devoted to the game.

One feature of the growing popularity of the game in the 19th century was the emergence of high performing players who became well-known identities. Only a very few of these can be mentioned here.

The first player recognized as the "English Champion" was John Carr of Bath. However, in 1824 when a deciding match for the champion's title was arranged with Edwin (Jonathan) Kentfield, he failed to appear. Kentfield then became known as "the first player in the world". He remained so until 1849 when John Roberts challenged Kentfield. Kentfield failed to arrive for a proposed match and Roberts then claimed the title of "first player in the world" for himself.

In 1870 the first official English championship was played between John Roberts and William Cook. This match was regarded as of such importance that it was attended by the then Prince of Wales. Cook took the title from John Roberts. Some five years later the son of John Roberts, known as John Roberts, Junior, took the title from William Cook and was regarded as the foremost billiard player in the world virtually until his retirement in 1909.

At the end of the 19th century, and after many years of debate, in 1892 the first official, standard billiard table, as determined by the Billiards Association and Control Council of England and Ireland, was made by Thurston & Co.

By this time, billiards had travelled from its crude beginning as a game out of doors to a pastime extolled as a symbol of civilized living and with the prestige of a science.

Yet another development in the 19th century was the emergence of the game of snooker. During the later part of this period two games were played on billiard tables in addition to billiards itself: pyramids and life pool. During 1875 at Jubblepore Military Station, in India, Neville Chamberlain, then a young subaltern, began the introduction of life pool balls into the game of pyramids. A set of formal rules for this new game was established at Ootacamund, India, in 1882. The game spread rapidly throughout Indian military stations.