Billy Mitchell

PAST MASTERS No. 10 - November 1983

W Mitchell Professional Billiard player

There were a surprisingly large number of Professional Players earning their living at Billiards during the last quarter of the 19th Century, in fact the names of 35 players are listed by Dawson in his book "Practical Billiards" published in 1904, and a little research in other publications would undoubtedly produce more names. Before moving into the 20th Century however, I have thought it would be interesting to research the careers of a selected number of players who never actually "made it" to the top. So far in these articles covering the period to the end of the 19th Century, we have recorded highlights in the careers of all who achieved the title of "Champion", plus the two "Runners Up". It is probable that most of the other players of this period will be unknown to the present day public, and so in order to decide which of them should be included in the "Past Masters" Series, I have decided to research the careers of those players who were members of the Billiards Association Committee when it was originally formed at a meeting held at the offices of the "Sportsman" on 1st February 1885 when the first officially accepted rules were drawn up - on the basis that they must have been well known and skilful players in their day in order to be accepted as a member of this Committee.

Thus, this month's Past Master is William Mitchell (known to his friends as Billy). Another "Northerner" who was for a time known as the "Sheffielder", although he was in fact born on 13th October 1854 at Berkinlee in Derbyshire which is some 12 miles from Sheffield.

Like many other professional players he commenced playing at an early age, being only 13 when he was employed as a Marker at the Angel Hotel in Sheffield, where he then had plenty of opportunity for practice. Owned by a Mr Bradley where he became such a skilful player that Mr Bradley began to arrange money matches for him and at that time he became known as "Bradley's Boy", so it was that at 15 years of age he was matched against another young player - C. Hilton of York in a game of 300 up for a price of £10 (quite a large sum in 1870) which he won easily by 150 points. He then played in a number of similar "Money Matches", the next being against W. Wilson of Sheffield for £25 a side. Wilson, who received 400 points start in 1,000 up won some and he lost some. Playing against Trimbrell, one of the "Minor" Professionals during the Autumn Race Week at Manchester in 1876 he accepted 300 point start in 1,000 for a £100 a side and won by 492 points.

In 1871 he played an exhibition game against the then Champion, W. Cook, receiving 500 start in 1,000 up losing by only 42 points.

In 1878 he published a Challenge in the "Sportsman" offering to play J. North on receipt of 100 points start, or any of the other professional players except Cook, who would concede him 300 points start in games of 1,000 up for stakes of £100 or £200 a side. Clearly at this date he must have considered himself to be good enough to climb the professional ladder.

In 1879 he made a great impression when on his first appearance in London, he played in an American tournament at the Royal Aquarium, receiving 120 start in heats of 500 up. He won six consecutive games, losing only one game in this event, so winning the first prize and thus coming very much to the notice of the public. He also won first prize in another Tournament played at the "Barnard Castle" during December of the same year.

Mitchell practised the "Spot" stroke until he could play it to perfection and as a result he made a number of very large breaks. His first big break being 522 unfinished , including 171 "Spots" at the Royal Aquarium on 16th December 1879 whilst playing Joseph Benett, (who you will remember was the Champion in 1880 and 1881).

On being requested to continue the break, he added another 22 spots, taking the break to 588. Similarly, in January of the following year (1880) at the "New Circus" Sheffield, in a game of 1,000 up playing level against Joseph Benett, he ran out with a break of 679 unfinished (224 spots). He continued to play and added another 16 "spots". Clearly Mitchell was now amongst the top rank of players, although he never reached a Championship Final.

From now on he was considered as one of the great cue men of his time and always attracted a "full house". Dawson described him as …."An excellent all round player with great power of cue"….

"Spot" stroke play was admired at this time because of the large breaks thereby achieved, although this was later on to destroy spectator interest, and as a result was ultimately barred.

Mitchell was the first player to make a 1,000 break in public, whilst playing against W.J. Peall - another great spot stroke player - by making a break of 1,055 (including 350 spots) on 5th October 1882 at the "Black Horse" Hotel, Rathbone Place, London.

A few years later in 1887 Mitchell achieved a most remarkable result whilst playing against Peall when, in a match of 15,000 up, it looked as if Peall was the runaway victor, but on the last day of the match, Mitchell scored 4427 against Peall's 1,267 winning the match comfortably by over 1,000 points.

At this time relying on "spots" he made more 1,000 breaks than any other player listed as follows:- 1055 points on 5th October 1882; 1839 points on 5th October 1883 (613 spots); 1620 points on 3rd November 1885; 1117 points on 6th November 1887; 1310 points on 18th December 1888; 1011 points on 21st December 1888; 1180 points on 9th December 1890.

However, Mitchell was evidently skilful enough to adjust his game according to the Competition Rules in force, as he won the Billiards Association "Spot Barred" Championship outright and shortly afterwards, in a tournament promoted by John Roberts at the Egyptian Hall, during January 1899 in which 14 other leading players took part, he receiving175 start in games of 600 up (Roberts being the scratch player). He won 11 games out of 13 played.

To Mitchell's credit in an article published in the "Billiard Review" dated the 1st October 1895 entitled "The Odious Push Stroke" Mitchell made out the case against this stroke which laid the foundation for the change in the rules. He explained that in playing the "Push" the cue does not generally leave the ball until it has pushed onto the second object ball, and so made the Cannon. He expressed regret that his suggestion had not received earlier support when he was a member of the original Committee which established the rules in 1885, saying there was more reason to bar the push stroke than the spot stroke.

During January of 1889 George Wright & Co, who were very well known Billiard Table Manufactures in London promoted a new "Championship of the World Tournament" and presented a Silver Sup valued at £100 - the cup to become the property of the player who won three Tournaments - each winner also to receive a Gold Medal. Eight players entered the first Tournament which commenced at the Royal Aquarium on 14th January, it developed into a Contest between Mitchell and Peall. In the final with Mitchell on 13 points he secured position for spot play and ran out with a break of 987 - leaving Peall on 20! However as will be related in a future article Peall completely reversed the results in a similar manner in the next two Tournaments.

There is some evidence that Mitchell "enjoyed a drink" as in the Billiard Association official magazine entitled "The World of Billiards" dated the 16th January 1901 the Editor severely admonishes him for "presenting himself at 2.30 pm in a totally unfit stat to play"…The report says he was so drunk that any moderate amateur could have easily beaten him. He was not allowed to take any further part in this American Tournament at the Gaiety Restaurant and Mr M Inman was brought in to take his place for the rest of the week, however, in another article published in "The World of Billiards" dated the 30th October 1901, under the title "Knights of the Cue", Mitchell is described as … "Like John Roberts, wearing a beard, but his expression is not so threatening - it is an auburn beard. He is Tall, good humoured and Philosophic and his face shines with energy"…

Once again we now come to a blank period in the records as by 1905 both the Billiards Review and the "World of Billiards" had ceased publication. There was an effort to relaunch Billiard Magazines called "The New World of Billiards" around 1909 and the "Billiard Monthly" which lasted from 1910 to the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, but there is no mention of Mitchell or his achievements.

The latest information on him would seem to be the rather sad news contained in a full page article published in the "Billiard Player", dated July 1923, which confirms the details of his career which we have just now recorded but also gives brief details of a successful visit to South Africa with Dawson, Harverson and Weiss in 1907, and on a return visit in 1910 he made South African record break of 497. He evidently toured in South Africa for several years and was still there in 1914, which probably explains the lack of news and reports at home. In Johannesburg in 1918, he was knocked down by a tramcar, and his death was reported - however, after lying unconscious for a long time, he ultimately made a good recovery and returned to the United Kingdom, but the report records that …"Since he has been back in the Old Country fortune has not often smiled on him"…

Now at nearly 70 years of age (the report is dated 1923) he was perilously near having to accept poor law relief, and Inman is reported to have had the intention of opening a "benefit fund" for him, but nothing came of the matter, meanwhile in Mitchell's own words, he was "living from hand to mouth".

Mitchell signature on Thurston Standard Billiards Table

The picture of the letter from the Billiard Association of Great Britain & Ireland signed by the leading players shows W. Mitchell's signature.

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