John Roberts Senior

Past Masters No.2 - Ist published august 1982

 The elder John Roberts was born in Liverpool about the year 1815 and evidently began to play billiards at the early age of 9 years, at which time he was not tall enough to reach the table properly. It is recorded that he gained his first experience by playing on an early table with wooden bed and list cushions made by Gillow, a well known cabinet maker who had establishments in Lancaster and London .

It is interesting, in passing, to note that there are still a number of these old tables in existence (one can be viewed in the National Trust Property at Dunham Massey Hall, near Altrincham, Cheshire), and the name Gillow still continues in the well known house furnishers Waring & Gillow Ltd.

John Roberts Snr.

water colour painting of John Roberts Senior in his youth

[not included in original article]

At a very early age John Roberts became so expert a player that he could give points to most ordinary adult players, quite unknown to his father, who was unaware of his skill until they played each other. The young man won several games in quick succession, very easily. - Father was not at all pleased and thought his son must have been spending too much time at the billiard table. Understandably, not thinking of the possibility of exploiting the boy's skills, decided, as probably any good parent would, that he should be apprenticed to a trade and so he was put to carpentry.

In those days when education was not compulsory he would probably be about 12 years old and he stayed for about 2 years. He the ran away having evidently decided he preferred to play billiards and he obtained employment as a marker in the town of Oldham, just north of Manchester. Here he regularly played against a professional player who was known as "Pendleton Tom" (Pendleton is a part of Manchester), and just as regularly beat him.

He then took employment in Glasgow where he evidently continued playing and developing his skill, but in 1844 it is recorded that he narrowly lost a match against a Mr. John Fleming, who was a professional player and also a billiard table maker. Fleming only just won running out at 500 up by 'fluking' a six shot having missed the cannon he had actually tried for! The stakes are recorded as being £ 100.00 a side - a very large sum in 1844.

In 1845 John Roberts returned to Manchester and became the manager of the Billiard Room at the Union Club. Where he stayed for 7 years, thus he had plenty of opportunity for practice, and it was here that he was taught the 'spot stroke' by Mr. Lee Birch, one of the club members who was a good amateur player. Who had seen the stroke played in London. Roberts realised the enormous advantage to be gained from this stroke and practiced it continuously until he could play it with certainty time and time again.

Within a few years he felt able to challenge the existing champion Edwin (Jonathan) Kentfield, and for this purpose travelled to Brighton, where Kentfield was the proprietor of the Subscription Billiard Room. Calling upon Kentfield he introduced himself and they arranged to play a few games in private. Kentfield evidently wishing to avoid publicity at this stage.

It seems both players were trying to assess the other's strength and ability and both may have been holding back. To the suggestion that they should play for 'Some Money' Robert's offer to play 10 games of 100, up at a stake of £10.00 per game, to which Kentfield said he was being 'rather hasty'. After a few more friendly games Kentfield is recorded as saying 'if you want to play me you will have to put down a good stake'. To the question 'How much?' The answer was £1000.00! (remember values in 1849). To Roberts response of '£1000.00 a side?' he said he would see what could be done.

The match, however, never took place and all efforts to arrange the contest failed.

It was accepted that Kentfield who was much older than Roberts realised he had much to lose by way of prestige by risking the title, preferring to be known as the "Retired Champion".

Thus, in 1849 Roberts assumed the title of "Champion" and returned to his position at the Union Club in Manchester, where he remained until 1852. He then moved to the Griffin Hotel in Lower Broughton, Manchester, and after a short while took Billiard Rooms in Cross Street, where he remained until moving to London in 1861 becoming the tenant of Saville House, Leicester Square. Here it was that in 1862 he made a break of 346 which included 104 hazards off the spot (i.e. potting or going in off the red 104 times). Quite a performance which was unequalled for many years.

During the 1860's there were quite a number of up and coming players and by 1866 the best 3 are recorded as being William Cook, Joseph Bennet and John Roberts, jnr, (his son). and so it gradually became clear that sooner or later old man Roberts would be challenged for the Championship.

By 1869 Cook at 21 years of age had emerged as the better of the three, and he issued a challenge for the title. Roberts took a long time responding and it began to look as if once again the title would change hands by default. However, the match was finally arranged to take place and so the very first championship match was held at St. James Hall on 11th February, 1870 when amidst great excitement a very close contest took place in the presence of the Prince of Wales.

The games were 1200 up and after many changes in the lead, right up to the end, resulted in Cook winning by 117 points and so the title changed hands for the first time as a result of a contest, but soon was to change hands again as we will report later.

John Roberts now aged 55 years gradually faded from the scene, although he still played in public for several years. He died some 23 years later on 27th March, 1893.

John Roberts Billiard professional John Roberts Snr. Billiard Pro.

Photographs of John Roberts Senior, later in life

The following additional information, was not part of the originally article written by Mr. N. Clare, we believe it adds to the John Roberts' story, and was researched when a pocket watch presented to John Roberts Senior was presented for display to the 'Norman Clare Heritage Collection'.

This watch was presented, to the 'first' professional UK Billiard Player and Billiard Champion, John Roberts before he departed on a visit to Australia to demonstrate his Billiard skills, on 21st May 1864.

John Roberts Snr. WATCH ENGRAVING

He had played his last match, before his trip, against W. Dufton on 20th May 1864 at St. James' Hall. Peter Ainsworth, Billiard historian, has found in his records the following information :-

"New gas lighting" had been especially installed. The match was watched by some 800 spectators and Roberts played, what many regarded as one of his best ever games. Which included a break of 167, including 50 consecutive spots. His performance was greeted with tumultuous cheering. Roberts' book "Roberts on Billiards" describes the conclusion as follows - "One of Roberts' aristocratic friends then stepped forward to the table, and said, 'Gentlemen, our friend John Roberts is about to seek fresh fields and pastures new for the exercise of his talent in his vocation, and I am sure that you will give him three hearty cheers that shall ring in his ears for many a day, and prove that his friends wish him, as I am sure they do, health, happiness and prosperity in the lands to which he is going.' This neat speech was much cheered, and Roberts replied, 'Gentlemen, I assure you I am extremely obliged to you for your kind wishes.' Three cheers were then given for the champion, and so the proceedings for the evening terminated.

The watch was kindly passed to the Norman Clare Heritage Collection by Deborah Dutton (Nee Deborah Joan Roberts), the great, great, great grand daughter of John Roberts. The watch passed to John Roberts Jnr. And had been handed down from father to son. In 1963 the watch left India for Australia in the care of Jack Sharples, to be given to Richard John Roberts who was living in Australia. Richard John Roberts passed away in late January 2001and the watch passed to his son Russell John Roberts. Who, in accordance with his father's wishes passed the watch to the care of the museum, being present to Mr. Peter N. Clare for the 'Norman Clare Museum' at the 2001 World Snooker Championship at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield.

Notes:-

1) There is a Gillow museum in Lancaster displaying Gillow furniture including a billiard table.

2) It is believed that John Thurston, the founder of the famous Thurston business, of which Norman Clare was chairman, served his time with Gillow's in London.

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© E.A. Clare & Son Ltd. 2009 - All items displayed are from the N. Clare collection. reproduction of article allowed only with permission from E.A. Clare & Son Ltd.

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