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.
painting of John Roberts Senior in his youth
[not included in
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
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
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
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
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
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
© 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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