Orme & Sons Ltd.

A POTTED HISTORY Orme & Sons - Manchester

The majority of this history was written by, and is the copyright of, Peter Ainsworth , who kindly gave his permission for its use in this article and add other bits of information taken from the heritage collection files.

At the height of their fame, Orme & Sons attained recognition as one of the most important billiard table manufacturers in the country, a status which only a handful of manufacturers outside London ever achieved.

The business was founded in 1845, and by 1856 they were operating from premises at 1 St. Ann Street and 27 Littlejohn Street in Manchester. Trading at this time as "Thomas and James Orme, billiards and bagatelle table manufacturers" they advertised "a large assortment of new and second­hand billiards and bagatelle tables, French and English cues, cue racks and stands, billiards, pool, pyramid and bagatelle balls, cue-tips, rules of the games, cloths of the finest texture, marking boards, mats and matting." With workmen available for repairs and renovations, they were already, at this early stage in their history, supplying the full range of trade requirements.

Made in a day

There was an interesting episode in December 1870, when William Cook, Joseph Bennett and John Roberts Jnr; were engaged to play in a series of matches at the Town Hall, Manchester. All had been holders of the Professional Billiards Championship during the course of that year and there was great public interest in their appearance. For this occasion Orme's offered to fully equip the room, building from scratch, all the components from table to balls and marking board, ready for play, in 24 hours.

In this challenge to themselves they were successful, the work being commenced at 12.30 a.m. on the morning of December 6th and completed by 11.45 p.m. the same day. The Sportsman newspaper informs us that this was no mere assembly job. "Sixty men were engaged and they entered thoroughly into the spirit of the task. The timber (mahogany) had all been laid out, slates, ivory for the balls and all the other material for the cues, marking board, etc., and strip rubber cushions (eight strips on the sides and nine on the ends [this description indicates that they were built up rubber cushions from strips of rubber - see Norman's Articles Days of Old No.4])." A truly spectacular feat which demonstrated their all-round capacity and earned them extensive national publicity.

By 1874 the company was trading as "Orme & Sons" and they became the first to publish their own specialist magazine called "The Billiard Journal," an initiative which would be copied the following year by Burroughes & Watts. Neither publication was particularly successful and both were short-lived, however it demonstrated the initiative and ambition being shown by Orme's at this time. They were also active in helping to generally promote billiards competitions, and in 1876 provided a trophy cup valued at 140 guineas for the first billiard championship of Ireland. This tradition was maintained throughout their trading history, and many amateur Leagues in this country still hold trophies engraved with the name of Orme & Sons.

In 1880 Orme's expanded their operations to Glasgow, where they established a branch office at 53 Vincent Street. They had now acquired the accolade of royal patronage, having received a warrant from Edward, Prince of Wales and from this date the three feathers, emblem of the Prince, were prominent in their advertising and on their products.

Orme 7 Sons Glasgow advert

Orme's announced their arrival in Glasgow with the above advert in the Scotsman August 1880. Their promotion of the "Ivorine" billiard balls appeared in the same newspaper a year later

Orme & Sons Glasgow

Always keen to adopt new innovations, Orme's were one of the first suppliers of composition billiard balls. Their adverts at this time proclaiming - "Ivorine Billiard Balls. Try them. If not approved of taken back. Half the price of ivory." These were amongst the earliest of composition balls on the market at a time when much experimentation in various formulas would ultimately result in Bonzoline and Crystalate emerging from the pack as a genuine replacement for ivory a decade later.

In 1881 a notice appears in the newspapers announcing that the involvement of P. Colles as a partner in the firm had been terminated. The remaining partners being recorded as T. Orme, A. H. Colles.

Two years later [1883] the company moved up the road from No. 1 St. Ann Street, Manchester, to occupy Nos. 11 and 13. No further reference is made to the Littlejohn Street premises, which was presumably closed at this time.

A significant point in the history of the firm occurred in 1885 when they were instrumental in the formation of the Billiard Association, Mr. A. H. Collis-Orme being a member of the original committee, taking the chair on several occasions. Although the new association discussed the idea of an Amateur billiards championship for the Great Britain and Ireland, this did not materialise, and the new governing body focussed its attention on revisions to the rules and the professional game. It was left to Orme's to again take the initiative by establishing the event themselves, and the final stages of the inaugural competition was held in Manchester in 1888. They continued to run the Amateur championship until eventually handing over its operation to the Billiard Association in 1893.

In 1887 Orme's were commissioned to make a table for the Queen Victoria's Jubilee exhibition in Manchester and they produced a historic table not just because it had references to Queen Victoria's 50 year reign carved into its panels but historic also in its quality a true work of the billiard table makers art. Currently August 2009 this table is on display is in Harrods. In 2011 there was an article in a Magazine about Antiques noting its sale. It is a rather spledid table and perhaps it is worth reading the sale notes from a previous sale of the table in 1913, which included the information that the table was sold from the 1887 exhibition for 1000 guineas, approx £75,000.00 if valued today (2009).

Orme & Sons Jubilee table

Queen Victoria Jubille Billiard Table

Manchester Billiard table

Orme & Sons exhibition Billiard Table

Orme & Sons Exhibition Billiard Table

This picture shows the quality of the carving on the Exhibition Table

carvings on the Billiard table

details of panel No.1 from the 1887 Orme & Sons Exhibition Table

In 1890 Orme's had showrooms and a matchroom at Blackfriars Street in Manchester, which would become popularly known as "The Parsonage" and also established a presence in the capital when they opened a similar facility at 16 Soho Square, London. They now staged their Amateur Championship at this location together with other important events in the billiards calendar. Another change of address followed in Glasgow when they moved from Vincent Street to St. George's Place.

A Curious Libel

With interest being revived in the Professional Billiards Championship the Billiard Association decided to run two championship events, and for these they produced a set of pocket templates with the

aim of providing a "standard" pocket opening. The honour of staging the championships was decided by lot from amongst the leading makers, and Orme's were selected to run the "all-in" championship at their new London Showrooms between 6th - 9th April 1892. The pockets were checked by a representative of the Billiard Association on 31st March, a week before the event, and declared in conformance with the template. However, the table was also to be used for the Orme Amateur Championship and the cushions were immediately removed and another set put on for this event. On the conclusion of the Amateur Championship the table was recovered, and the original cushions restored. But all was not well. On the first day of play it appeared as though the top pockets, favoured by the spot-stroke players, were "too easy". In fact, William Peal[, on the final day, made a break of 2,099, the highest ever recorded in a championship match. However, the Billiard Association refused to recognise the effort and a war of words ensued in the sporting press.

The Billiard Association referee, Mr. G. T. Dunning, who had originally checked and certified the table, was imprudent enough to accuse Orme's of deliberately altering the table after his inspection, which resulted in a writ for libel being issued against him. The arguments centred on the 1/8 inch bevelling of the slate at the pocket opening, which Orme claimed was necessary to fit the cloth, and was already present at the time of the initial inspection. Against this argument the defence contended that the bevel had become more significant by the end of the professional championship.

In addition to the changes to the table required for the Amateur Championship, the match conditions of the "all-in" championship stipulated the fitting of a new cloth every day. The cushions had therefore been removed and replaced many times since the original certificate of conformity was issued, and the slate regularly exposed. This being the first time that templates had been used for a championship match, it seems that nobody though it prudent to have them available when the cushions were replaced! After two days of legal argument the jury could not agree a verdict and the case was dismissed.

The year of 1896 was a momentous one in their history as they were incorporated into a Limited Company, thereafter styling themselves, "Orme & Sons Ltd." The London premises at 16 Soho Square was rebuilt and re-opened, and during the same year the Glasgow branch of the business was also relocated again, this time making the move to 69 West Nile Street.

The New Century

Following the Death of Queen Victoria in 1901, the warrant awarded by the Prince of Wales was now converted into a royal warrant from King Edward VII, which was again displayed prominently in their advertising. Further expansion of the company followed, with additional branch offices being opened at 53-55 North John Street, Liverpool and 43 Arthur Street, Belfast, and works were established at Stockport.

Billiard Table cushion plate

Billiard Table plate Orme & Sons Ltd.

The table plates above show the use of the Prince of Wales feathers, and the Royal Warrant awarded when he became King Edward VII in 1901

In 1906 they received their first contract for the supply of their O.S. [Orme & Sons] Cushions to H.M. War Office "for use on billiard tables at Home and Foreign Stations." This was a significant three-year contract which they would subsequently renew.

Another heavily carved table by Orme's was their 'Beaufort' model as shown in illustration taken from their catalogue circa 1905.

Orme & Sons catalogue

Orme & Sons Beaufort model Billiard Table


Thurston sold a table of this design in the 1970's only to buy it back again a few years later and were then able to find another client for it. The following pictures show the quality of the carvings and the fact that the wood work for the table was 'massive' making this table weigh in at almost 2 tonne. Anyone who has read 'A Trade History' compiled by J.R. Mitchell will have seen the carving as the pictures were used for the front & back covers of the book.

Beaufort model billiard Table Orme & Sons Ltd.

Carvings a middle legs

Orme & Sons cushion

Makers plated carved into cushion slide

At this time there was a revival of the fashion for strangely shaped billiard tables with most of the leading manufacturers adopting and promoting its own unique shape. Orme's elected for an oval table which became known as the "Arc-Oval" and in 1907 established a new trading entity called The Oval Billiards Company to promote its use. The most famous professional of his day, John Roberts, was lured out of retirement to perform a series of matches upon it, but despite this blaze of publicity the innovation was short-lived, and the experiment was terminated within a couple of years. A paragraph in the magazine 'Billiards and Snooker' dated June 1937 recalls that -"The Oval-shaped table favoured eccentric cannon effects, and Freddy Weiss ('Champion' of Australia) was in his element. Roberts was more reserved; for once in his career the opposition was getting the best of the showmanship...' E.A. Clare who was one of Orme's Irish representative / fitter (between 1903-1912) at this time sold a few of these tables but told that a few years later they were scrapped for just a few pounds [read more about E.A. Clare in).

Oval Billiard Table

It seems that Orme & Sons Ltd. were apponted agents for the Oval Billiard Table 


Orme & Sons Oval Billiard table

Just adding a bit of information to Peter Ainsworth's history - in about 1903 Mr. E. A. Clare the founder of E.A. Clare & Son sommenced work for Orme & Sons and worked for them until 1912 when he started his own business in Liverpool. Orme's did give him a rather short , curt referance as shown -

Orme & Sons reference for E A Clare

Another innovation, widely copied amongst the leading manufacturers, was the "bottomless pocket" which allowed the retrieval of balls without having to fish them out from the top. Orme's version, the "Bottomless Rapid Pocket" was introduced in 1908, the ball being gathered by raising a "gate" with the tips of the fingers, which allowed the ball to fall into the hand.

Orme billiard Pocket

In 1909, Orme's had new showrooms at Exchange Flags, Liverpool, and were advertising a network of "Resident Workmen" in Birmingham, Leeds, Newcastle-on-Tyne, Northampton, Portsmouth, Cardiff, and Dublin who could carry out the repairs and installations for a booming business.

After the death of King Edward in 1910, the firm continued to receive royal patronage, and obtained a warrant from King George V. Some of their finest work was done at this time, which undoubtedly represented the zenith of their fame and fortune.

The World Wars

The Great War had a devastating effect on many billiard table manufacturers, with import of materials brought to a sudden halt and all production stopped or turned over to the war effort. Most of the staff of fighting age would either volunteer or be conscripted into the armed forces, many skilled workers never to return. Even after hostilities ceased, and it was possible once more to import the timber necessary for their trade, a worldwide recession did nothing to help recovery of pre-war glories.

In 1928, with many businesses still struggling, there was an important fusion of interests in the billiard table world when Orme and Sons (who had already acquired a controlling interest in Messrs. Camkin, Ltd., of Birmingham) joined with George Wright and Co., London, and Fred Heyes, of Preston. The new company continued to trade as Orme and Sons Limited, with headquarters in Manchester, and branches in London, Glasgow, Hull, Liverpool, Birmingham, Cardiff, Belfast and Dublin. Mr. T. O. Colles (chairman) and Mr. T. O. Williams (director), resigned their positions, but Mr. Perry S. Hudson retained his seat on the board, and continued to act as works manager. The other directors were, Mr. Harold C. Coxon, of Home Recreations Ltd., billiard table manufacturers of Sydney, Australia, (Commercial Manager), Mr. Fred. Heyes, and Mr. William Sutcliffe, (also a director of Messrs. James Cooper and Co., Ashton-under-Lyne), while Mr. J. J. Mallon, took up the position as chairman of the new Board.

Notwithstanding this amalgamation, the new company continued to struggle, and in 1931 they made an arrangement with Burroughes & Watts to share their distribution facilities as a means for both companies to reduce their costs whilst continuing to trade independently. As a consequence the London showrooms at 16 Soho Square were relinquished and business conducted from the Burroughes & Watts amenities across the road at 19 Soho Square. This arrangement was sustained until the outbreak of war again brought all manufacturing activities to a standstill.

The Endgame

Orme's continued to advertise for a few years after this, but it would appear that essentially the business was soon absorbed into Burroughs & Watts, and probably at some point prior to the outbreak of the second World War, they became a wholly owned subsidiary of the London based company.

Although the Orme name continued to be registered with Companies House the only reference to them in an operating capacity after the war is made in long standing maintenance contracts for recovery and refurbishing Orme tables installed many years previously. However by this time all such work was being performed by Burroughs & Watts employees, the Orme business having effectively closed down.

Billiard Cushion plate

orme Billiard Cushion plate

The two cushion plates above used after their amalgamation with Geo. Wrights in 1928. The second plate used after their arrangement with Burroughs & Watts in 1931, which brought about a move to 19 Soho Square.

It is perhaps worth mentioning that by 1938 Burroughes & Watts were listing the Manchester address as - 'The Parsonage' and by 1949 showed it as being 4 Trevelyan Bldgs ,52 Corporation Street. The last address for Ormes. Certainly when Burroughs & Watts were absorbed by Rileys and closed the 19 Soho Square address, in 1967, there was no mention of the Orme name as indicated programmeproduced to 'celebrate' its passing.

Soho Square closing of Burroughes & Watts

©Peter Ainsworth 2009 & ©E.A. Clare & Son Ltd.2009.


Peter Ainsworth

'Billiard & Snooker - A Trade History' complied by J.R. Mitchell

Snooker Heritage Collection


© E.A. Clare & Son Ltd. 2018. © Peter N. Clare 2018
Reproduction of this article allowed only with the permission from E.A. Clare & Son Ltd.

renovated Snooker Table

A splendid example of  a bespoke Orme & Sons or Burroughes & Watts table, it does have Burroughes & Watts steel block cushions fitted Thurston have carefully restored the table which is on display in their Liverpool showroom ready for a discerning player who wants not only a snooker table but also a period piece of furniture.

Thurston have antique Orme & Sons tables ready for restoration as well as a antique Billiard Tables by other recognised manufactures such as Ashcroft, E. J. Riley, Thos. Padmore and Burroughs & Watts.

Thurston also have a new tables of their own manufacture for Snooker, Pool and Billiards as well as a full range of quality accessories at very competitive prices.

Just contact the Sales department on 44(0)151 482 2700  

visit the e-shop at - www.thurston.co.uk

email - thurston@eaclare.co.uk

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