Billiard Table Development

DAYS OF OLD No. 3 - (September 1982)


Any information added is shown in italics

Billiard Room circa 1770

As mentioned in a previous article, it was during the first decade of the 19th Century (1807 to be exact), that Monsieur Mingaud, a retired French Infantry Captain, introduced the first leather cue tips and, at this time, the billiard cue was rapidly taking the place of the mace, but it was not until 1826 that we find any evidence of further improvements in the billiard table itself, which was still of very primitive construction.

At this time too, billiard tables were always specially made to order by cabinetmakers. Mr Gillow was the earliest known maker of these custom built tables and he originally made his tables in Lancaster, during the late 1700's. In the absence of railways, (the first railway was not opened until 1830), and also in view of the difficulty of transportation by horse and cart over long distances (there were no motor vehicles), Gillow delivered his first billiard tables to London by ship, from Lancaster via the River Lune - The Irish Sea - The English Channel - The River Thames! Later Gillow also made billiard tables in London, and John Thurston is said to have worked with him as a cabinet / furniture maker.

Gillow's of Lancaster Billiard Rules

A rare example of a Gillow's Rules of Billiards

displayed in theBilliard & Snooker Heritage Collection

In 1799, John Thurston opened his own cabinet making business in Newcastle Street, off The Strand in London. He soon recognised that there was growing demand for billiard tables, and so, in 1814 on moving his business to Catherine Street (also off The Strand), he decided to specialise in making billiard tables and billiard room furniture only.

EarlyThurston Billiard Table

It was John Thurston who, a few years later, introduced the first major improvement in the billiard table, when working with the advice of Mr Edwin Kentfield. (Kentfield was the first true professional player; See Norman's Articles Past Master No1..) Thurston was the first maker to use slate to replace the wooden beds which were so unreliable, being prone to shrinking, warping and swelling, according to the climate and the season of the year. John Thurston called his slate beds Imperial Petrosian Beds.


A page from THURSTON's 1893 catalogue extolling the quality of the slates used in THURSTON billiard tables

The earliest record of the supplying of a slate bed is to White's Club in London, during 1826. (The Club is still in existence). The first slate beds were rather thin, having a thickness of about 1 inch. This was understandable, as they were originally made about the same thickness as the previous wooden beds, which they were replacing. Slate was, of course, much heavier, and so it now became necessary to increase the strength of the supporting framework of the billiard table, in order to carry the extra weight, and thus the tables became more substantial in appearance and construction.

The early thin slates however, were not by any means perfect. Many readers may be surprised to learn that thin slate, like glass, is quite flexible, and so unless adequately supported, the slate will sag and become quite hollow, so that it was then impossible to level the table accurately. Also thin slate beds can be quite noisy as a rolling ball causes a rumbling sound. Finally, the cushion rails can be more securely fixed against the edge of a thick slate, thus providing a more solid foundation for the cushions. This solid foundation provided a better rebound. This was true even for the list / stuffed cushions, which were still in use when slate beds were introduced. So it was that the thickness of the slate gradually increased, from 1 inch to 1 ¼ inches - 1 3/8 inches - 1 ½ inches - 1 5/8 inches- 1 ¾ inches, and, finally, even up to 2 inches in thickness. It followed, as a result, that the construction of the table also became more and more substantial in order to carry all this additional weight.

The point was reached however, when too much weight became a problem; involving much greater cost of manufacture, much greater cost of transport every time the table was moved and sometimes even requiring the expensive strengthening of a billiard room floor in order to carry the weight.

A Thurston table was selected in 1892 as the 'STANDARD' by the then Governing Body of Billiards. As you will see from the signatures to the documents the committee was made up of the leading players of the day.

Standard Billiard Table by Thurston

Signed by - John North, N.I. Peall, Harry Coles, N. Mitcell and N. Cook

Experience soon proved that there was no technical advantage beyond 1 ¾ inches of thickness, so this now became accepted as the optimum, an opinion which is still supported by most present day Billiard Table Manufacturers. It is also adhered to by the Union Mondial de Billiard (The Governing Body for the Continental Game of Billiards), which stipulates in their rules a slate bed of 45mm thickness (1 ¾ inches) for their billiard tables.

Our own Governing Body, The Billiards and Snooker Control Council (the Council is no longer in existence, and it is the WPBSA [World Professional Billiard & Snooker Association] who now control the rules), does not specify the thickness of the slate bed in its Official Rules. Perhaps they should think about it. Having so greatly improved the billiard table by introducing slate beds, another nine or ten years elapsed before John Thurston made the next great improvement by introducing rubber cushioning. This will be the subject of my next article.


© Norman Clare 1990. © E.A. Clare & Son Ltd. 2018.
Reproduction of this article allowed only with the permission from E.A. Clare & Son Ltd.

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