Origins of Billiards

Days of Old No. 1 - June 1982

The Origin of Billiards

(Some pictures have been added to Norman's original article to , we hope, help and expand on his words)


A form of billiards played on the ground in the 1300's.

Taken from Strutts 'The Sports and pastimes of the people of England'

The origin of the game of Billiards is very obscure, although many efforts have been made to trace its history, always without success. There are in existence a number of 'theories' or 'anecdotes' which endeavour to explain the origin of the game and the reader must choose whichever 'story' they prefer. One thing, however, is absolutely definite, it is an extremely old game which has gradually developed so that the present day game is completely unrecognisable from the original.

It is said by some writers that a game similar to Billiards was seen by a traveller called Anacharsis in Ancient Greece some 400 years BC. We certainly have proof that Billiards was played during the reign of Elizabeth I as Shakespeare in the play 'Anthony & Cleopatra' has the Queen say to her maid - 'come Charmain, let us to Billiards. (Note, however whilst this certainly indicates that Shakespeare was acquainted with the game, it does not mean that it was known in ancient Egypt).

It is accepted that the game was originally played on the ground outdoors and it is related to the game of croquet. This theory is supported by early illustrations and pictures, showing hoops and also post (similar to croquet) on the surface of the Billiards Table (see illustrations) and that from the lawn it was brought indoors and for convenience raised to table height.

Billiards On Ground

This etching is taken from the tapestry commissioned by monastery of St.Lo.

Billiards on The Ground tapestry

(Above is the actual St. Lo tapestry. More information about the tapestry can be found in 'The Billiard Encyclopaedia' by Stein & Rubino)

Billiatd sonthe Ground tapestry

(From 'The Billiard Encyclopaedia' by Stein & Rubino)


Louis XIV at Billiards in 1694; The King is 'playing the ball'

The engraving is displayed at 'Le Bibliotheque Nationale' Paris

You can clearly see the similarities between the etching of 'Billiards on the Ground' and the on showing Louis XVI playing Billiards. Even the maces (used to propel the balls) are similar in shape along with the the hoop and pin

One 'story' explaining how the game came to be called 'Billiards' relates to how a 'Pawnbroker' by the name of William Kew (!), who, after closing the shop, used to take down the three brass balls of his sign and used them to play in the yard behind his shop - his friends used to join him, saying they were going to play in Bill's Yard!! Maybe his name also explains why the instrument we use to propel the balls is called a 'Cue'!!.

Two different forms of the game developed - in most European Countries Billiards is played on a table without pockets -(and so unfortunately they cannot play the more recently developed game of Snooker. - This of course changed in the late 1980's when , with the help of Pot Black and other televised UK tournaments, Snooker proved to be popular especially in Belgium & Holland with the UK firms supplying the suitable tables)[Snooker being a game invented to be played on a British Billiards Table as in the 'Origins of Snooker' article] - whilst the British Billiards Table as we all know has six pockets. One result of this difference is that wherever in the world British emigrants and colonists settled and established themselves they took with them the British version of the game. Whilst the European settlers (French, Spanish and Dutch) introduced the continental game of Billiards to their colonies and this is the game played in their sphere of influence. It is perhaps interesting to note that it was the Spaniards who took the game to what is now the U.S.A. By introducing Billiards to St. Augusta, Florida in 1565. So to this day, if you play Billiards in the U.S.A. It is the Continental game and every year American players take part in the 'World 3 Cushion Billiards Championships'. It is also the rules of this game of Billiards which are published in the hand book of 'The Billiard Congress of America' and they do not play the British game. (Note - in the U.S.A. the various games of 'Pool' are played on a 'Pocket Billiards' Table so called to distinguish it from a 'Billiards' table without pockets  which in Europe is known as a Carom table).


Billiards - from 'school of Recreation, 1710


Mozart (1756 -91) at his Billiards Table

again note the hoop and lack of cushioning on the table surround.

When the game was first brought indoors and raised to table height (as you will see from the illustration 'Billiards', from the 'School of Recreation' 1710) a plain wooden rim without any form of cushioning surrounded the table to prevent the balls falling on the floor. The tables were of lightweight construction. Maces (early form of Cue) were used to propel the balls. The balls themselves were also originally made of wood. There were no properly established rules and the dimensions of the Billiards Table itself, the size of the balls and the pocket openings etc., all varied. In this respect it is interesting to note that an old rule book printed in 1779 allowed the player to use the point of the cue or the butt of the cue!

Mace _cue _info 0001

But more of that next time -


early 19th Century Gillow Billiards Table with wood bed table - light weight frame


© 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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