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John Roberts senior


 The Norman Clare Retrospective


The elder John Roberts was born in Manchester 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 and it is recorded that he gained his first experience by playing on an early table with a 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. on request in the National Trust Property Dunham Massey near Altrincham, Cheshire), and the name Gillow still continues in the well known house furnishers Waring and Gillow Ltd.

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, and 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, and understandably not thinking of the possibility of exploiting the boy's skill decided, as probably any good parent would, stroke practiced it continuously seen the stroke played in London. was a good amateur player and had Roberts realised the enormous advantage to be gained from this until he could play it with certainty time and time again. exploiting the boy's skill decided, as that he should be apprenticed to a trade and so he was put to carpentry. In those days when education was riot compulsory he would probably be about 12 years old and he stayed for about 2 years. He then 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 locally 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, of Glasgow, 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 actually tried for! The stakes are recorded as being £100 a side - a very large sum in 1844.

In 1845 John Roberts returned to his native city of Manchester and became the Manager of the Billiard Room at the Union Club where he stayed for seven years, thus he had plenty of opportunity for practice and here it was that he was taught the "Spot Stroke" by Mr. Lee Birch, one of the club members who Hall,

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 that both players were trying assess the other's strength 2d ability and both may have been holding back. To the suggestion that they should play for "Some Money" Roberts offered to play 10 games of 100 up at a stake of £10 per

=e to which Kentfield said he was ing "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! (Remember values in 1849). To Roberts response of "£1000 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 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 11 th February, 1870 when amidst great excitement a very close contest took place in the presence of the Prince of Wales.

The game was 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 the 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.

Norman Clare


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