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Billiards 1694

Billiards 1710

Thurston Billiard Room Catherine Street


 The Norman Clare Retrospective


Last time I mentioned a rule book dating from 1779 and some of the rules in it may be of interest so I quote a few of them here:

Rule No. XLVII When a person agrees to play with the Cue, he must play every ball within his reach with the point thereof, and if he agrees to play with the Butt of the Cue, he has no right to play with the point thereof without permission from his adversary.

Rule No. XLVIII When the parties agree to play point and point of the Cue, neither of them have a right to use a Butt during the Game or Match without permission etc.

In the same book of rules it is also very surprising to find that there is also a "Play Again" rule in Billiards, expressed as follows:

Rule No. XXXVI Whoever stops a ball when running, with hand, stick, or otherwise loses the lead and if his adversary don't like the ball he has to play at the next stroke.

And so we find what is considered to be a recently introduced "Play Again" rule in Snooker, actually existed in the game of Billiards over 200 years ago.

I also referred last time to the very primitive billiard tables of the early 18th century - consisting of a wooden bed with a n wooden rim to prevent the a plain wo onto the floor.

Without doubt the first improvement in the table was the fitting of a form of "Cushioning" around the inside of this wooden rim, a fairly obvious improvement really, which reduced the noise of impact caused by the balls striking against the plain wooden rim, and also improved the rebound of the balls, especially when striking the rim at right angles.

This "Cushioning" was formed by building up layer upon layer of felt or list (list being the trimmings or selvedges from the edge of woven woollen cloths, and sometimes by stuffing the cushioning with horse hair. A photograph of an old cushion rail showing the layers of list cushioning is shown here.

This was the only improvement in the billiard table itself during the 18th Century. However, during this period the first great improvement in the equipment was introduced when during the second half of the 18th Century we have reliable evidence that cues - rather like the present day cues - began to take the place of maces.

This evidence exists in an old book containing the rules of various games including billiards which was published by Hoyles in 1779 from which it is clear that cues and maces were both being used at this period of time as these rules required the players to elect when commencing the game whether they would use a cue or a mace. Rule Number XLVI which reads: "When the parties agree to play mace against cue the mace player hath no right to use a cue - nor has the cue player any right to use a mace during the game or match without permission from his adversary".

We have also very firm evidence that both cues and maces were still being used concurrently from the engraved print depicting Thurston`s original billiard room at Catherine Street (Catherine Street was off the Strand - London, but has long since been demolished) which is used as the front piece to Kentfield's book entitled "Kentfield on Billiards", the first edition of which was published in 1839. This illustration clearly shows at this date that maces as well as cues are in the cue racks, although the players are depicted using cues (see the accompanying illustration).

During the time of change over from the mace to the cue - the rules of 1779 also indicate that strokes could be made using the point of the cue or the butt (see Rule XLVII above), and this is accepted as the reason why to this day most English cues still have a chamfer on the butt and indeed very old cues have chamfers on both sides of the butt.

The photograph shows three maces - the first is about 200 years old and is all made from one piece of ash, the head being integral with the shaft, overall length is 45" (114cm). The other two maces shown in this photograph are of later manufacture measuring 57 long (145cm) overall and have the name Thurston - Catherine Street - London stamped on the underneath side of the head, thus establishing that they are about 160 years old. The heads are made from a separate piece of hardwood (rosewood or similar), and are fitted onto hickory shafts. There is a "Sighting Line" on the upper surface of the head, and the heads are slightly angled so that these maces would be used by right handed players so that when the shaft came over the right shoulder the sighting line enabled the player to aim more accurately.

Amongst the many similar maces which can be seen in the Billiards Room of the National Trust property, Dunham Massey Hall, Nr. Altrincham, Cheshire there are a number with heads angled the other way so that they are suitable for left handed players.

The five cues illustrated are of French origin dating from the late 1800's and have very elaborately inlaid and decorated butts, the one on the right of the picture being inlaid with ivory, all these old cues have chamfers on both sides of the butts.

According to the available evidence the earliest cues were not fitted with "Tips". Indeed it is accepted that it was a French Infantry Officer Captain M Mingaud who in 1807 was the first player to fix a leather tip to the point of his cue. He was in fact in prison at the time (some say as a debtor and others say it was for expressing political opinions), but he was able to play billiards probably because in these times a family could provide comforts for relatives in prison. It must be remembered that infantry officers usually had their own horses and so he had old leather harness available from which he punched out small discs of leather which he then fitted to the point of the cue and shaped to form the earliest type of tip.

This simple item was to revolutionise the game as hitherto impossible strokes could now be achieved.

Although Monsieur Mingaud invented the leather tip - it is accepted, as reported in the previous article, that it was a Mr Bartley, proprietor of the Billiard Rooms at Bath, who in about 1820 first applied "Side" by striking the cue ball off centre. (Note: our friends in the U.S.A. call this applying "English" to the ball).

However, it is also clear that by the time Monsieur Mingaud published his book entitled "The Noble Game of Billiards" about the year 1830 (the oldest existing book in the possession of the writer is the second edition which is dated 1831), he also made great use of "Side" in order to achieve many of the strokes which are described and illustrated in his book, and are described as "Extraordinary and Surprising Strokes which have excited the admiration of most of the Sovereigns of Europe".

Meanwhile, although during the late 18th and early 19th Centuries the cue was replacing the mace, the leather tip had been invented and chalk was being used, the table itself still varied in size and was still of very light construction with a wooden bed and stuffed cushions. It was not until 1826 that the next great improvement was introduced by John Thurston who used slate instead of wood for the bed of the table.

Norman Clare


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