John Roberts Senior
From "Billiards for Everybody" by Charles Roberts, pub. 1901,
& "Modern Billiards" by John Roberts Jun., published 1902
JOHN ROBERTS, SENIOR, THE FATHER OF BILLIARDS - CHAMPION 1849 - 70
THAT a debt of gratitude billiard players of all ranks owe to the subject of this sketch, who raised the game of billiards from a pastime devoted to the select upper classes to its present popularity, giving pleasure and amusement to hundreds of thousands of the younger generation. At an early age leaving home to make his way in the world to the time of his defeat by his own pupil and best friend, Mr. Cook, at St. James' Hall, in 1870, the life of John Roberts, sen., is an object lesson of what can be done by dauntless perseverance and natural talent at any game. He knew nothing of billiards when he started out at eleven years old, but by steady and constant practise, allied to firm determination, he managed to become Champion of England, and to hold that proud position for twenty-one years.
After having seen all the great players of the present day, I am firmly convinced that, all conditions equal, he was as great as the best of them without any exception. It must be remembered in making this remark that billiard tables in those days were very different from the present. Low cushions were unknown, and I certainly think the pockets were more difficult.
Again, where our present Champions play twice daily seven months of the year, the Champion of 1860 played at the most about twice a week, and then always conceding from 300 to 350 start in 1,000 up. As a matter of fact he was as far in front of his contemporaries as the present John Roberts was in 1890, and may truthfully be said never to have been extended for twenty years. His power of cue was simply marvellous, and I have never seen any present-day player who could hit a ball like him. Amongst some of his supporters and patrons at the subscription rooms, Old Saville House, where the Empire Theatre now is, were Lord Drumlanrigg, Squire Obeldestone, Mr. Geo. Payne, Admiral Rous, and many others of the old school of sportsmen. He made heaps of money there, and, it may also be observed, lent, or rather gave, a greater portion of it away. No man about town ever wanted money from him without getting it, and, although presumably lent, it is to be feared he never saw a good portion of it back. As an instance of a special feat of endurance at billiards, he is reported to have played off and on for six nights without going to bed. No mean performance this, considering he had to play his best to please his patrons. Berger, the then celebrated French cannon and trick player, was engaged to play a week with Roberts at Saville House, and the engagement proved most remunerative, a guinea being charged for admission.
Many and true are the tales known of his generosity- people of those days would probably call it foolishness. Here is one I can vouch for. He lent £500 to start a certain firm of billiard table makers who still flourish greatly. When he visited Australia his quaint and independent manner just suited the free-hearted colonists, and he left there the idol of the billiard public.
He often played before the miners in those days, who could then well afford to pay their guinea for admission.
With his unlucky defeat by his pupil, W. Cook, commenced the reverses of fortune. I say unlucky advisedly, as in the first place, for some reason or other, the game was made 1,200 instead 1,000 up. At 1,000 the Old Champion led by 1 point. Secondly, I have been told that in the last two hundred Cook had the most extraordinary luck, actually making several flukes in his last break.
The papers of the period in their reports say so, and there does not seem to be much doubt about it. Roberts's behaviour after the match was characteristic of the man, and in my humble opinion was heroic. Immediately Cook made the winning stroke, and with the undoubted loss of thousand of pounds and his independence facing him, the brave old Champion stepped quickly up to his young opponent, and, warmly taking him by the hand, congratulated him on his victory. There was a deep silence for a minute at this almost unexampled piece of generosity, and then the pent-up feelings of the huge and aristocratic audience testified their approval in thunders of applause and shouts of "Bravo, Roberts," "English pluck," "A true Englishman," etc.
Thus ended the greatest contest for the championship of billiards of that day, graced by the presence of Royalty - supported by the best blue blood of England. The attendance numbered upwards of 1,000, and the receipts reached nearly £1,200.
Things were none too bright for some time after this, although his son quickly avenged his father's defeat. The old Champion played exhibition matches with Cook several times after this, finally returning to Manchester, where he resided many years. On the supposition that he had lost his form entirely, he was handicapped to receive points in an American Tournament promoted by John Bowles, of Manchester, at Moss Side. Amongst the players, if memory serves me, were A Bennett, the Champion of the Midlands, Timbrell of Liverpool, and the celebrated Billy Moss, of Manchester.
The old Champion won every game, and of course first prize, and it was my opinion that he could have won on scratch. A remarkable instance of his iron nerve, which his eldest son inherits, was given in his bout with Moss. Moss wanted 27 to win with the cue object balls over the middle pockets, and Roberts wanted about 80. The game, owing to the late hour, had to be postponed to the following day, and there was a good deal of betting on the result.
Coming up to play the next day, I said to Roberts, "Moss is sure to get this 27 with the balls in this position."
"He may not," said Roberts, "and if he does not I have a chance."
Moss, who was possibly nervous, did not get them. I think he made about 15, and, breaking down, the old Champion sent up 50, winding up with a safety miss.
A duel of generalship followed, but the latter was a past master at this business, and with a little unfinished break just won a game in which the odds were 50 to 1 against him.
In Cassell's Saturday papers I noticed some few years back an anecdote describing his playing with an umbrella. I never saw him use an umbrella, but I well remember a walking stick he used to play with. There was nothing at the end of it. It was simply smooth and flat and filed level. His performances with this article were simply marvellous. He could screw, twist and put side on a ball in a wonderful manner, and it took a very good player in those days to beat Roberts with his walking stick. I have seen him make fifty with it several times, and this was considered a really good break then. The veteran and his curious cue soon became famous in Cottonopolis billiard rooms, and there was always plenty of fun when he asked people how many they would give him - he, of course, playing with the walking stick. Those who had been through the ordeal discreetly remained silent, whilst their friends followed suit to their amusement. It did seem rather absurd for an old gentleman to suddenly lift the stick he had walked into the room with and challenge people to play him billiards with it, and it took a really good amateur to beat him.
Returning to London in 1879, the old Champion gave his last great performance, and for ever silenced the class of people who always worship the rising sun, and averred he had no chance against the younger competitors.
In a handicap promoted by the Royal Aquarium Company the bright particular star proved to be the Yorkshire cueist Billy Mitchell, who was drawing all London to see him play the spot stroke. Mitchell's supporters had taken £100 to £1 he won every heat, and this he accomplished up to the time of his meeting John Roberts. A tremendous house witnessed this concluding heat, myself amongst the number. The subject of our sketch received 125 start, I think, whilst Mitchell figured as scratch. The latter was at work at once, and reached 350 to the veteran#39;s 250. From this point to the end of the heat Mitchell never scored again, and the old Champion, tackling the spot in the most superb and confident manner, went out in about three breaks. The delight and astonishment of the spectators no pen can describe. Old gentlemen, wild with enthusiasm at their old favourite showing them his best form, threw their hats in the air, and the cheering lasted long and loud for over five minutes, the veteran bowing in his own peculiar manner. Amongst the audience were G. Ulyett and T. Emmett, the celebrated Yorkshire cricketers of that day, and they warmly congratulated the winner, and also begged him to accept a substantial present.
Mitchell finished first and John Roberts second - and what a second! It would have done the cold-hearted audience of to-day good to have been there. It is very hard to think, but such was the case, and the truth shall be told, that the latter and declining days of this most generous man, whose great fault was that he only valued money for the good he could do others with it, were not spent in luxury or even a modest competence. No, although he had never said nay to the best friend, or even an enemy, with his decaying powers he was soon forgotten, and billiard firms, whom he had helped to raise to affluence, hardly took the trouble to send a wreath of flowers to his funeral. Truly may he have said to himself, "And this is fame!" Is it not Lord Lytton who remarks in one of his novels that a good-hearted man is a fool? It is so, possibly; but there are some noble natures who are the salt of the earth and who cannot help their generosity. Can it be said of them?
A stroke of paralysis heralded the approach of death, and the most popular billiardist of his day died on March 27, 1893. Three balls over his tombstone at the City of London Cemetery, Ilford, are significant of the game he so passionately loved, and I must conclude with the hope that this poor tribute to his worth will perpetuate the memory of one of England's greatest billiard champions.
From "Modern Billiards" by John Roberts Jun., published 1902
...The elder Roberts afterwards left the "George" for the Queen's Hotel, in Lime Street, and it was here that the younger Roberts first noticed a trick of his father's, which ultimately had some bearing upon the introduction of the rule imposing a penalty for knocking a ball off the table. At that time there was no such penalty, and it was a common practise of old John's, if his opponent's score stood at 96 or 97, to knock his own ball and the red off the table, and so give himself a chance. The walls of the room were covered with dents at the height of the table where the balls had been driven against them with force, and on one occasion he actually drove a ball through a window nine feet from the ground. This was thought to be such an extraordinary feat that the pane was not put in for some time afterwards, the empty sash being covered with a curtain and shown as a curiosity.
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