The History of Hand Stroke Billiards
From "Billiards for Everybody" by Charles Roberts, 4th Edition, pub. 1915
It was about 1873 or 1874 that a French billiard professional called Mons. Izar paid a visit to England, and introduced the then unknown finger or hand stroke billiards. His performance in twisting the balls into pockets and making cannons with side, and other strokes with his fingers and thumb, was considered so exceptionally clever and novel that it soon became the rage everywhere, and he toured Great Britain with the greatest success at fees amazing, from five to seven guineas per evening.
It was during one of Izar's visits to one of the small towns of Yorkshire, that Herbert Roberts saw for the first time the clever Frenchman perform, and, being struck with his success, he immediately began to practise all that he had seen Izar do.
Assisted by his brother Charles, the two had a good many hours together at a room in Armley, near Leeds. It was slow work at first, but Roberts, as his fingers grew more supple, began to improve steadily, and he soon gave his first exhibition in public. This proving successful, Roberts commenced a tour of England as the Champion English Hand Stroke Player.
He made breaks of thousands and a record run of nearly two thousand, and he could now do all Izar's fancy business, such as cannon round sixteen glasses and two decanters, cannon round the triangle, etc. Having now plenty of confidence in himself, his elder brother John Roberts, the then champion, shortly after issued a challenge to the world (this, of course, was meant for Izar) the hand stroke championship and £100 besides.
For some unknown reason the Frenchman remained silent, or perhaps the combination of the brothers and the tales he had heard of Herbert's wonderful improvement was considered by him satisfactory reasons for not replying to the challenge at his own game. Herbert claimed the title, and Izar shortly after quitted England for good.
John Roberts then pioneered his brother to the colonies, and the trip was a great success. A great point in Herbert's favour was the fact of his being a good player with the cue. Izar, it may be mentioned, was a very indifferent player with the cue. The programme of the entertainment, if I recollect rightly, was to play___firstly, a cannon game with his finger and thumb, with an opponent using the cue; a short game of billiards proper, and wind up with a display of fancy shots with hand, cue, and nose. For fear any of my readers should think I am joking when I mention the nasal organ, I may say that I have seen him make some splendid all-round cannons with his nose, which of course he always chalked beforehand.
Finishing up a good time in Australia, Herbert travelled on to India, where J. Roberts, Cook, Shorter, and Stanley were touring at the same time. Here I may relate an anecdote which proved his business qualities and smartness. Herbert would always be in front if he could, and he used to try and slip the others and get to a town in front. Of course his posters had the champion hand stroke player stuck over them, and as his name was "Roberts," and he played with his cue as well as his fingers, the townspeople used to get somewhat bewildered.
More than once when John Roberts followed his brother the people did not turn up in the numbers expected, as they used to say they had seen the "champion,"meaning, of course, Herbert. India was very good business, and China, Japan, the Phillippine Islands, etc., etc., were in turn visited, with the same degree of success. Whilst in New Zealand, Herbert played before the Queen of the Maories and tribe, who were highly delighted with the entertainment, especially the finger tricks showing side. In addition to the President of the United States (General Grant), nearly all the princes of India patronized him at various times during his tour round the world, his last engagement previous to returning to England being before the King of Siam at Siam. The fee for this night was £60, but this was an exceptional price paid by Royalty.
Roberts returned to England, after an absence of four and a half years, in 1879, having travelled more miles and been farther than any billiard professional has ever been before or since in one tour. After arriving home, he was quiet for some time, but after a few month's racing, he went on tour, having an advance agent a week in front, through the chief towns.
This was fairly successful, but Herbert, who had been used to making money fast abroad, was not satisfied, and wished he had remained abroad, which he probably would have done had not the doctors ordered his return.
For the next two years he gave his entertainment with success all over England, and in 1883 paid a visit to Ireland. On returning he went to Liverpool, where he played for the championship of that town with the cue and won. '84 saw Herbert under an engagement at the Argyll Hall, Palais Royal, London, where he gave his exhibition afternoon and evening through the season during an interval in John Roberts' entertainment, and this proving successful he stayed some time at the Palais Royal.
In January, 1885, a handicap took place at Gatti's Saloon, Charing Cross, in which J. Roberts (owes 120), J. Bennett (scratch), Peall (60 start), North (90 start), Sala (130 start), F. Bennett (140 start), G. Collins (150 start), and Herbert Roberts (180 start) figured. The heats were 500 up, and Herbert won five games out of seven, in one heat beating his brother John, when the latter was over 60 in front. All his games were won by sheer pluck and Gameness, and the Sportsman remarked that the plucky way in which he played an uphill game in each victory was worthy of the fullest recognition.
Sala won the tournament, beating J. Roberts, whilst Herbert was third. Before the end of January the hand stroke champion offered in the Sportsman to concede anyone 100 cannons in 500 cannons up for £100 a-side, but no response was made, as he was considered to be better now than Izar had ever been. Herbert now flew at much higher game, and in attempting to play D. Richards all-in for £100 level, he made a great mistake, as Richards was always in practise, whilst Roberts seldom had regular practise with the cue for long. The result was that Richards won with ease.
The last noteworthy thing that Herbert did was to win a tournament at Gatti's, wherein J. Dowland was scratch and Herbert 25 start. Possibly he showed the best form he had ever done with the cue in this, as he won every heat he played, twelve in all, a truly extraordinary performance, and took the first prize, £25. Herbert then once more returned to Liverpool, but here a long and lingering illness set in, from which he never recovered.
Herbert Roberts died on January 31, 1887, being only 33, and if it could be said his life was a short one, he had at least seen more of the world than many professionals do all their lives. This may be said to have closed the history of hand stroke billiards for some time, as, although one called John Jennings had every ability to become his legitimate successor, he failed to grasp the opportunity and to make the most of what was an undoubted gift fostered by practise.
There has never been a hand stroke championship, and probably never will be, unless it be decided by cannons, as the extraordinary scoring that would take place would altogether dwarf the old game in breaks and probably affect the attendance, as onlookers, not unnaturally perhaps, might get tired of seeing thousands made of the balls with ease.
With the advent of T.W. Millbank some years ago, and later, since 1900, of R. De Kuyper, the game has again become an attraction, and the latter players can command good fees for engagements at private houses and clubs. Many people affect to despise the game on the ground of it being so easy! These very clever people (there are always plenty about) cannot play it themselves, so they fail to see anything in it.
It should be mentioned that in every stroke played the ball must be spun, and if one will take the trouble to practise screwing a ball with finger and thumb for a few minutes, they will be assuredly convinced that there is really some skill required. That it is not an ineffective public draw is proved by the fact of John Roberts condescending to play it himself some years ago as a counter attraction to that clever and most humorous of entertainers, the late Eugene Carter, whose exhibitions were certainly thinning the attendance at the Egyptian Hall, whilst the Argyll Hall, where the latter was performing for six weeks, was full. It is a pretty and attractive art, and as a kind of light billiard fare after the game proper will always command and amuse the public.