Snooker - History

Snooker's Century

1900 - 1909

In the timeframe of sporting history, snooker is a modern game. In fact, if by definition, a sport is born once its rules have been officially formalised, snooker was 100 years old on the 11th December 2000.

For it was on that date in 1900, at the offices of the Billiards Association at 140 Fleet Street, London, that the draft rules of ‘Snooker’s Pool’, were passed by the committee of the governing body. Little did those 11 gentlemen present realise, that by the turn of the next century, snooker would have long superseded English billiards as the number one indoor table game, and become the multi-million pound world wide sport we know today.

I wonder if Ray Reardon was there?

Some 25 years previous to that historic meeting in Fleet Street, a very basic form of snooker was evolving in India.

British Army officers, while stationed in ‘the jewel of the British Empire’, combined two late 19th century table games, which formed the embryo of this new game of ‘Snooker’s Pool’.

They were Pyramids, which was purely a betting game, which used just 15 reds. The first person to pot eight won the stakes. Jimmy White would have enjoyed that game!

The other game was Life Pool, which employed various coloured balls, depending on the number of players. Each player would have his own cue and object ball. The following player’s object ball would be the previous player’s cue ball. When the cue ball was potted, a ‘life’ was lost, which would be registered on the score board by hiding one of three stars by means of a sliding shutter which can be found on old marking boards today. An agreed stake would then be placed into the ‘pool’.

Colonel Sir Neville Chamberlain

It was Col. Sir Neville Chamberlain, a young subaltern in the Devonshire Regiment, who claimed to combine these two games, while stationed at Jubbulpore, India in 1875. It did however take him until 1938, just before he ‘popped his clogs’, to claim the honour. Whether the long silence was through modesty which was swept aside when a rival claim forced him to supply the facts as he saw them; or realising how popular snooker was becoming in the late 1930’s, he thought he should reap some of the glory, is not sure. But his account was authenticated at that time, by the distinguished novelist, Compton Mackenzie.

I think just before I leave this earth for that billiard room in the sky, I’m gonna whisper to those assembled around the bed, ‘all my money is in a box in the…….’

I can picture my next of kin grabbing my pyjama lapels and shouting, ‘where Roger, where?’

Col. Sir Neville wasn’t related incidentally, to that other Neville Chamberlain, who waived that piece of paper around before the 2nd World War claiming ‘peace on’, while Hitler was smiling ‘peace off!’

The word ‘snooker’ certainly has military origins, as it was slang for a first year cadet at the Royal Military College. Having little military knowledge, the new recruits were consequently of low standing to their superiors. The term ‘snooker’ had been recently explained to Sir Neville, and he soon had an opportunity of exploiting it when one of his party failed to hole a coloured ball which was close to a corner pocket. ‘Why you’re a regular snooker!’ he proclaimed. To soothe the players feelings, Chamberlain qualified his remark by saying as they all played like beginners, it would be appropriate to call the game snooker. This was adopted with enthusiasm, so Chamberlain claims, and the game has been called Snooker ever since. It’s a good job he didn’t swear when the ball was missed, otherwise the game would never have got on television!

What is certain however, is that ‘snooker’s pool’ became very popular amongst servicemen in the 1880’s, and quickly spread from one military station to another throughout India. Chamberlain himself did a great deal of travelling around India, and was constantly asked on his travels to demonstrate how the game was played. He and fellow officers drew up their basic rules in 1882, which were displayed in the Ooty Club, at Ootacamund, which is set in the lush Nilgiri Hills of southern India.

As the regiments came home on leave, so it was introduced to Britain, with the Woolwich Arsenal being the most likely home of its introduction. The game soon spread to London’s Gentlemen’s Clubs, as retiring officers demonstrated to their fellow members, this new ‘Anglo-Indian’ game.

World travelling British billiard professionals and seaman voyaging to the ‘Shiny East’ (India) would also transport the rules back to England.

One such seaman was Captain Sheldrick, who wrote the following to his brother in England on the 2nd February 1886:

‘At our club in Rangoon, we play a game called "Snookers", a first rate game, any amount of fun in it, especially if one of you get snookgered. The way it is played is the same as shell out but you put in the Yellow, Brown, Green and Black balls. If you take the yellow it is double the ordinary life, if the brown, treble, if the green four times, and if the black, 5 times as much as much as the ordinary life. Of course you must put a red ball in before you can play on one of the other beggers, but sometimes you run in off one of them, and got to pay up the price of the ball. I played the other night and very soon tumbled into it. They thought they had a mug. I think Bill before we had finished playing I had "Snookgered" them for 14 rupees, about 25 bob. They didn’t ask me to play Snookers again that evening. They were rather sold I think. You ought to start the game old man.’

From this letter, which was either the first, or very close to being the first description of the game sent to England, we can glean that it was very much a gambling game, and with the 15 reds, only 4 colours were used.

How the game spread throughout the provinces is clearly illustrated by this letter sent to the Billiard Player magazine, by an enthusiast, in 1939.

‘In 1892, I was a billiard marker at Ingam’s Hotel in Manchester. One morning in that year, a military officer on leave from India entered the billiards room, asked for the pyramid and pool balls, and offered to show me a new game called Snooker’s Pool. He told me it was a new game played among the officers in Calcutta and that it had been invented by one of the officers a short time before.

I wrote out the rules from his dictation, went to see Mr. Ackland, manager of Messrs. Burroughes & Watts, and gave him a copy. He offered to get them printed and so did Messrs. Orme’s to whom I gave a copy.

At that time there were only four coloured balls, yellow, green, brown and blue; the pink and black were introduced later.’

So it was not so easy to get a 147 in those days!

In fact, it was not so easy for participants at snooker to record a break of any kind, and we have to go to the first decade of the 20th century before breaks of any consequence were recorded.

Until Mr. Chamberlain, by then a colonel and Knighted, revealed his part in the birth of snooker to eminent novelist Sir Compton Mackenzie in 1938, it was widely reported that the game was invented by an officer in the Bengal Lancers named CAPTAIN SNOOKER!

Now I know of the surname ‘Snooks’, but has anyone out there in cyber space heard of the surname ‘Snooker’?

We look forward to hearing from you.

1910 - 1919

Although the rules to “Snooker’s Pool” were formalised by the governing body in 1900, this did not mean that suddenly the game was played universally to one code of play.

Communications in those days were not so clever, and the only way to acquire the official rules was to purchase a booklet or sheet of rules from the governing body, for one shilling and sixpence (seven and a half new pence). As this was one of their main sources of income, the Billiard Association did not supply them freely to he billiard press or general public.

Consequently, for a number of years, although the official rules were basically as today, confusion still reigned, as billiard table firms independently published their own rules. By 1906, Burroughes & Watts in their “National Rules” booklet had increased the number of coloured balls to 6, but compared to the official rules, the green and brown were placed the wrong way round.

Another major problem came later, when from 1908 to 1919 there were two governing bodies, the Billiard Association and the Billiards Control Club. Both bodies produced their own set of rules, and their own championships. The amateurs stuck mainly with the older Billiard Association, which was formed in 1885, while the professionals played under the then, newly formed Billiards Control Club rules. The confusion this brought about in snooker is well illustrated by an article in The Sportsman newspaper on June 22nd 1915.

“It is ridiculous that the rules of snooker pool is issued by the BA and the BCC differ so considerably in essentials as to create all kinds of pitfalls for the unwary player. Both bodies should come to some agreement on matters that are of vital importance to a game that is growing daily on popular estimation. Take two instances; under BA rules if in playing at a red you miss it and strike no other ball, the penalty is one away, but under BCC laws it is four. Then when playing on the coloured balls, the BA code rules that if you put the cue ball down as well as the colour, the latter comes up, as it is not been pocketed according to the rule, but under BCC laws it remains down. That a game now so old and easy to play that its rules should be standardised and known thoroughly is clogged in this manner is disgraceful, and the sooner this state of affairs is ended the better. Nobody cares a button over the legislative bickerings of the two bodies, but they should clear matters up for the poor player who is no way responsible for the existing state of affairs”.

This was obviously an unsatisfactory situation, and in June of 1919, the two bodies finally merged, amalgamated their rules, and formed the Billiards Association and Control Council.

It was during 1907 that a professional “Snookers Pool Championship” was first played for. Admittedly each game was tagged on to the end of a billiards match, which was promoted by Burroughes & Watts, at their match room in Soho Square, London. This billiard equipment firm, soon tumbled to the commercial realisation that compared to billiards a player needs more balls for snooker, and so promoted the game quite keenly. It was also noticed for the first time that the paying public began to show a great interest in the 22 ball game. The ultimate winner was Charles Dawson, billiard champion from 1899-1903, and curiously, the scoring was recorded in billiard terms, as it was the total aggregate points scored, and not the frames won, which decided the winner of this round robin event.

One of the first authenticated breaks at snooker was recorded in 1908, a 73 by James Harris against Albert Raynor in a bonzoline (not ivory) tournament in Manchester.

This break was equalled a few months later by John Roberts Junior, who was the King of English Billiards from the mid 1870’s (See Player Profile).

In these early days of snooker, even a high aggregate points score was worthy of a certificate, for in 1910, a Mr. F.H.Garside received a certificate from the Billiards Association for aggregating 99 points in a single frame, made at his home against one Sir Charles Kirkpatrick. I wonder how many foul shots were committed?

In1915, George Hargest, who was manager at Luciana Billiard Hall in Blackwood, Monmouthshire, is credited in making the first century, when he made a total clearance of 112. The break was certified by the Billiards Association, which meant it was made on a standard table with official size pocket openings

The honour of being the first professional to make a century goes to Frank Smith Junior of Australia in making 116 at Belfield Hotel, Sydney in 1918. This was followed with a 102 by E.J.O’Donoghue at Te-Azoah in New Zealand in 1919, and a 119 by Conrad Stanbury, The Canadian professional at Winnipeg in 1922.

Englands best at this time was an official break of 89 by Tom Newman in 1919.

Unlike billiards during this period, there was little difference in standard between the amateurs and the Professionals at snooker. Strategy then was not to make large breaks but to take loose balls, and “tuck up” the opponent as much as possible. The blue ball, with the 6 pockets in close proximity was the vital break building ball, and it was not until the mid 1920’s, when a certain Joe Davis developed the game strategy, that the black ball took prominence. More on him later.

1920 - 1929

We have looked at the early development of snooker after the official rules were formalised in 1900. For the first two decades of the 20th century, snooker was not taken too seriously. It was a relaxing break between the much more important bouts of billiards. One man changed this, setting the game up as a real test of strategy and skills, turning it into an exiting spectator sport and dominating it completely for over 30 years, both on and off the table. That man was the legendary Joe Davis.


Although born in the coal mining village of Whitwell, Derbyshire, on April 15th 1901, Joe was fortunate that his parents soon moved to the Queens public house at Whittington Moor, near Chesterfield, which housed a full size billiard table. Another fortunate coincidence was that the room had a 3 inch false floor, which allowed Joe to reach the table at a very young age. He made his first billiard century break at 11 years of age, and became local amateur billiard champion at 13.

At the outbreak of the First World War, with his father being called up to serve his country, Joe was taken under the wing of Ernest Rudge, who owned a billiard hall in Chesterfield. From there, Joe was used to "field the balls" for all the leading players of the day, witnessing what could be done on the table, which encouraged him greatly.

Early reports of his professional career gave a clear indication of his potential, and the success which was to follow. There were new, quite distinctive features in Joe's cue action, which held him in good stead when he turned his attention to snooker. For example, his method of sighting right down over the cue and his ultra rigid stance, were both considered worthy of note in the billiard press of 1923. Tom Newman remarked some years later, when Joe was getting the better of him in the billiards championships, that it was Joe's potting which made the difference, as much as 3000 points over a fortnights play.

Joe's first win over Tom Newman for the Professional Billiards Championship came in 1928 and his only defeat in the event was against Walter Lindrum in 1933 and 1934. Although quite capable of making century breaks, Walter never took to snooker. If he had maybe the record books would read differently today.

In 1924, Joe together with two billiard traders , first put forward the idea of a Professional Snooker Championship to the Billiards Association and Control Council, to complement the Amateur Championship which started in 1916. The idea was met with a marked lack of enthusiasm. The secretary of the governing body, the BA&CC, commented, " The suggestion will receive consideration at an early date, but it seems a little doubtful whether snooker as a spectacular game is sufficiently popular to warrant the successful promotion of such a competition."

At a meeting on September 1st 1926 however, it was finally agreed and in1927, the first professional championship was held.

There was 10 contenders for this first title, most of them far better known for their prowess at billiards; Tom Newman and Melbourne Inman being the most notable. Perhaps the relatively low entry was something to do with the 10 Guineas (£10.50) entry fee demanded, half of which was to go towards the purchase of a suitably impressive trophy. As the first prize was a mere £6-10s (£6.50), no player made a fortune on the championship, but the title, trophy and prize money were duly won by Joe Davis. He beat Tom Dennis 20-11 in the final held at Camkins Rooms in Birmingham, making a top break of 57.

The following year, the championship was played on a challenge basis, with one player coming through to compete with the champion. Joe Davis successfully defended his title in 1928 against Fred Lawrence, winning 16-13.

The 1929 final was a repeat of the first tournament, Davis beat Dennis, this time by a margin of 19-14 and increased the top championship break to 61.