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American Pool Tables – A History Of Pool In The UK
Billiards has been popular for decades, in fact centuries. But it was a chap called John Thurston who really established the pastime as a mainstream activity for the well-to-do, way back in the late 1700’s, and whom was responsible for the on-going development of various versions of the game ever since!
But what exactly is ‘billiards’…didn’t the British play snooker?. Many people in the UK think of billiards as the game of English Billiards which is played with a white, spot white and a red, where players get points for billiards (playing one ball off another or into the pocket) and straight pots. English Billiards is typically played on a 12ft snooker table with napped cloth and flat faced rubbers on the cushions.
However, the term ‘billiards’ can be used to describe hundreds of different ball games played on tables around the world. In effect it is a generic term for all forms of table games with balls and rubber cushions. And for reference, yes much of Britain became fanatical about snooker in the 1980’s, but it wasn’t until the mid 19th century that snooker was developed in the jewel of the British empire…India!
So, for the sake of this article, I’m going to be writing about ‘American’ style pool and ‘UK’ style pool and how they differ, what makes one game better than the other and so forth.
So let’s get back to Mr Thurston and life in the 18th century!
Life in the 1700’s must have been interesting to say the least…Napoleon was Emperor of France, the Industrial Revolution was just beginning to rock and good King George III was on the throne in England (and so began the rise to fame of one George Washington!).
The world was beginning to change – the ‘New World’ had been well and truly discovered and with steps forward in technology, Britain was leading the world in trade and industrial development. But of course, those with the new found wealth needed something to spend their money on, and new ‘toys’ to use up their spare time to entertain other rich people…step forward Mr Thurston.
It was thought that Thurston had been a cabinet maker with a certain Mr Gillow who was thought to have been the first person to produce a credible billiard table in the UK. However Gillow had teething problems relating to the logistics of getting his new products around the country – the earliest railway was still some 50 years away and his factory was based in Lancashire in the north-west of England, some 250 miles from the mega-money of London!
But come 1799, Thurston had cottoned on to the growing demand for quality leisure time products and established his own factory just off ‘The Strand’ in the heart of London. In those days, billiard tables didn’t have slate beds, they had wooden beds that were of course susceptible to warping, cracking, shrinking and expanding…all in all, not a very good way to build a quality billiard table!
But if Thurston was to be remembered for anything, it would be his ingenuity. By the mid 1800’s, Thurston had firmly set the standard for building billiard tables, having invented the use of slate beds, and vulcanized rubber and the construction techniques for building a frame substantial enough to support the weight of these new table designs.
But Thurston’s tables weren’t limited to the UK. His tables were very soon popping up (if that is the right term for a 1 1/2 ton game table!) all over the existing and revolutionized empire. In fact, a certain John Moses Brunswick happened across a rather beautiful Thurston billiard table that one of his carriage clients had just imported from the ‘old world’ during a party in Cincinnati one night in 1845. Brunswick’s client had invited the Swiss immigrant to a party to celebrate his new toy and Brunswick was captivated by its unique beauty and construction. Little did he know that this was to be the catalyst for the biggest and most successful billiard company in the world…
As the Industrial Revolution drove the new economies, more and more people found the desire to own a billiard table. However at that time most forms of ball games on tables didn’t involve the use of pockets. In fact the most popular game(or versions of) was carom where points were awarded for canons and billiards (playing one ball off another onto yet another ball) with the first person reaching a predetermined total, being the winner. In India, coloured balls were added to the red ‘pool’ balls that made up the triangle and pockets were added to make the game of snooker. But in America, balls with numbers began to popularise billiard rooms around the developed cities of America and various games of pool were slowly being developed.
As with the technological revolution of the late 20th century, for those who dared, or for those who knew the right people, the ability to make lots of money was relatively easy. And with money came the desire to show just how much money you had by displaying your wealth through large houses, fine furniture and billiard tables.
By this time in the UK, companies such as Burroughs and Watts and E J Riley had began to cultivate their fanbase, building extravagant solid wood snooker tables from exotic mahoganies and oak, with some tables even covered in gold leaf and shipped to the far corners of the empire. It was a scene that would last up until the 2nd world war. However, both snooker and pool were not to be confined to the rich…
Of course, your working man was not going to have the money to buy a hand carved, eight legged snooker table, but he was the type of person to frequent one of the growing number of public billiard rooms opening around either country. In the US (having now overcome the difficulties of its civil war), there are records of billiard rooms with more than 60 tables! The growing J M Brunswick Co now based in Chicago was looking to buy up its more significant competitors to make itself even bigger. The company already had its own lumber company shipping barge upon barge of hardwoods to manufacture tables and cues. The public billiard room was becoming an increasingly popular social meeting area.
However the 2nd world war was going to be the catalyst that was to change many industries including the billiard industry. With the Britain of the mid 1940’s struggling to rebuild itself and even find enough food to feed everyone, the desire for people to go out and buy what in effect is a big boy’s toy, was not top priority. The big companies thriving in the first part of the century were looking to survive. Highly regarded companies such as Thurston, Burroughs & Watts, George Wright, Orme & Sons would not see the end of the century as independent companies, they would either go out of business, or be taken over by the few remaining organisations strong enough to continue.
Snooker would continue in billiard rooms around the UK, but typically the style of room would appeal to those with a low disposable income, with many rooms shrouded in darkness, smelling of spilt beer and stale smoke. The hard times of the mid-seventies would not help the industry, but the development of capitalist ideals in a country just off the coast of communist China would allow a new group of entrepreneurial businesses to relight the desire for millions of Britains to start playing snooker again.
However, just as many of the country’s billiard room owners were beginning to look for complementing sources of revenue such as juke boxes and cigarette machines, a new type of business was starting to develop, offering to site the very things that billiard room owners and publicans were looking for, for either a share of the profits or a weekly rental. It was the new ‘Operator’ that would have the biggest effect on snooker and pool in the UK over the years to come…
Back in the US, the ‘coin-op’ industry was in full swing, developing new products that could be ‘operated by inserting coins’ and a revenue share developed of the profits as was beginning to develop in the UK, however a group of pioneering companies had seen the opportunity to develop a coin-op billiard table that would be sited in pubs, community centres, clubs, canteens and many more other places that couldn’t utilise a full size pool or snooker table. Even better… the tables had been designed as boxes that could be easily shipped to site and set-up in minutes as opposed to the hours that a regular table would take to set-up. This was the opportunity that companies like Alca and Valley had been looking for and it wasn’t long before their reach extended beyond coastal USA.
By the end of the 1960’s and start of the ’70’s, the coin-operated pool table was beginning to be more widely seen. It was never going to break house records in terms of revenue generation, but then again, it didn’t have to be changed every six months like the amusement machines site owners were clamoring for. This meant that operators could easily site a pool table either in one place or many places for at least 5 years, whilst only having to periodically change the cloth and the balls as and when someone decided to pinch one of them!
Most of the tables were being shipped in from the US and as a consequence were rather expensive. It wasn’t long before a company in a suburb of Manchester decided that they could actually build these tables in the UK – but with a twist…
Hazel Grove Music were about to set in motion a program that could have and should have enveloped the westernised world, but for reasons we will come onto later, eventually fell flat on its face.
Hazel Grove or HGM as we’ll call them, decided that the big 2-1/4″ diameter balls that the Americans were using on effectively 7-1/2 ft tables, were far too big for the small roomed British public houses and so they developed 5-1/2ft and 6ft tables to better fit. However at the same time, they changed the way that the tables were sized and called these new tables 6ft and 7ft tables so that consumers would not feel as thought they were playing on kiddie sized equipment!
But they didn’t stop there… They also reduced the ball size to a 2″ diameter object ball and a 1-7/8″ cue ball. However they weren’t content with stopping there either! They also introduced napped snooker cloth onto the tables with flat faced rubbers. This was a major about-face to the way pool had been played. The American tables had heavy balls with wide pockets, perfectly suited to attacking pool. But the new HGM tables had tight pockets with smaller balls and a napped cloth – as such they were able to market it as a ‘purer’ form of billiards.
As with many things, just changing something is not enough – you have to have a ‘killer-ap’ that is going to knock everything else down, and Hazel Grove had it in the ‘Superleague’ concept!
Superleague pool tables would flood the markets of the UK, France, Channel Islands and Ireland. It was a classic idea – set the price of the item higher than you needed, then take a percentage of that profit to use as a prize fund to develop a ‘closed competition’. If you wanted to be part of it… get a Superleague table!
There were hundreds of locations that would never be able to fit a snooker table, but there were literally thousands that could and would fit a UK pool table. Operators were over the moon. Buy a table for say GB750 and site it for GB15 per week. You make your money back in year one and almost everything after that is profit…it just sits there making money! Of course, get the right site and you could work a revenue sharing deal which could be worth GB 000’s.
Pretty soon the small ball format had taken over and ‘English pool’ had developed with four major manufacturers establishing footholds in the industry, all located around the North West of England.
Billiard as a whole was riding a massive wave of popularity in the UK with snooker drawing millions of people via TV. Pool was able to ride on the coat tails of snooker with the public wanted to play some or any form of ball game on a table for entertainment. Some industry sources were to later estimate that at its peak, there were around 30,000 coin-operated pool tables sited in the UK!
But trouble was brewing for both disciplines – unless you were very capable with a cue, both games could be incredibly boring. For most normally talented soles, a single frame of snooker could last up to 2 hours! And the game of English pool had developed into a fudging match with either player trying to be the first to cover all the pockets (but without actually pocketing a ball).
Major competition in the manufacturing of these tables meant that it was getting increasingly more difficult for HGM to ask a premium price for their tables and it wasn’t long before Hazel Grove, like the world famous companies that went before it… ended up as part of another company.
In the meantime, support (albeit small) was growing for a reinstatement of the bigger American tables because people wanted fun. The general public was not prepared to pay good money to be bored and the quicker, easier American game must appeal to the public more than the current version.
However, the English pool table industry was still huge in comparison and those that made the decision on which version would go into which chain of public houses would more often than not, go in the favour of the small ball game to protect vested interests. It would be the end of the 1990’s before the big ball game would really see a pick up in support.
Surprisingly though, it wouldn’t be an American company pushing hard to re-establish the big ball game in Britain. The rest of Europe had pretty much taken the American game as its own following the occupation of US forces during the 2nd World War. It would be a Spanish company called SAM Billares that would begin the demise of small ball pool not only in the UK, but everywhere else it had been established over the preceding 30 years!
Whilst SAM would establish a hold on the commercial pool sector, that famous old company Brunswick would not be far behind in taking over the consumer sector. Whilst the small ball game has not yet gone away, the PlayStation culture of the 21st century has determined that people are not prepared to mess about for hours on end – they are prepared to pay higher prices for a better experience and that experience is the big ball version of pool.
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