John Roberts Junior



Past Masters number 4
John Roberts Junior

May I commence by referring to my article in this series on John Roberts Senior (father of this month’s “Past Master”), which was published on page 39 of the August issue of Cue World.

I have been pleased to receive correspondence from a number of readers including a letter from Mr. Harry Smith, of West Kirby, Wirral, who drew my attention to the fact that John Roberts Senior, was born in Liverpool, and not in Manchester as I stated. Mr Smith also quoted a date of birth, whilst I had stated “about 1815” although we agree that there is still some uncertainty about the exact date.

This prompted me to carry out further research on John Roberts Senior – whilst at the same time researching on the life and career of his son J R Junior, with the following results.

In the book entitled “Roberts on Billiards”, by John Roberts Senior, published 1868, he writes . . . “the first table I ever played on was at the Old Rotunda, Bold Street, Liverpool, my birth place, when I had reached my ninth year. It was an old fashioned wooden bottomed concern, made by Gillow, and the cushions which were of list carried the ball about four times” . . .

As Roberts Senior is the author we must allow him to know where he was born, and so Liverpool can claim to be the birthplace of this famous billiards player. Roberts Junior together with the editor Mr F M Hotine, was responsible for publishing the monthly magazine entitled “The Billiard Review” during the period 1865/6, states on page 389 that . . . ” My father was not born in 1815 as stated in the “Badminton Library” by Major Broadfoot . . . J Roberts Senior, was born on 27th March 1826″ . . . and it would seem that the son should know his father’s birth date.

However, this cannot be reconciled with the state that J R Senior, was 55 years of age when in 1870 he lost the Championship to W Cook – which brings us back again to 1815 as the year of his birth!

In the book entitled “Modern Billiards” by John Roberts Junior, which was published in 1902, he says that he was born at Ardwick, Manchester, on 15th August 1847, his father (J R Senior), being at that time in charge of the Billiard Room, at the Union Club in Manchester. When he was about 10 years old his father took the Billiard Room at the George Hotel in Lime Street, Liverpool, and that he was sent to school at the Mechanics Institute in Mount Pleasant. J R Junior is himself the author of this information we should be able to rely upon it as being accurate.

He also had two younger brothers. Charles, who also became a professional player and wrote a number of books on the subject. And Herbert, who was also a professional player of some repute, but it was John Roberts Junior, who in time became without any doubt, the leading professional player of his day.

His skill can be traced back to his father’s Billiard Room in the George Hotel, where after school he would “knock the balls about”, and in the absence of his father would play against John Herst – one of the markers, who himself became a well known professional. So whilst young John learnt largely from his own observations he must also have gained from Herst’s instruction.

Further experience and opportunity for practice became possible when the Roberts family moved to London in 1860/1 at the time when Roberts Senior became the lessee of the Billiard Rooms at Saville House in Leicester Square, and young John Roberts regularly acted as his father’s assistant.

According to his own recollection Roberts Junior won his first handicap in 1866, the final being played against H Evans (who later became Champion of Australia). In the following year he won a big handicap competition promoted by W Dufton, in which 24 players took part. In games of 400 up the handicaps ranged from – Roberts Senior owing 100 points, whilst Hughes, Christmas, Bennett and Herst all receiving 10 points and Roberts Junior received 35 points, all the other players receiving between 70 and up to 130 points. Thus Roberts Junior at this date was ranked No 6, whilst J R Senior was clearly way ahead of the field as No 1.

The final was played between J R Senior v J R Junior, the father in fact only scored 28 points more than his son who therefore with the benefit of his handicap won quite easily.

During the period 1866/68, John Roberts Junior, together with William Cook and Joseph Bennett, began to move ahead of the other Junior professionals and indeed Roberts Senior named these three players plus John Herst as being the second tank of players (he himself of course being No 1.)

You will remember from the previous article that William Cook became the recognised billiards champion when he defeated John Roberts Senior on 11th February 1870. But John Roberts Junior, soon avenged his father’s defeat by challenging Cook for the championship two months later and easily beating him by 478 points in a game of 1000 up on 14th April 1870.

A few weeks later Alfred Bowles, challenged Roberts Junior for the championship but failed completely.

Before the year 1870 was out, Joseph Bennett, another of the so called “second ranked players” challenged Roberts Junior and in the hard fought contest lasting nearly five hours, finally won by 95 points in 1000 up.

Early in 1871, after a lapse of two months – as now required by rules for the competition, Roberts Junior once again challenged and again became the champion, winning by 363 in a game lasting only three hours and twenty-two minutes. However, the championship soon changed hands once more, when Cook again defeated Roberts Junior, this time by only 15 points, but after this Cook defeat all challengers, holding the championship for the next four years, that is during the period 1871/5.

Roberts Junior finally asserted his superiority on 24th May 1875, when he again defeated Cook, this match is important as a turning point in the career of J R Junior; Cook had been considered the better player but from now on Roberts demonstrated his superiority and he continued to improve with each succeeding year, leaving all his opponents a long way behind.

Cook challenged again on 20th December 1875, and at the St James Hall, in the presence of the Prince of Wales, a keen contest took place. The players passing and re-passing each other many times, but after nearly three and a half hours Roberts retained the championship by a margin of 135 points (some reports say 136).

Roberts Junior now commenced his travels around the world. At the invitation of Mr Alcock – a billiard table maker of Melbourne, Australia, who was a friend of Roberts Senior (the billiard company Alcock, Thompson and Taylor is still very active in the Australian Billiards trade). John Roberts Junior, departed on his first overseas tour on 6th April 1876. The tour was a great success, and lasted a whole year. He returned to England on 6th/7th April 1877 having made about £7,000.00 altogether (a very handsome figure in 1876/7).

Whilst away on this first overseas tour, Roberts had sent a challenge to Cook to play for the Championship, and this match took place at the Gaiety Restaurant on 28th May 1877, very shortly after his return, when Roberts retained the Championship winning by 221 points.

During the next several years 1877 to 1884, Roberts Junior made so many overseas tours that he was not able to defend the championship again until 1885. It is recorded that he visited India, including Ceylon on 11 occasions, with 3 visits to Australia, 2 visits to New Zealand, 2 to the U.S.A. and 6 to South Africa.

Whilst visiting India in 1878 his agent a Mr Brelauer, evidently travelled ahead seeking engagements, and thus he approached Ram Singh, the Maharaja of Jeypure, he declined to give an engagement but said he did not think Roberts would go away disappointed.

Roberts decided to make the visit without having a firm promise of remuneration, and he must have been more than satisfied to receive a present of 1000 Rupees, together with a gold enamelled cup and saucer studded with diamonds (see illustration). In addition, as hopefully readers can perceive from the photograph of the accompanying letter, on 11th February 1878 he was appointed “Court Billiard Player” at a salary of £500.00 per annum, which was paid until the Maharaja died.

During Roberts’ second visit to India in 1878 he founded the firm of John Roberts and Co, Billiard Table Manufacturers in Bombay, with his agent Mr Breslauer, as partner. The enterprise become a Limited Company and traded very successfully as Roberts was – as himself says . . . “travelling with an eye to business”.

The John Roberts & Co business also had a branch in Calcutta and was still trading up to 1939 when World War II commenced. He also traded successfully as a billiard table marker etc . . . in London.

There were no contests for the Championship during 1878 and 1879, although Cook did evidently try to assume the title. In 1880 Joseph Bennett challenged either Roberts or Cook to play for the Championship – during this period Roberts who had been away on overseas tours waived his claim and so on 8th November 1880. Cook played the challenge match and after a hard game his nerve failed, he missed several easy strokes and so Bennett won by 51 points and thereby was acknowledged champion.

Immediately after this Championship Roberts and Cook departed together as “Ex-Champions” on a visit to India. In their absence, T Taylor now challenged Bennett to play for the Championship and the contest took place in January 1881, Bennett retaining the Championship, winning by 90 points in 1000 up.

Now there is a gap of 4 years without a Championship. As it was not until 1885, that the next contest took place, when the points required for game were increased to 3000 (previously 1000 except for the very first championship, when Cook won against Roberts Senior in a game of 1200 up).

In April 1885, Cook made his final attempt to take the Championship in a contest against Roberts Junior, who was suffering from malaria, no doubt as a result of his visits abroad. Cook played well, but Roberts despite his illness played with great determination and finally won by 92 points.

Within two months Joseph Bennett also made his final attempt at the Championship when during June 1885 the contest took place at the Royal Aquarium, Roberts wining easily. Having now won the cup five times it became his own property for good.

Now there is another period of four years without a contest for the Championship. It would seem that Roberts Junior “retired”, although he continued playing and travelling, giving magnificent displays and offering any players a start of 9000 points in games of 24,000 up, saying he wished his opponents would play better.

When is was suggested that he relied on the “push stroke”, he responded by saying he would allow any man in the world a start of 7,000 in 24,000 “push shot” in or out at his option, for any sum up to £1,000. But it would seem nobody responded to this challenge.

Championship of Billiard Challenge Cup

This Cup is the original Professional Billiards Championship Cup, first played for in 1870. It was won outright by John Roberts Junior in 1890 and given by him to his son

Mr J W Roberts of Madras The latter has presented it to The Billiards Association and Control Council in trust to be held by the winner of the English Amateur Billiards Championship each year.

The shields would indicate that it was first used for the amateur championships in 1931-32 and was won by Sydney Lee. The last name on the shields is Chris Shutt 1995/96, although there is a big gap in the dates.

It must be said that Roberts Junior was very “full of his own importance”, and often published disparaging remarks about other players and the Billiards Association. Roberts and Mr Fred Hotine (the Editor) were responsible between them for the publication of the monthly magazine entitled “Billiards Review”, in which his opinions were forcefully expressed.

Indeed it could be almost be said that his word was law. I quote two examples, which I believe will give an insight to his character:-

On page 114 (December 1895) Roberts Says “the Billiards Association, is certainly not in a position either to make a new rule which will find general acceptance or to interpret the existing rules against the push shot. I for one would not pay any attention to a ruling emanating from the Association and there are many others of my way of thinking.”

On page 574 (November 1896) Roberts says, ” Why not institute a fresh Championship . . . to be completed for by such of the players (myself excepted) as care to enter. The winner might be styled until I retire or he beats me – “Second Champion” or “Champion” (Roberts barred)”

Roberts died in Worthing in 1919 at 71 years of age, some 24 years after last winning the Championship.

Norman Clare

© 1990 Norman Clare / 2018 E A Clare & Son Limited
Reproduction of this article allowed with permission from E A Clare & Son Limited