William Cook Senior



Past Masters number 3
William Cook Senior

During the years 1866/67 John Roberts Senior, who was now over 50 years of age, was still the undisputed billiards champion. There were however quite a large group of up and coming younger players, including William Cook – John Roberts Junior and Joseph Bennett. These three were now coming to the front and so sooner or later, one or other would begin to threaten the Champion, who by this time might have been finding with middle age that his eyesight was not as good as it used to be, although none of his photographs show him wearing glasses, and contact lenses, (as currently worn by such professionals as Mr Fred Davis), were something like 100 years into the future.

During late 1868, John Roberts Junior (aged 21 years) played William Cook (aged 19 years), and Roberts won – but in the return match of 1000 up, early in 1869, Cook won easily by 323 points, and later that year, playing better than ever, he made record breaks of 351 in Liverpool, and 359 in Manchester, and so before the end of the year, Cook had issued a challenge to John Roberts Senior, to play him on level terms for the Championship.

William Cook was born in Sandy near Bedford, in June 1849, so he was not quite 21 years old when the Championship Match took place, during February, 1870. His great strength was evidently his ability to achieve hazards off the spot, with absolute certainty time and time again and there does seem to have been some gamesmanship as the size of the pocket openings was greatly reduced for this Championship.

Young Cook evidently did not realise that this would handicap him more than his opponent – who did not rely to the same extent on “spots” (the term used at this time) and so he agreed to the smaller pockets and in fact it seems that the pockets were twice reduced in size, with the intention of making “spots” almost impossible, which young Mr Cook evidently did not appreciate.

At this date, the size of the pocket openings became a serious matter for discussion (and / or for argument) especially when championship matches were arranged as there was no governing body to control the rules, or to stipulate the size of the pocket openings , and the baulk and spot positions varied.

There was perhaps and understandable desire to “limit” the spot stroke, and so “for championship” tables, it was agreed that the corner pocket openings would only measure 3 inches across the fall – the radius of the half circle was first fixed at 9 ½ inches and later increased to 10 inches – the baulk line was 28 inches from the face of the bottom cushion, and the spot 12 ½ inches from the face of the top cushion!!

And so, it was under these conditions that the Cook versus Roberts Senior match for the Championship was held, at St James Hall, on the 11th February, 1870. The Prince of Wales (later to be King Edward the VII) was present for most of the game, and is said to have remarked “That he would prefer to see the larger breaks which could be achieved on “ordinary tables”.

After a keen contest of 1200 up, William Cook won the very first professional championship to actually be contested.

As already mentioned, William Cook’s ability at the spot stroke play was unequalled, and immediately after winning the Championship, he issued a challenge offering to give any player in the world a 200 points start, in a game of 2000 up, to be played on table with 3 5/8 inches pockets.

However, within 3 months, on the 14th April, 1870, John Roberts Junior avenged his father’s defeat by playing William Cook for the title on a “Championship” table with 3 inches pocket openings, and defeated Cook very easily by a margin of 478 points in a game of 1000 up, which was completed three in hours and four minutes!

Within a few months Joseph Bennett – the third man of the up and coming youngsters, challenged Roberts Junior for the Championship and beat him – thus the year 1870 is remarkable for the fact that , during this one year, four different players viz..- Robert Senior – William Cook – Roberts Junior and Joseph Bennett, all held the Championship.

It seems that conditions governing challenges for the Championship were drawn up requiring than at least two months should elapse between these events. And so it was early 1871, on the 30th of January, when Roberts Junior again played Joseph Bennett, and easily regained the title.

William Cook then challenged Bennett, and in the contest, on the 25th May 1971, won by the extreme narrow margin of only 15 points. Cook, however, then definitely established himself as superior to all others, and held the Championship for the next four years. In 1873, he also won the first great “all in” Billiards Handicap, which was promoted by the late well known Billiard Table Manufacturers, Messrs. Burroughes and Watts Ltd. of London. (Burroughes and Watts business was acquired by E.J. Riley, who for a period traded as Riley-Burwat, before reverting back to the Riley name. For a number of years after the name of Burroughes & Watts was only remembered for the quality tables they produced, however, the name has been re- registered)

William Cook visited the United States of America, where he played several matches – it is not clear however, whether he played the English or the Continental game of billiards, however, he brought back with him and introduced the tournaments played on the American principle, wherein every player plays every other player during the Tournament.

It seems that Cook did not organise his own finances in a prudent and sensible manner. He must have earned a great deal of money, but was evidently a “soft touch” never turning a deaf ear to appeals for assistance, and so he died penniless in Brompton Consumption Hospital, on the 30th of June 1893.

Norman Clare

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