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Tom Reece’s ‘Record’ Break

by Peter Ainsworth & Jock McGregor

The largest break ever recorded at English billiards was made by Tom Reece when over a period of five weeks in 1907, he amassed a total of 499,135 points by means of the anchor, or as it was quickly christened, the “cradle” cannon. It was a culmination of a unique contest between the professional players of the day to establish a record which would last for all time. In this Reece has, in all probability, been successful.

The Anchor Cannon arrives

The introduction of the anchor cannon to the English game seems to have come from America. At least, the possibilities where known to have been demonstrated by Frank Ives during a visit to London in 1892 when he stayed with J. P. Mannock at the Victoria Hotel. Mannock subsequently published details of “kiss cannon” techniques in his book “Billiards Expounded” in 1904.

Walter Lovejoy first unveiled the ‘cradle’ cannon on 7th January, 1907. Within 8 months the stroke had been banned.

However, the possibilities were not developed and exploited to any significant extent in the English game until 1907. In January of that year several prominent members of the billiards community received a mysterious note suggesting that if they attended a match between Walter Lovejoy and Cecil Harverson, at Cox & Yeman’s Brompton Road Hall, they would see something out of the ordinary. Lovejoy had been secretly practising his technique to gather the balls and hold them in what would become known as the “cradle cannon” position. In a rather inauspicious debut, Lovejoy took several days to secure and hold the position long enough to make a break of 603 which established a new record run of 283 consecutive cannons. A modest effort by later standards, but sufficient to attract the attention of all the top players who quickly set about eclipsing Lovejoy’s performance.

Hat-box to the rescue

Reece was one of the first to get into the action. In February he set the first of a series of records with a break of 1,825 in a match against Mel Inman at Thurston’s. It was customary after each session of a match for the referee to lift the balls, carefully marking their positions so that they may be accurately replaced. Now they were faced with a new situation. With the three balls so closely together, and a record break in progress, it appeared almost sacrilegious to disturb them. The referee suggested leaving them, but Inman protested. Ultimately a hat box was placed over the three balls, the room cleared, and the doors locked until the evening session was ready to commence. On this occasion, Reece was unable to hold the position and although he made another break of 1,269 in the match, his constant attempts to regain the “cradle” position allowed Inman to win the match by more conventional scoring techniques.

Let battle commence

By this time the race was well underway, with new records being established by various players almost as frequently as matches could be arranged. In March, Lovejoy, whose personal record break had been 463 just a few months earlier, set a new milestone with a break of 2,257 against W. Pindar at Hull. In the very same week, Reece extended the record to 4,593 and the following week Charles Dawson set a new standard with a break of 6,245 unfinished.

By April 1907, each succeeding week saw records increase. Dawson again extended the record with a break of 7,184 at Liverpool, while Scottish Champion, Tom Aiken just failed to pass this mark during the same week in Edinburgh, completing his 16,000 up match with a break of 7,172 unfinished.

Dawson sets record with 23,769

The photo shows the position of the balls for Tom Reece’s ‘cradle’ cannon break of 499,135. It was considered that after a while, the weight of the balls caused them to settle down into the cloth and ‘cup’ themselves, as it were, in a little hollow. This helped to keep the balls ‘anchored’ in the same position.

To accommodate further attempts, the length of the games were extended in a manner undreamed of a short time previously. Prior to this date, the number of points that any pair of professional players would contest, ranged from 6,500 to 9,000 for a week’s match, and 14,000 to 18,000 for a fortnight’s game. The advent of the ubiquitous “cradle” cannon however, upset all preconceived notions of what could be taken as a reasonable length. Dawson was the first to try to score an unprecedented 25,000 points over a week from 15th-20th April against Lovejoy. Dawson had publicly remarked that he could obtain position for the cradle cannon almost at will, and seemed to be justified when he obtained the desired position on the first evening of the game. From this point Lovejoy played the part of a spectator as Dawson placed all other records in the shade with an unfinished break of 23,769.

It now became a race for supremacy with regard to the biggest break, among the professional experts. But this was not left to their performances on the table alone. It was a battle of wits as well as of cuemanship. If it were only a question of who could make the bigger break, then that point would be easily decided – but there were other issues to be considered. There was a widespread opinion that the end of the “cradle” cannon regime was in sight, and a general expectancy that moves would be made to ban the stroke. Now, timing became a factor.

A race between Reece and Cook

Tom Reece and Joe Chapman, in a thinly disguised record attempt, announced a match of 150,000 up to be played over the course of a week at Birmingham. Reece occupied the table for most of the six days, compiling a new record break of 40,001 unfinished. The objective achieved, and with another attempt booked for the following week in London, the match was abandoned on 1st June with Reece still over 100,000 points short of his target!

As Reece’s break concluded, William Cook, in a match at Thurston’s, was in play with 30,000 unfinished. This match with Alec Taylor was also scheduled for 150,000 up but was spread over two weeks. This helped Cook to pass Reece’s effort and further extend the record to 42,746. This concluded on 4th June when to everyone’s surprise, Cook failed to cannon by the merest shade. Although he later regained position, the match was abandoned on 8th June with Cook barely one third of the way to his required total.

Tom Reece’s record break of 499,135

Meanwhile, with Cook’s game still in progress, Reece and Chapman had moved to Burroughes & Watts, Soho Square, for the ultimate effort which commenced on Monday 3rd June 1907. The announcement of a match for an incredible 500,000 up over a period of five weeks required no further advertisement that this was to be yet another “cradle cannon” exhibition, arranged for the express purpose of enabling Reece to build up a mammoth break.

By now the very name of the “cradle cannon” conveyed a suggestion of something farcical to billiard players and even those people outside the game. Both Burroughes & Watts and Reece had set their minds on putting up an unbeatable record while there was yet time, as it was now an open secret that the rules of the game would shortly be amended to ban the stroke.

The first week …

If Chapman was to spend most of this match as a spectator, he at least had much the better of the opening session, putting together some useful breaks and aggregating 878 points to Reece’s 483. In the evening, however, Reece monopolised the table almost entirely, and after contributions of 219 and 101, obtained the anchor position and was still engaged on an unfinished break of 2,031 at the close of play.

Reece continued the break though the scheduled sessions of Tuesday and Wednesday, and in view of the abnormal number of points to be scored, decided to play an all-night sitting. Commencing at 11.15pm he continued to score (with occasional intervals for rest) until 5.15am the following morning, during which time he increased his break by 20,000 points. During the afternoon session he added another 8,000 points and scored 3,000 more in the evening, the break at the close of play having passed the record of Cook, set just four days previously, having reached the total of 44,135 (unfinished). By the end of the week, the Oldham professional was scoring faster than ever, aggregating 11,000 points on the Saturday afternoon and 6,000 at night, thereby bringing his break to the grand total of 90,135 (unfinished).

The second week …

Match referee William Jordan was the only person, other than Reece, to witness every point of the massive break.

Messrs. Burroughes and Watts found it necessary to admit the public free after some days’ play, and to maintain interest, a game of Snooker was introduced following the afternoon session. With Reece scoring regularly at the rate of 10,000 points a day, the Thursday afternoon saw a four-handed game of Snooker played, in which Cecil Harverson and the Australian Champion, Fred Weiss, also took part. At the end of the second week the great break amounted to 150,135 (unfinished) the daily games of snooker providing the main highlight.

William Jordan was the referee and he must have been heartily sick of the task long before its conclusion. He made the best of his ordeal, however, placing a chair at the side of the table, close to the corner pocket where Reece had the balls set, and sat there closely watching each thousand points being scored. It has often been hinted that Reece must have missed making some of the cannons, but Jordan’s reputation was such that nobody considered he would ever countenance an infraction of the rules and would have been alert to detect any fault.

The third week …

Reece took Monday off to “fulfill a prior engagement” but was back into action the following day, adding a further 9,000 points to his total. By way of variation, the afternoon snooker games with Chapman were replaced by a game of Indian Pool of 200 up. In order to make up time, four sessions were played on the Wednesday resulting in the addition of 20,000 points to Reece’s aggregate. A press report covering a session on Thursday 20th reflects the nature of play :

“There were fourteen spectators, in addition to the marker, and the game proceeded as follows :

 

8.00 p.m. Reece resumes after bowing in recognition to a lukewarm reception. Then the tap-tap of the cannons, at the rate of about one to every two and a half seconds, is heard.

8.02. Three people walk out as Reece takes a rest after making fifty cannons.

8.04. Another fifty cannons are scored, and with a deep sigh Reece chalks his cue.

8.06. Fifty cannons added and a stray enthusiast enters on tip-toe.

8.08. Marker; with a tired voice, announces another hundred points have been scored.

8.10. “The break has reached two hundred thousand points, gentlemen” from the marker, a notification which causes a few spectators to put their hands together. Two of them prepare to leave, and noticing this Reece says “All gentlemen may stand as close to the table as they like.” By way of a diversion and doubtless glad of the change, Reece gives a little demonstration to prove that each of the object-balls revolves once [around it’s axis] in every five or six hundred cannons. This is more interesting than the actual play in the so-called match. In answer to a question as to how the one-stroke exhibition affected him Reece remarked, “It makes me rather stiff standing in one position all the time, but I mean to stick to it, if possible, to the end.”

8.20 The ten minutes interlude over Reece commences upon his two hundred and first thousand to a company reduced to ten plainly tired watchers.”

An all-night sitting on Thursday helped Reece to add 20,000 points. By the end of the week his break had reached 262,135 (unfinished).

The fourth week …

Reece was now scoring at a rate of 20,000 points a day, but it was still felt necessary to play another all-night session on the Wednesday which resulted in a similar increase to the total. Chapman continued to be called into action for afternoon games of Indian Pool, in which he was generally successful. Friday saw Reece in top gear as he scored at an unusually rapid rate, making 10,000 cannons in two hours and fifty-eight minutes. By the end of the week the break stood at 402,135 (unfinished).

The fifth week …

By now, Reece had his target firmly in sight and had reduced his daily contributions to a regular 17,000 points. Chapman was invariably successful at the games of Indian Pool, but might otherwise have stayed at home, as on Saturday 6th July, Reece easily scored the 12,000 points required to take him to game, running out the winner by no fewer than 449,074 points. The full break amounted to 499,135 and included 249,552 anchor cannons, being still unfinished when game was reached.

At the conclusion Messrs. Burroughes and Watts presented Reece with a cheque for £125 and a gold watch suitably inscribed, and if only in terms of a feat of endurance, nobody would argue that he deserved it.

Record rejected

When Reece later appeared before the committee of the Billiard Association to apply for a certificate for his break, he admitted that a portion of the break had been made behind locked doors when the public did not have access to the hall. After consideration it was decided not to give official recognition on the grounds that it would set a precedent for any player to have locked himself in a room, with one witness, and make claim to a record. This left Cook’s break of 42,746 as the highest official break made during this short season of cannon play.

“Cradle” Cannon Barred

At a special meeting of the Billiard Association on 2nd September 1907, it was resolved that “the cradle cannon be barred”. No agreement could be reached at this meeting on the actual definition of a cradle cannon, and it was left to the referees to determine its application. However, it had the desired effect and brought to an end this unique period of billiards history.

The rule was soon modified to allow no more than twenty five consecutive “ball to ball” cannons. This would still allow a longer run of cannons if the cue ball was played against a cushion before completing the score (a loop-hole which would be exploited by Reece some 20 years later) but for now both players and spectators had seen enough of the “cradle-cannon” and had no desire to see further demonstrations. For the 1907-08 season it would be a case of “normal service resumed” and everyone breathed a sigh of relief.

Reece demonstrates the ‘cradle cannon’ while Joe Chapman and referee William Jordan