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THE FIRST “WORLD AMATEUR CHAMPIONSHIP”

The idea of a World Championship for amateur players can be traced back to 1915, when the UK Championship changed its format to allow the entry of recognised champions from Commonwealth counties (which of course represented all the significant billiard playing nations of the world). This was grandly styled as “The Championship of English Billiards” However, with the strict regulations concerning amateur status requiring that a player met his own travel expenses, it is perhaps not surprising that very few overseas champions made their way to England to take advantage of this opportunity.

The Foundations

A separate competition confined exclusively to national champions was first proposed in 1922 by Arthur Walker, president of the South African Billiards Association, but it was not until 1925 that the concept began to take shape. The main problems up to this time had been, a) the cost of travel from countries as far apart as Canada, India, South Africa and Australia; and b) the use of the composition ball in all countries except England, which still used ivory for all championship matches. In 1925, The Billiards Association & Control Council (BA&CC) addressed this latter problem by stipulating that the composition ball would in future be used in all English Championship matches. Even though the majority of amateur players in the United Kingdom were by this time using composition, tradition is a difficult thing to overcome, and this particular change caused deep divisions throughout the game in England. Many of the top players refused to enter the 1926 event in protest, including the reigning Champion, Sidney Fry.

At the same time, the BA&CC decided to allow national associations to meet the travel expenses of competitors without compromising their amateur status, so removing both major obstacles. Under these conditions, the “Championship of English Billiards” was discontinued, and a contest to find an English representative was conducted under the title of “English Amateur Championship” The first such contest was to be decided in February 1926 and allowed entries only from English and also—somewhat incongruously—Welsh residents. Scotland and Ireland were now obliged to produce their own Amateur Champion and national competitions were organised to this effect.

The English Championship

This was an era when the legacy of George Gray, the Australian wonder boy, was engrained into amateur billiards all over the World. There being no restriction on red ball play, all amateurs were basing their game on this scoring technique.

Joe Earlam made a break of 618 at the age of nineteen.

The standard of play in the United Kingdom, and particularly England at this time, was possibly the highest in the World, but there was no doubt that Australia and New Zealand also had very capable players. The 1925 championship in England had seen the entry of the New Zealand and Australasian Champion J. R. Hooper, who, playing for the first time with the ivory ball, put up a valiant performance and demonstrated that he could well have taken the title had the event been played with more familiar “compositions”. Perhaps encouraged by this performance, the Australian National Champion, George Shailer made application to take part in the 1926 English championship, but with the change in structure of the competition, his entry was refused by the BA&CC.

During the summer of 1925, a 19 year-old player from Cheshire called Joe Earlam had made a break of 506 with ivory balls in practice at the Runcorn Liberal Club. He had also made a break of 618 with composition balls. It was little surprise then, that Earlam took the 1926 English Championship with some ease, after overcoming his only significant rival, Laurie Steeples, in the semi-finals.

The 1926 Empire Championship

A meeting of the BA&CC on 16th December 1925, formally ratified that an Amateur Championship of the British Empire would be held, involving the national champions of all eligible countries. The event was to be staged at Thurston’s in Leicester Square, London, commencing April 1926. All players would meet each other in heats of 2,000 up, involving four sessions played over two days on a single match table. The Champion would be decided on aggregate points over his four matches. Thurston’s donated a silver trophy and each competitor would receive a gold medal to commemorate his participation. All games were played with “Crystalate” composition balls.

Entries were now received and accepted from the following national champions : Joe Earlam (England); Malcolm Smith (Scotland); George Shailer (Australia); Percy Rutledge (South Africa); Tom McCluney (Nth. Ireland)

Earlam was immediately installed as firm favourite. However, a huge controversy was aroused when he publicly declared his intention to turn professional after the event. Voices were raised in the establishment of billiards, insisting that he be disqualified from the competition on these grounds. Despite the protests, Earlam was allowed to compete.

Champions of five countries ( L-R) : P. Rutledge, M. Smith, G. Shailer, J. Earlam, T. McCluney.

George Shailer was 45 years-old and came with the track-record of having won the championship of Australia five times since 1913. He had been given six months unpaid leave from his job as a police officer and sailed from Sydney on Boxing Day, arriving in England on 6th February 1926, giving himself plenty of time to become acclimatised. There were no great expectations from the other players, with the left-handed Malcolm Smith being regarded as the most likely to upset Earlam and Shailer.

The competition began on Monday 12th April with the heat between Shailer and Smith, in which the Australian demonstrated his class by making a break of 203 in a comfortable victory. Earlam matched this with a break of 205 in his first game, and by the end of the week it already was apparent that the English and Australian champions were in a class of their own. This was fortunate perhaps, as the draw had been arranged so that they would meet in the last heat, and expectations were high that this would provide the decisive climax to the Championship.

First week results:
G. Shailer
203, 134, 90, 86, 77, 76, 71, 57
2,000 (15.9) M. Smith
75, 62, 55
1,245 (9.9)
J. Earlam
205, 180, 157, 124, 93, 74, 73, 70, 60, 57, 50
2,000 (20.8) T. McCluney
144, 52
879 (9.2)
M. Smith
80, 78, 74, 71, 60, 54, 51, 50, 50
2,000 (12.0) P.W. Rutledge
74, 69, 65, 61, 51, 50
1,801 (10.9)

Earlam completed the second week with a comprehensive victory over the South African Champion who was completely overwhelmed as the young Runcorn player made breaks of 241, 213 and three other centuries to win by 1,242 points. On 21st April, in the second session of his game against Rutledge, Earlam made a sessional average of 83, scoring his required 500 points in six visits to the table. For the full match his average was 35.1 Both of these statistics established new records for an amateur player. His achievements were recognised with a certificate issued by BA&CC.

Second week results:
M. Smith
120, 117, 106, 94, 89, 84, 76, 66, 59, 58, 56, 52, 52
2,000 (15.0) T. McCluney
131, 104, 84, 81, 81, 60, 54, 52, 51, 50
1,917 (14.4)
J. Earlam
241, 213, 145, 138, 126, 93, 92, 79, 78, 78, 69, 69, 64, 56, 53, 53
2,000 (35.1) P.W. Rutledge
64, 59
758 (13.8)
G. Shailer
166, 151, 144, 128, 103, 84, 77, 63, 61
2,000 (16.8) T. McCluney
70, 66, 64, 64, 62, 55, 53
1,292 (10.9)

With the favourites both registering comfortable victories, the highlight of the third week’s play was a break of 184 by Earlam, made against Scottish Champion Malcolm Smith. This could have been much more, but resuming after the interval on 175 unfinished, with just the red ball on the table, he mistakenly picked his opponent’s ball from the pocket, scoring another 9 points before he was stopped by the referee.

Third week results:
G. B.
111, 103, 92, 76, 75, 71, 65, 65, 64, 64, 63, 54, 54, 53
Shailer 2,000
94, 63, 62, 52, 51, 50
15 (.6)
J. Earlam
184, 169, 100, 87, 78, 77, 68, 68, 64, 61, 61, 50
2,000 (21.7) M. Smith
130, 88, 87, 79, 75, 68, 62, 50
1,324 (14.5)
P.W. Rutledge
142, 108, 91, 76, 72, 71, 61, 57
2,000 (16.1) T. McCluney
101, 73, 59, 52, 51, 50
1,529 (12.3)

Thurston’s match rooms in London, Venue for the Championship.

As expected, the final heat between Earlam and Shailer, both undefeated to this point, would decide the destination of the championship trophy. The first session of this contest would prove decisive, as everything seemed to go wrong for Shailer. The interval was reached with the Australian trailing 69-500. From there he played an uphill game, and although improving significantly as the match went on, he was never able to redress this initial deficit. In the final session, while Earlam was completing the 500 points he required for victory, Shailer averaged 32.5 over an aggregate of 654 points, making breaks of 107, 129, 145 and 96. By doing this, Shailer had the consolation of setting a new record for the most centuries made in a session of an amateur championship game. Even so, Earlam made a total of six centuries in the match, with a highest break of 282, to claim victory by 606 points on Tuesday 4th May. This gave him an unbeatable aggregate of 8,000 points for the competition, and secured for him a unique place in history of the game.

 

Final heat result:
J. Earlam
282, 181, 138, 138, 112, 109, 80, 75, 74, 73, 64, 59, 53, 51
2,000 (29.4) G.B. Shailer
145, 132, 129, 107, 96, 89, 61, 56, 53
1,394 (20.8)

In addition to his gold medal, Shailer received a certificate from the BA&CC in recognition of his record achievement and also an special prize of an inscribed silver teapot, awarded by the Composition Ball Co.

Earlam’s break of 282 proved to be the highest of the competition and his average of 25.6 for his 8,000 points would have done credit to a good class professional of his time. Earlam, received the Thurston’s trophy and a replica which became his personal property.

Although the standard of play exhibited both by the winner and runner- up attained a standard of excellence that had never previously been approached in any amateur contest, there was much speculation that this first championship would also be the last. Public patronage had been very disappointing for all matches except those involving Earlam, making it a questionable proposition from the promoters’ point of view. Interviewed on his return to Edinburgh by The Edinburgh Evening News, Malcolm Smith, the Scottish champion, was of the opinion that the Commonwealth champions were unlikely to be enticed to visit England again. “It is a long and costly journey for these business lads” he said. Despite this, the BA&CC lost no time in announcing that the competition would be held in London the following year.

However, Joe Earlam would not defend his title. He made good his promise to turn professional and, switching back to ivory balls, made his debut in September 1926. Although he subsequently won the 1930 Junior Professional Championship (open to all professionals under 25 years of age) he never managed to establish himself in the top rank of the professional game, and retired from competitive play in 1931.

Shailer, having returned to Australia, would also not compete in the second Empire Championship, being unexpectedly defeated in an early round of his State championships, and thereby failing to qualify.

So, the stage was set for a new Champion to emerge in 1927. But that is another story …

 

The 1927 World Amateur Championship

by Peter Ainsworth

The first Championship of the British Empire, which concluded in May 1926 was hailed as a great success with regard to the standard of play, but was nothing short of a disaster in financial terms, with rows of empty seats at Thurston’s match-room for any game not involving the eventual winner, Joe Earlam. It was confidently predicted that this would be the last we would see of the World Championship for at least several years, and with it’s lack of patronage, it was unlikely that London would be the venue should the contest be resurrected in the future.

However, shortly after the conclusion of the Championship, Arthur Walker, President of the South African Billiards Association, made his second visit to London. The first had been in 1922, when he presented the concept of a World Amateur Championship to a full meeting of the Billiards Association & Control Council (BA&CC). His eloquent arguments persuaded the council to lay the foundations for the inaugural Championship, which were realised four years later. Now he travelled half-way around the World once more to see John C. Bisset, Chairman of the BA&CC and ensure that his concept of an Amateur Championship did not die.

Shortly after that meeting the BA&CC surprised everyone by announcing that far from shelving the event it would be held again the following year at Burroughes & Watts´ Hall, in London. Additional conditions confirming the continuation of the Championship were also announced. These stated that after this competition, the event would be held every two years in the country of the Holder and a new “perpetual” trophy would be made. This trophy was to become the most tangible link with Arthur Walker, as he commissioned it’s design and manufacture at a personal cost of 100 guineas.

The task was now to find competitors for the Championship, and as predicted, this proved to be difficult for those countries any distance from England. Arthur Walker, who was a great supporter of Amateur ideals and “a firm believer in the value of billiards as an influence in social life” immediately pledged that the South African Association would send a representative, but it was a different story from the other remote outposts of the Empire.

In Australia, George Shalier, last year’s representative, had been eliminated at an early stage of the New South Wales Championship, with Les Hayes becoming the Australian Champion. However, Hayes, a schoolteacher by profession, was unable to obtain a sufficiently long leave of absence and therefore could not take part. It was a similar story in India where their National Champion, R. M. Geyer, could not make the trip due to “a domestic bereavement.”

The New Zealand Champion, E. V. Roberts, may well have taken part, but a public subscription failed to raise sufficient funds to finance the journey.

In Ireland, Tom McCluney, who had represented the country last year, had taken a job as manager of a billiard room. This act classified him as professional and ineligible to enter the Irish Amateur Championship.

The Irish Association did not offer a substitute.

The competition was therefore reduced to the National Champions of England, Scotland and South Africa, with contests taking place just before the scheduled start of the Empire Championship to find the names of the players to be involved.

Rule Change

In advance of all these National Championships the BA&CC had introduced a important change to the rules of the game which limited consecutive hazards to a maximum of 25. This action had been widely predicted and so came as no surprise. The restriction had first been considered when Australian Professional, George Gray, was displaying the possibilities of red-ball play when he toured England between 1910- 14. His displays were initially hugely popular, but by the end of his visit it was clear that the public would not pay to watch big breaks from the red ball. The professionals therefore, in their own commercial interests, refrained from exploiting the stroke again. However, such commercial considerations did not apply to the Amateur players in England, who readily adopted Gray’s method of scoring.

The red-ball game was significantly easier to play with composition balls than it was with ivories, due in no small measure to the wider throw of compositions bringing more shots within range. When this medium was introduced for the English Championship of 1926, the best players were only too keen to demonstrate what this difference meant in practical terms. The proliferation of red-ball breaks in the Championship made it apparent to the BA&CC that the game was in danger of stagnating by it’s overuse. The new rule was therefore the first instance in billiards history where amateur proficiency had directly resulted in the official limitation of a stroke.

The South African Championship

The South African Championship was the first to be decided and it came as something of a surprise to observers in England when the news came through that Percy Rutledge, who had represented South Africa in the previous Empire Championship, had lost his title to former South African champion, Allen Prior. Despite being behind for most of their match, Prior finished strongly to regain the title by the narrow margin of 13 points in their match of 600-up.

The Scottish Championship

The Scottish Amateur Billiard Association had held out against the introduction of the composition ball when England made the switch in 1926, but this year decided by a narrow majority to discard ivories. The fact that the Empire Championship would be played with Crystalate balls was the deciding factor in this decision. Played at the North British Station Hotel, Edinburgh, there was a record entry of 19 players. From these, Malcolm Smith emerged victorious, taking his third title on 5th March 1927, by defeating W. J. Cairns 2000-1577 in the final.

English Championship

Laurie Steeples was favourite to become Empire Champion.

The new hazard limit was seen as a significant handicap to the best red-ball exponents, but in the absence of the 1926 Champion, Joe Earlam, who had now turned professional, it was another red ball player William McLeod, winner in 1923 and 1924, who was generally regarded as favourite to carry off the English title. However, this prediction proved inaccurate, as McLeod was defeated by Horace Coles in the quarterfinals. Coles, who had been the only entry from the Cardiff qualifying area, went on to contest the final where he was to meet Laurie Steeples. On the way he made a break of 233, which was the highest of the Championship and an Amateur record under the new rules. Laurie Steeples, from Dalton Brook, near Rotherham, had won the UK Boys’ Championship in 1923 and 1924 and having just passed his eighteenth birthday, was playing in only his second English Championship. Even though defeated in 1926, he had shown his potential with a break of 377, which was an Amateur record for red-ball play. Now, in sight of his greatest achievement, Steeples retained his composure to win the final match 3000-2449 on 19th February, becoming the youngest holder of the English Championship.

Wales had traditionally played as a qualifying section of the English Championship, but Horace Coles also held the title of Welsh Amateur Champion at this time, and now his name was put forward as an entry to the Empire Championship as the representative of that Principality. His admission brought the number of contestants to up to four.

The 1927 British Empire Amateur Championship

Horace Coles entered as Welsh Amateur Champion.

Played at the Burroughes Hall, Soho Square, London, the competition was again contested on the “American”, or League system. Each match was 2,000-up played in four sessions over two days. The “Crystalate” brand of composition balls was used and the newly introduced 25 hazard limitation was applied.

The first match on the Burroughes & Watts match table commenced on Monday 7th March 1927 and brought into action the South African Champion, Allen Prior, and the Welshman, Horace Coles. Allen Prior had arrived in London on 28th February and was assiduously practising within an hour of his arrival. Modest and unassuming, he gave no clue to his abilities and he was certainly not considered to be in with a chance before the start of the competition. However, this was to change in the very first match when he provided the first upset of the competition by defeating Horace Coles. Prior’s great height (he was about 6ft 5in) gave him the appearance of having a rather cramped style. He was also a slow, extremely careful player, but a very accurate potter, seldom missing a chance which could be said to be reasonably on. This combination was too much for the Welsh representative who went down to a 467 points defeat.

Allen Prior (South Africa)
133, 101, 92, 88, 84, 81, 80, 72, 71, 56, 54
2,000 (13.98) Horace Coles (Wales)
77, 72, 68, 61, 58
1,533 (10.72)

Laurie Steeples staked his claim as tournament favourite by making a break of 236 against the Scottish Champion, which established a new Amateur record under the 25-hazard rule. Malcolm Smith was the sole survivor from the inaugural Empire Championship and hung on well to the English Champion, a break of 158 being the highlight of his match. However, the English youth was too strong and won by a margin of 562 points. In this match Steeples also made record averages of 38 and 45 in two of the four sessions

.

Laurie Steeples (England)
236, 180, 138, 103, 99, 79, 78, 77, 61, 58, 50
2,000 (20.40) Malcolm Smith (Scotland)
158, 61, 60, 56, 52, 51
1,438 (14.67)

In the third heat, Horace Coles put his earlier defeat behind him to overcome Smith who nevertheless received praise for his tenacity, earning him the sobriquet of “the plucky wee Scot.”

Horace Coles (Wales)
164, 89, 88, 72, 68, 64, 58, 58, 50
2,000 (15.03) Malcolm Smith (Scotland)
85, 82, 80, 70, 58, 51
1,445 (10.86)

At the start of the second week of competition, Horace Coles who had been involved in the first upset of the tournament, was now instrumental in providing the second, as he narrowly overcame the challenge of Laurie Steeples. Considering that Steeples had comfortably defeated Coles only a few weeks previously in the English Championship, this loss came as a major surprise.

Horace Coles (Wales)
124, 79, 72, 69, 68, 66, 63, 56, 53, 53, 53, 52, 52
2,000 (11.17) Laurie Steeples (England)
156, 106, 86, 84, 79, 70, 63, 59, 54, 52, 51
1,943 (10.85)

During the course of the Coles v. Steeples match, the new Amateur Championship trophy was exhibited for the first time at a luncheon given in honour of the four contestants at Frascati’s Restaurant, Oxford Street, and it brought forth unqualified admiration. Numerous designs had been submitted by several of the leading firms of silversmiths, but the final selection went to the Goldsmiths & Silversmiths Co, Regent Street which was declared at the time to be “the finest ever awarded in connection with billiards”.

Malcolm Smith, looking for his first win in the tournament, again struggled to keep up in his match against Allen Prior. The South African made four century breaks with a best of 184 to hold off the determined Scotsman and win by 384 points.

Allen Prior (South Africa)
184, 116, 110, 101, 73, 72, 69, 58, 57, 56, 55, 54, 51
2,000 (16.00) Malcolm Smith (Scotland)
90 75, 68, 53, 51
1,616 (12.92)

A win for Steeples from the final match against Prior would have resulted in a three-way tie and the need for a play-off to decide the Champion. This complication was avoided when Prior produced his best game of the tournament to defeat Steeples, taking the title in convincing fashion on Saturday 19th February. Although Steeples was not in the best of health during the closing stages of the competition, there was a feeling that it was entirely appropriate for the new Championship Trophy to return to South Africa, the home of it’s donor, Arthur Walker.

Allen Prior (South Africa)
168, 147, 131, 87, 83, 82, 71, 69, 67, 66, 63, 54, 54, 53, 52
2,000 (21.27) Laurie Steeples (England)
164, 153, 139, 79, 72, 68, 61, 56
1,563 (16.62)
Arthur Walker (left) with the 1927 Empire Champion, Allen Prior.

Horace Coles was runner-up and received an elegant silver rose-bowl which was presented by the Composition Billiard Ball Supply Co; who were manufacturers of the Crystalate ball.

Prior left for South Africa the following week, on Friday 25th March. Two days earlier, he had been entertained to dinner at the Café Royal, with many distinguished guests which included Professional Champion, Tom Newman. A photograph of this dinner party, showing the trophy at the centre of the table, appeared in Friday’s Daily Mirror. An enterprising newspaper-boy, recognising Prior on Waterloo Railway Station drew his attention to the article and was rewarded by a large number of sales to the Champion and those assembled to bid him farewell.

Two years would pass before the best amateur players would again gather to contest the British Empire Amateur Championship in Johannesburg and for the first time, a World Billiards Championship would be decided outside England.