Billiards in the Regency

The Regency version of the game was played very differently than the way it is played today. It required only three balls, no rack and a mace was used as often as a cue. The only similarity between modern-day pool or snooker and the game of billiards which was played during the Regency was that they are all played on a large table with long sticks. It was only in the last year of the Regency that changes began to be made to the game which would eventually result in the form in which it is played today. And yet, even before the Regency began, many changes had already been made to this ancient game.

How billiards went from field to table, and how it was played during the Regency …

Scholars of games and sports have determined that the game now known as billiards originated as a field game similar to croquet during the Middle Ages, probably in France. This game was played on a grass field surrounded by a low fence to keep the balls on the field. A hoop, or "pass" was located near the center of one half of the field, while a peg, or "king post" was located near the center of the other half of the field. Wooden balls were pushed around this field by a mace, a long wooden stick with a scoop-shaped block at the lower end. This game was so popular that by the sixteenth century it had been moved indoors so that it could be played during inclement weather. Before the end of the century, someone had the idea of moving the game onto a table for the convenience of the players. The top of the table was surrounded with a set of rails to keep the balls on the table. The hoop and the king post were retained and the table bed was covered with a green cloth to simulate the grass on which the original game was played. The game came to be called billiards in France. The word may have derived from the French word for "ball," bille, or it may have evolved from another French word, billart or billette, which meant "stick."

By the turn of the eighteenth century, the English version of the game no longer included the king post or the hoop, so both had been removed from the billiard tables made in England, but the pockets were retained. The wooden rails around the table bed were padded to improve the rebound of the balls. The table bed was covered with green baize to provide some surface resistance for the rolling balls. The original wooden balls were a problem, since the wood would expand or shrink unevenly, based on the level of humidity, causing them to go out of round and wobble as they rolled. It was during the eighteenth century that the affluent began to have their billiard balls made of ivory. Though ivory balls were also susceptible to the effects of humidity, it was less severe with ivory than it was with wood. They were also more durable than wooden balls as they did not become dented, abraded or wear down as typically happened with wood.

The next major change to the game occurred at the turn of the nineteenth century. At about that time, three ancient table games were combined to become the game of English billiards which was played during the Regency. Like the older games, this composite game was a game for two players, played with three balls, a white cue ball for each player and a single red target or object ball. This new game included components of carom billiards, which had been developed and remained popular in France. But carom billiards was played on a table with no pockets. English billiards did make use of the pockets. Thus, the beginning of the nineteenth century marks the final fork in the English and Continental versions of billiards. French, and in fact, all billiard tables on the Continent, from that time were made without pockets, while English billiard tables were all made with pockets.

As English billiards evolved, greater skill was needed to propel the ball across the table. Pushing the ball with the mace could not move the ball with the speed or accuracy this new game required. Soon, players discovered that using the other end of the mace stick to tap the ball could give them much better results. It was this alternate use of the "tail" of the mace which inspired the name of a new playing stick. The French word for tail is queue, which became "cue" in England. There had never been any hard, fast or "official" rules for English billiards. It was left to the players to determine the rules by which they would play before the game began. Both players had to agree which end of the mace or cue could be used during their game. Before the end of the eighteenth century, cue sticks as we know them today were beginning to be made for some billiard players. By the Regency, many billiard rooms in private homes had a set of both billiard maces and billiard cues to suit the preference of all players.

The tip of these new billiard cues was usually very smooth, which sometimes made it difficult to control how the ball moved when it was struck. That problem was solved in 1807, when a former French infantry officer, Captain François Mingaud, was incarcerated in Paris as a political prisoner. Mingaud was an avid and expert carom billiards player. He had the idea of attaching a small piece of leather, cut from an old harness, to the tip of a billiard cue. The leather cushioning drastically improved the player’s ability to propel the ball in the desired direction and trajectory. The practice of tipping cues with leather had been adopted by most English billiards players by the time the Regency began.

There is an apocryphal story which suggests that the use of chalk on a cue tip to increase friction was not introduced until the 1820s. However, billiards historians have evidence that chalk was used on billiard cue tips even before they were leather tipped, the first recorded instance occurring in 1806. White chalk was used throughout the Regency, though it seems that some players simply ground their cue tip into the plaster ceiling to chalk it. Such actions appear to have only occurred in lower class public billiard rooms, which were just becoming established during the Regency. It is highly unlikely upper-class billiard players ground their cues into the ceilings of the billiard rooms of their own homes. Colored chalk was not introduced to billiards until after the Regency, blue chalk in 1828 and green chalk in 1843.

By the Regency, the majority of billiard balls were made of ivory. The smaller tusks of female elephants were the preferred source of ivory for billiard balls. Four or five balls could be made from each tusk, though only the three from the wider end would match most closely in size and be of the best quality. Any additional balls made from each tusk would go into inferior, less expensive sets. But billiard ball-makers had to be very careful to ensure the balls they made were as close as possible to true spheres. There is a nerve which runs though the center of every elephant tusk, and this nerve must also run through the center of each billiard ball in order to produce balls with concentric and balanced grain. Though such balls would warp slightly in high humidity, it was negligible compared to the severity of warping in wooden balls. Ivory balls would also not develop flat spots or bruises and abrasions during the course of play, which is why they were preferred, regardless of their much higher cost.

A set of Regency billiard balls consisted of a pair of white cue balls and a single red object ball. In most sets, one of the cue balls was marked with a small black dot in order to distinguish it from the plain white ball. There were several versions of English billiards which were played during the Regency. In most versions, points were scored with strokes known as cannons and hazards. Cannons were scored when the striker’s cue ball hit each of the other two balls in succession. Hazards were scored when the striker’s cue ball drove the opponent’s cue ball or the red object ball into one of the pockets. This move was also known as potting the ball, with two points for sinking a cue ball and three points for sinking a red ball. There were a number of different combinations of these basic strokes which could win points, as well as foul strokes which were penalized by the loss of points. The points associated with both successful and foul strokes would be decided by the players before they began the game. Winning scores in English billiards could range from as high as twenty-one to as low as six. The number of points required to win was in part dependent upon whether the game was played in daylight or candle-light.

The use of billiard balls in colors other than white or red did not occur until 1819, when a new game called life pool was introduced. In this game, multiple players could compete, each having a different colored ball, which became the target or object ball. Each player had three lives, one of which would be lost when another player sank their ball in a pocket. They were eliminated when their ball had been pocketed for the third time. Some versions of the game allowed players who were eliminated to "star," meaning that they could purchase three additional lives and continue to play. But each player was only allowed to star once per game. Life pool became very popular in the billiard rooms and parlors which were being opened in London in the 1820s.

Public billiard parlors were not common during the Regency. The few that are known were located in London and were frequented by men of the middle or lower classes. For the upper classes, most gentlemen’s clubs had a fully-equipped billiard room which was made available for the use of their members. However, the majority of billiard rooms during the Regency were to be found in the homes of the affluent. No standards had yet been set for billiard equipment during that time, so all billiard room equipment was custom-made and its size and quality was typically determined between the customer making the purchase and the maker. The most famous maker of billiard equipment of all kinds during the Regency was John Thurston, who had premises in London, off The Strand. From 1799, his shop was on Newcastle Street, and in 1814, he removed to larger premises on Catherine Street. After serving his apprenticeship with Gillow of Lancaster until 1799, Thurston went to London and set up initially as a cabinet-maker. But within a few years, as billiards became increasingly popular with the upper classes, Thurston focused his production on billiard tables and other equipment necessary to the game.

Billiard tables were the single most costly piece of billiard equipment and all of them were custom-made. Unlike today, when billiard table beds are made of slate, during the Regency, billiard table beds were made of wood. To keep shrinkage and warping to a minimum, the table bed was made as a lattice of wood slats about four inches wide, with the grain of each slat running in alternating directions. The open spaces were all filled in with squares of wood about eight inches across, each set so that its grain ran at right angles to each neighboring square. This construction technique was very labor-intensive, but with the wood grain set to counter any warping or shrinking, such Regency billiard tables remained relatively flat. Most billiard table beds were made of oak, though there are a few which survive which are made of mahogany. This anti-warping table bed was covered with green wool baize. The baize was only attached at the edges of the table, and it had a tendency to wrinkle when not in use. Most of the best Regency billiard tables came with a specially-made, square iron for ironing the baize before a game began. Most of these irons had a square sole-plate into which a heavy iron slug could be placed after it had been heated in or near a fire. These irons often came with a pair of slugs so that one could be heating while the other was in use to flatten the billiard table baize.

The rails around the billiard table bed were padded with many layers of wool felt. The stacked felt was then covered with two or three layers of cloth or a layer of cloth covered with leather. Rubber padding on billiard table rails was not used until Victorian times. Rubber gave a better rebound surface, unless the room was too cold, as unheated rooms often were in a British winter. Before the vulcanization of rubber later in the century, the rubber became very brittle when it was cold. If a billiard ball were to strike the rubber with any force, it could break. Therefore, early Victorian billiard tables with rubber-filled rails came with a set of metal pans which could be placed under and around a billiard table prior to a game. They were filled with boiling water an hour or two before the game in order to warm the rubber enough to make it soft and pliable when the game was played. Regency players never had to worry about this problem, since their billiard table rails were all padded with felt. Net bags were suspended under each pocket in a billiard table to catch balls which were knocked into the pockets. Some of these were very simple net bags, while others had decorative patterns worked into the netting and were finished off with tassels or other ornaments.

Cues and maces were necessary for the playing of English billiards and some which survive from the Regency period are beautifully made and very ornate. There were many maces and cues which were made simply, of fine woods carefully crafted and highly polished to show off the wood grain. However, there were also whole sets of maces and cues on which twelve to eighteen inches of the butt end was decorated with ornate patterns. The inlay might be in other fine woods, ivory, tortoise-shell, mother-of-pearl or even brass. Cue tips were undecorated, smoothly polished wood, but all covered with a leather cushion. Mace heads might be made with a line painted or inlaid down the center which helped players line up their shots. The highest quality mace heads were capped with ivory, usually left in the natural color, though there are a few which were stained with colors.

Other billiard accessories included a box in which to keep the billiard balls. Some of these boxes were plain wood, but there were others which were decorated with elegant marquetry patterns, carving or painted designs. Due to the high cost of ivory billiard balls, many of these boxes had padded interiors and were fitted with locks. Though Regency games of English billiards were won with a fairly low number of points, some billiard rooms in private homes had a device by which each player’s points could be tracked. These marking and scoring boards were made in any number of designs. As with most other billiards accessories, some were very plain while others were quite ornate and complicated. Some had a series of dials by which points were recorded while others had a set of sliders which were pulled out along a track to record each player’s points. Rests, typically metal devices on which a player could rest the cue when making a particularly difficult shot, where a common billiard accessory. These devices were made in a wide range of shapes and designs. Some were adjustable, others were not. There were also cue rests made specifically for one-armed players, to give them greater control when making shots.

A very important feature of a billiard room, private or public, was the lighting. Initially, when playing at night, candle-light was the only option for illumination. However, by the Regency, oil lamps had become the preferred lighting over billiard tables. Though many people preferred candle-light and abhorred oil lamps in their homes during the Regency, an exception was made for the lighting of their billiard rooms. In most cases, three to six lamps would be set into a frame-work which was suspended over the billiard table. These lamps were typically provided with cone-shaped shades which directed most of the light down onto the table, and with saucer-shaped receptacles suspended below the lamps to catch any dripping oil. No matter how many lamps were suspended over a billiard table, the light was never as good as that provided by natural daylight. For that reason, the number of points needed to win a game of English billiards was typically lowered for games played at night under artificial light. Games played during the day would generally require between twenty-one to seventeen points to win, while games played at night could be won with as few as six points. This was due to the fact that with weaker light it was more difficult to line up shots, causing the game to take much longer, when it was played under lamp-light.

Dear Regency Authors, if any of your characters should play a game of billiards in one of your stories, now you know there will be no need to rack up the balls, since English billiards played during the Regency used only three balls. However, they may well need the key to get the valuable ivory balls out of their box. Rules for the game during the Regency were very vague and players could determine the rules by which they would play before the game began. If they are playing on a sunny day, they might set the winning point count at twenty-one. But if they are playing at night, under a multi-oil-lamp chandelier, they might set the winning point count at six, so as not to drag the game out for too long. Prior to a game of billiards in a private home, one of your characters will have to notify the butler so he can have the billiard table baize ironed before the game begins. Should one of your characters have returned from the Napoleonic Wars with a severe arm injury, or even an amputation, he can still play billiards by using a cue rest to steady his cue when he takes his shots. If he is an avid billiard player, perhaps he has had a special cue rest made which he carries with him. Or, he may think he has to give up his favorite game due to his injury, until the heroine shows him how to use a cue rest. It was not consider improper for ladies to play billiards in private homes during the Regency, though they could not be alone in the billiard room with a man if they were unmarried, unless they wanted to ruin themselves. Regency ladies tended to prefer to use a mace rather than a cue when they played, though more adventurous or daring ladies did use cues. A gentleman might defer to a lady when they played billiards together, using a mace rather than a cue. The mace was less accurate, but the lady might have practiced with it more often and thus have an edge over her opponent. In what other ways might you incorporate a game or two of billiards into your story?

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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8 Responses to Billiards in the Regency

  1. Fascinating! there’s I believe a Tom, Jerry and Logic print of billiards… and I’ve seen one where there are plenty of ladies present, and the men admiring the line of their rear ends bent over the table. I blogged in passing about the earlier forms http://sarahs-history-place.blogspot.co.uk/2011/10/some-more-renaissance-pastimes.html

  2. elfahearn says:

    Great article yet again, Kathryn! My grandparents used to have a huge slate-bottomed pool table in the basement. As kids we’d play for hours in this dark, Gothic-y environment where we had to sweep the dust and spider webs off the cues. I still have an ivory ball from their set.
    Thanks for your awesome post(s).

  3. Sorry, I am late this week (my weekend was dedicated to historical dance, with the ultimate highlight of a ball set in 1820. We all took part in historical costumes – an awesome experience).

    So, here I am learning again: A billiard room in the Regency period was not all what you see today in most historic house (I think most of them are of the Victorian age). How could I believe the billiard game had not evolved over the centuries?!

    Besides the idea of a butler grumpily ironing the billiard table baize at a most inconvenient time, I especially liked the fact that rules were made up before playing – lots of potential for conflict, dueling or – if plenty of brandy is involved – fighting about what had been agreed upon an hour or so earlier by fencing with cues.
    It’s a bit unfortunate the English billiard tables did not have pockets. My hero, a guest at a country house, thus would need there to be a French one, to hide in its pockets secret letters addressed to the beautiful daughter of the house.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      What a wonderful experience! It must give you a great perspective when writing about a dance in the Regency to have actually been engaged in one, especially in costume.

      Billiards has definitely changed a lot over the years, and even today, the rules are at least slightly different in different countries. You are right, most of the surviving billiard table are Victorian. There is a magnificent one at Strathfield Saye, the country home of the Duke of Wellington. It was made in 1842, so it is not from the Regency, but if you want to have a look, you can see it at: http://www.snookerheritage.co.uk/media/43922/002_magnus_DoW_500x508.jpg

      More than likely, the butler himself would not have ironed the billiard table before a game. He would probably have assigned the task to a footman, rather than a maid, since the table would almost certainly have been too big for any but a very tall woman to reach far enough to properly iron the center of the table. Of course, if there was a very tall maid in the household, she would probably have gotten the job. I can see the potential for conflict over the rules of a game, especially if one of the players was from another county. There seem to have been slightly different rules used in different areas of England during the Regency, so the possibility of misunderstandings certainly exist. But billiards was considered a gentleman’s game, and only the most crass, or heavily inebriated, would have fallen so low as to duel with cue sticks in the billiard room of a private house, or even a gentlemen’s club.

      I am sorry if I was not clear, but the English billiard tables did have pockets. It is the French and Continental tables which lost them at the turn of the nineteenth century. But I am not sure the pockets of Regency billiard tables would have served the purpose of hiding a secret letter, since most of them were finished with open-work net bags, into which the balls fell when they were sunk. You can see such bags on the Wellington table. Anything placed in one of those bags would be obvious to anyone in the room. The kind of closed pocket system in the billiard tables of today, which send all the balls to one end, was not introduced until at least the second half of the nineteenth century.

      Regards,

      Kat

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