The History of Snooker

In the early days of Snooker, it was generally accepted that the game originated in the British Army garrisons as a combination of the various pool games which where then commonly played. Beyond this nobody laid claim to its specific origins until a debate began in the late 1930's. There follows a selection of articles appearing in the Billiard Player of that time. The final letter by Compton McKenzie has become accepted as fact, but it is far from conclusive and raises many unanswered questions.

One thing is certain, the game which Neville Chamberlain claims to have named "Snooker", and which for many years was referred to as "Snooker's Pool", bore more relation to the existing pool games of the time than the modern game of snooker. Fewer pool balls were used, they were on different spots, had different values, and the scoring sequence and rules would be unrecognisable to a modern follower of the game. Who brought about the changes which form the modern game remains a mystery, but they were generally in place by 1900 and probably evolved through a series of individuals in the Army Officers' Mess. Perhaps this is why Chamberlain waited over 60 years before making his claim to be the originator of Snooker.

The Billiard Player; April 1937

Some say it was invented at an officers' mess in India, where the balls were so badly discoloured that they could only tell which was which by the shape.

Personally, I think, like " Topsy," it simply grow'd. This theory is supported by the fact that in the pre-snooker days, "when I wor' a lad," we had several games near it, such as "Black-pool" and "Pink-pool," and, after all, snooker is but a combination of those dear old games, pyramids and pool. "Dear" they were in more senses than one, for as a budding young cueist who fancied himself at potting a ball, it was for me generally like that other popular game of the naughty nineties "shell out."

A well-known Leeds sportsman, Mr. Dunford Richardson, seems certain that he knows where snooker was first played; he avers that it originally came from America. Mr. Richardson, who in age is well past the allotted span, bases his knowledge on the fact that about 1887, he spent some time at Ventnor, Isle-of-Wight, and there he met some American officers who showed him how to play snooker. From this, Mr. Richardson, undoubtedly, first brought it to Leeds. I can only go as far back as 1890, but I do remember at that time what confusion there was about how snooker was played, and what the rules were.

Mr. Richardson, who, by the way, in his time was one of the most brilliant amateurs that we have had in Yorkshire, tells me he wrote to America for the rules of snooker, and obtained a set. And now my snooker query is ended in the hope that anyone with knowledge of how the game began will his tale unfold—George Nelson

Editor's Note : By way of helping the snooker symposium, we can vouch for a copy of "The Rules of Snooker;" a framed copy in very neat hand-writing, in an officers' mess in England in 1895. The game, so regimental tradition ran, was invented by a "Colonel Snooker," in India. The only difference between the rules of 1895 and those of the present is that the BETTER GAME was played under the old rules.-ED

Reproduced from "The Field" and published in The Billiard Player; February 1938

Concerning the origin of snooker, I have received a most interesting communication from Lt.-Col. G. Ll. H. Howell, late R.A. Writing from Arden, Tobago, he states: "The fact that you first came across the game in a gunners' mess, coupled with the name of the game, might have led you to suspect a possible place of origin.

"You no doubt know that first term cadets at The Shop (R.M.A. Woolwich) have been called 'Snookers' for well over a hundred years at least.

"I first played the game in my second term as a cadet at The Shop in 1893, and as an officer in the Shoebury mess in 1895.

"There I played with some very senior officers, amongst others the then Commandant of the School of Gunnery, who was not only a very good player, but had at least thirty years' service. From his conversation on the subject, as well as that of other senior officers, it was quite certain that they had all played the game when cadets at The Shop—so that brings us to at least 1865.

"Moreover, I never heard anyone suggest that the game was anything but an old-established one in his time in The Shop. This, without suggesting the actual date of birth, at least confers quite a respectable age on the game.

"Whatever the actual and dated facts may be, there has always been a tradition in the regiment and amongst the sappers that snooker originated at The Shop, and that it owed its name to the idea that no 'snooker' was likely to know the game, or be much good at it—I do not want to lay any stress on the obvious corollary.

"I can only add that up to 1900 at the earliest, it was very rare to find any guest in the mess, other than gunners and sappers, who knew the rules. My recollection is that printed rules of snooker hung in the billiard room at The Shop in 1893, but I may be mistaken, and in any case, they may have been printed locally at Aldershot or Woolwich.

"In the face of the above, it seems very improbable that the game originated in India; since, if it had, the only people who were at all familiar with it (R.A. and R.E. officers) would hardly have been unanimous in saying that it did originate at the R.M.A. Woolwich, through which all of them, save a very small percentage had passed."

Colonel Howell's letter contains points of reference which show that his conclusion is as sound as anything can be on so difficult a subject as the origin of any form of sport. Every word he writes is of interest and value, and I shall be glad to hear from other readers of The Field, who have something to add.

I am very keen to know if others can remember, as I do, that the game was played in the nineties by allowing a choice of "any colour" to the end in this manner. After the "last red" was pocketed, you could take "any colour," then you were "on yellow," but when yellow was pocketed the striker had choice of "any colour," and could take, say, black, before having to pocket green in life pool rotation. So it continued until only black and pink were left.

The Billiard Player; April 1939

Last year an article in "The Field" put forward the theory that the game of Snooker had its origin at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, where officers of the Royal Artillery and the Royal Engineers receive their training as cadets.

The theory was plausible, because a first-year cadet at "The Shop," as the R.M.A. is familiarly known, is called a "Snooker," the soubriquet being time's corruption of the original word for a newly-joined cadet, which was "Neux." It must be remembered that the R.M.A. was founded as long ago as 1741.

The writer of the article stated that the original rules of Snooker were copied out by Lord Kitchener from those at "The Shop," brought by him to Ootacamund, [India] and there hung up in the Club.

This assertion was formally contradicted by General Sir Ian Hamilton in a letter to "The Field" of July 11th, 1938. In point of fact Lord Kitchener never visited India until many years after Snooker had become a popular game out there.

Investigation has established that; so far from Snooker having originated at "The Shop," the game was invented at Jubbulpore in the year 1875 by Colonel Sir Neville Chamberlain, who is fortunately still with us and whose memory is perfectly clear on the subject.

It befell during the "Rains" that Sir Neville, then a young subaltern in the Devonshire Regiment, anxious to vary the game of Black Pool which was being played every long wet afternoon on the Mess billiard table, suggested putting down another coloured ball, to which others of different values were gradually added.

One day a subaltern of the Field Battery at Jubbulpore was being entertained by the Devons, and in the course of conversation told young Chamberlain about the soubriquet "Snooker" for first year cadets at Woolwich. To quote Sir Neville's own words: "The term was a new one to me, but I soon had an opportunity of exploiting it when one of our party failed to hole a coloured ball which was close to a corner pocket. I called out to him: 'Why, you're a regular snooker!'

"I had to explain to the company the definition of the word, and, to soothe the feelings of the culprit, I added that we were all, so to speak, snookers at the game, so it would he very appropriate to call the game snooker. The suggestion was adopted with enthusiasm and the game has been called Snooker ever since."

In 1876 Sir Neville Chamberlain left the Devons to join the Central-India Horse, taking with him the new game. A year or two later came the Afghan War, a more serious potting game in which young Chamberlain was himself potted.

However, fortunately for himself and the great game which we enjoy so much to-day, he recovered from his wound, and when at the close of 1881 General Sir Frederick Roberts became Commander-in-Chief of the Madras Army, the inventor of Snooker served on his personal staff, and was with Roberts when every summer he moved to the hill station at Ootacamund known to all and sundry as "Ooty"

Here came officers from big garrisons like Bangalore and Secundderabad and planters from Mysore. All of them enjoyed Snooker as a speciality of the "Ooty" Club where the rules of the game were drawn up and posted in the billiards room, but not by Lord Kitchener.

During the eighties rumours of the new game in India reached England. One evening Sir Neville Chamberlain when dining in Calcutta with the Maharaja of Cooch Behar was introduced to a well-known professional billiards player whom he had engaged from England for some lessons.

This professional told the Maharaja he had been asked in England to obtain the rules of the new game Snooker and the Maharaja introduced Sir Neville Chamberlain to him as the best person to give him the information he wanted because he was the inventor of it.

In a letter to "The Field" of March 19th, 1938, Sir Neville regretted he did not know the name of the professional but thought he was probably a contemporary of John Roberts and W. Cook. A week or two later Mr. F. H. Cumberlege wrote to Sir Neville Chamberlain to say that the professional must have been John Roberts himself who came out to Calcutta in 1885. Mr. Cumberlege added that he remembered showing the Maharaja the new game of Snooker at Cooch Behar after a shooting party in the spring of 1884.

Sir Neville Chamberlain has received from several other distinguished authorities confirmation of his claim to be the inventor of Snooker. Major-General W. A. Watson, Colonel of the Central India Horse (his old regiment) wrote: "I have a clear recollection of you rejoining the regiment in 1884. You brought with you a brand new game, which you called Snooker or Snookers. There were the black, the pink, the yellow and the green. We all understood it was your own invention. We took to it very keenly."

Major-General Sir John Hanbury Williams (Colonel of the 43rd Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry) wrote: "I was always under the impression that you introduced the game of Snooker to the 43rd. in 1884-5. Certainly the 43rd never played Snooker till you came and introduced it to us. Hope you will stick to the honour of its invention."

Field Marshal Lord Birdwood wrote: "I remember well your introducing the game of Snookers into the 12th Lancers' Mess, when I was a subaltern in the Regiment at Bangalore in '85."

Sir Walter Lawrence, Bt., wrote: "When we first met in Simla in 1886, when you were with Lord Roberts, the Commander-in-Chief, and afterwards when we served together in Kashmir, I always looked upon you as the inventor of Snooker, and I know that this idea was common to many of my friends. Quite recently, last year (1937) I was telling some of my friends in England who were discussing Snooker, that I had the honour of knowing very intimately the inventor of the game."

The testimony of these and other highly distinguished officers finally disposes of the theory advanced with some emphasis by the writer in "The Field" that the game of Snooker originated at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, and it has been a privilege for me to assemble in print such incontrovertible evidence.

There is nothing to add except that all the many thousands of Snooker players the world over will wish Colonel Sir Neville Chamberlain, who is now in his 84th year, many another year to enjoy the honour of being the inventor of a game, now 63 years old, which has added so much to the gaiety of nations—Compton Mackenzie.

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