Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Night Side of London, by J. Ewing Ritchie, 1858 - The Public-House with a Billiard Room

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Is a great attraction in some places. We knew a whole town upset by the fact that the landlord of the "Swan" had fitted up a billiard-room. I and Wiggins and, Foley and Jobson spent at one time, I regret to say, a good deal of time there. I am warning the reader against the follies of my youth; but Foley failed, and Jobson and Wiggins, after having had their debts paid three or four times by their friends, I believe are now following that eminently healthy occupation called gold-digging, somewhere in Australia. Then I think of that little town in South Wales, and of the "Angel," under whose too hospitable roof we used to meet. One of us was an M.P.'s son; he is now, I believe, dragging down a father's grey hairs with sorrow to the grave. Another of us bore a name dear to every Englishman; he, I believe, is pensioned off by his family, and lives as he can on the [-138-] handsome allowance of a guinea a-week. But these London billiard-rooms are fifty times more pernicious. There are some five or six hundred connected with public-houses. There are in all our large thoroughfares separate rooms licensed for this game, but at these drinking often goes on. And thus the two excitements acting on the man, he is impelled downwards with an increasing power. I have seen in these rooms officers and secretaries of public companies in a night losing, I am sure, a quarter's salary. I have seen young fellows completely ruined. There was not, when I first knew him, a more promising, gentlemanly young fellow than Smethwicke, and now, they tell me, he is in Marylebone Workhouse.
    We are told that men are grown-up children. This saying forcibly occurred to me the last time I was in a billiard-room. After I had recovered from the feeling of suffocation which an atmosphere infected by gas and smoke had produced, I observed a number of men with long sticks trying to knock a number of various-coloured balls into any of the six pockets of the billiard- table. At each unsuccessful attempt a chorus of observations were made by the players, not [-139-] remarkable for their novelty, for the vocabulary of the billiard-room is very limited, such as "Not within a mile"-" I didn't play for you, Bob " - "It smelt the hole," &c. &c. At each successful attempt the chorus was still more animated, but not more original, as "Good stroke," -"Bad flewke" - "On the red," &c. &c. The game that was being played was called "pool." A number of people put each 2s. or 3s., as they may choose to arrange it, and they have each a ball of a different colour - red, blue, pink, yellow, white, brown, black. Each player has what is called three lives, and each time he is put in by a player - for they play in turn - he pays six-pence or a shilling, according to arrangement, and loses a life, whilst the successful player is allowed to play again upon the ball which happens to be nearest. The money in the pool is ultimately divided between the two players who have kept their three lives the longest. It will be seen that, if everything is straightforward, the best player has the best chance of dividing the pool or taking the lives. But, unhappily, this game, so child-like in appearance, is not always innocent. It may happen two players, gifted by nature with conveniently elastic con-[-140-]sciences, and a very confused notion of right and wrong, may arrange when they play upon each other to purposely avoid putting the ball in. Of course, each time this omission is made it is equal to the owner of the ball having an extra life, and of course makes the division of the pool almost a certainty. Perhaps at the end of the evening the two gentlemen, "who merely play for their amusement," may be seen under a lamppost dividing the spoil. The other games are pyramids and billiards, which it is unnecessary to describe. I will simply remark that the best player should win the game; but this is not always the case. Alas! for human nature! Sharps lose to win; muffs win to lose (the term "muff" is applied to an indifferent player). After this not very flattering description the reader would doubtless like to know who frequent these places. A very large majority are gentlemen - men who are perfectly incapable of doing anything but what is strictly honest; the minority are billiard sharks. The gentlemen play because it is a source of excitement; the sharks, because it is a source of profit. There are also some who play only for amusement with gentlemen like themselves, and never risk be-[-141-]yond a shilling or so; and others, mere lookers-on, who, fatigued by their daily labours, prefer a dolce far niente to the trouble of theatres, &c., and who read the paper, drink their brandy and water, and smoke their cigar, without either playing. or making a bet.
    It is not easier to distinguish a gentleman in a billiard-room than elsewhere, but without wishing to be personal, it is desirable the stranger should keep at a distance those individuals who are so very familiar and friendly with every one, and who keep a piece of chalk in their waistcoat pocket. These people cannot be insulted; they carefully avoid squabbles, which may bring about disagreeable insinuations; they prefer pursuing the even tenor of their way, "picking up" as many people as they can. See yonder old man who totters across the room; his trade is swindling, his goods are lies, his recreation is obscenity and blasphemy; his palsied hand can scarcely grasp a cue, and yet there are few who can excel him; by concealing his game carefully he has won, and can win hundreds, from his victims, who, thinking nothing of his skill, are astonished, as he pretends to be himself, at his luck. The young wife tossing restlessly in her [-142-] bed, and wondering what can keep her lord so long at business, little knows, when he returns home flushed and excited, that he has been fleeced of money he can ill afford to lose; whilst the sharer of the domestic joys of the billiard shark basks in the sunshine of his momentary good humour, as he displays with a sardonic smile the gold which perhaps never belonged to the dupe who lost it. But the night is closing on us; we have seen enough for once. Come away.