The similarity of Bar Billiards with Bagatelle, a game that was very popular for more than a century after 1770 is so evident that it seems highly likely that Bar Billiards is a derivative of Bagatelle via some lineage but that lineage is, at present, unknown. For more information on this earlier game, please visit the separate page on the history of Bagatelle. Beyond that assumed and mysterious connection, it isn't known how Bar Billiards originated but in the early 1930s an Englishman called David Gill observed a game called Russian Billiards (Billiard Russe) being played in Belgium. A Russian link is therefore a possibility but it seems more likely that the game was named so as to sound slightly exotic to the ears of West Europeans at the time (in the same way as for Chinese Checkers and Polish Draughts).
Gill convinced the English manufacturer Jelkes (no longer trading) to make a version of the game which he called Bar Billiards. Pubs seemed keen to buy tables and other manufacturers soon got in on the act, notably Sams Brothers (later Sams Atlas who were bought by Greys of Cambridge who then went out of business). It is still possible to obtain reconditioned versions of these lovely old Bar Billiards tables.
The first pub league was created in Oxford in 1936 and shortly afterwards leagues sprang up in Reading, Canterbury and High Wycombe. Before the war, an organisation called the National Bar Billiards Association existed. The now-defunct Canterbury league team won the NBBA challenge cup beating a team from Oxford just before the war. After the war a governing body was formed called the All-England Bar Billiards Association appeared although the relationship with the NBBA is not clear. The AEBBA now supervises the game across 18 counties, mainly in the South of England. However, the old cup was somehow retained in Canterbury and proceeded to be played for as the 'Canterbury Team Challenge Cup for the next 50 years from 1947. The game emerged in Jersey 1933 and their game was administered by the Jersey Licence Victuallers League. This body has worked closely with the AEBBA, despite variations in their respective games and the British open, the largest competition in the Bar Billiards calendar continues to be played in Jersey each year.
There are a number of variations in table sizes and rules. The Jersey tables were reportedly based on those from the manufacturer Burroughs & Watts and are slightly bigger (Riley bought out Burrows & Watts to form Riley-Burwat at a later date). In Jersey, all shots must be played from the same spot whereas in England, they can be played from anywhere within the small D at the foot of the table.
Skittles come shaped like mushrooms or as small thin posts with metal crosspieces (both designed so that the skittles cannot fall into a cup). The author is also aware that many tables feature 4 skittles instead of 3. Since both the Jersey and All-England Bar Billiards Association rules stipulate that one black and 2 white skittles be used, it's not clear where this variation came from nor which leagues play with it. Perhaps it's only played in individual pubs and bars.
Whoever designed the game cleverly ensured it was more economical on space in pubs and clubs than ordinary billiards and pool tables because players strike from one end of the table so there is no need to walk around the table at all. The game itself is unusual since play is limited by time, a single coin giving from between 10 and 20 minutes of play according to preference (or the avarice of the landlord).
During the playing period, players attempt to accumulate points by striking the balls, 7 of which are white and one of which is red, up the table so that they fall down the holes at the other end. There are 9 holes in all scoring from 10 to 200 points depending upon the difficulty and potted balls run back to the front of the table in hidden channels so that they can be used again. The game is deceptively difficult due, in part, to the additional 3 skittles that are placed near the high scoring holes. If either of the two white skittles are knocked over, the break finishes and any points made during it are lost. Worse, if the black skittle is toppled, the guilty player's entire score is reset to zero, a drastic event, indeed.
Eventually, the time runs out and a bar drops inside the table preventing any more balls returning to be replayed from the front of the table. The remaining balls are then cleared one by one in the normal way until only one remains. At this point, the final fiendish rule comes into play - the only way to pot this last ball is into the 200 hole by first bouncing off a side cushion. Since the 200 hole is situated directly behind the fatal black skittle and since 200 points is often enough to decide the outcome of the game, the finish is commonly fraught with tension....
Bar Billiards is still going strong especially in the South of England and the Channel Islands but has unfortunately lost a lot of its popularity due to the emergence of American 8 ball Pool.
The link with France and Belgium became more clear in the years following the initial launch of this page by the author. Several people have since written in with information about the French version of Bar Billiards. The interesting thing here is that the table is almost identical and the only significant difference is that it misses the hole behind the black skittle.
Simon Ward wrote in about the table on the left which has a plaque which says "Ameublement. Leonard Leclercq, Rue de Reims, Wattingeies, Templemars (Nord)". He assumes, therefore, that it is made in France by this chap.
To the right is a picture of another French table kindly contributed by Mike Jakeaways. The owner of the table lives in the Poitiers area, and says she remembers that tables were common in the cafes and coffee-bars of her youth in the area (ie maybe 60s & 70s). They were replaced with the arrival of electronic games. The sign on the table says "Fabrique de Billards. Maba. Tulle, Corrèze".
Here's a third table, kindly sent to the author by Chris Saville, with a very unusual feature. The middle skittle is a teeototum - numbered 1 to 6. We aren't sure how the teeototum is used.
The 5 hole game pictured above is from Italy. It was sent in by another kind contributor, Stecher Josef, who owns this table which features four holes and two skittles. He reports that the table, has been in his family since at least the 1930s so it seems to be a good possibility that the game is older than the English game. Shown below are two pictures of the Italian table by kind permission of Stecher Josef.
It may be no coincidence that Italy is the place where Pin Billiards appears to have originated. Given the Italian penchant for putting skittles on billiard tables, could it be that someone in Italy decided on day to come up with a new game based on Bagatelle but using skittles? And perhaps this game or another version of it was the pastime discovered by David Gill in Belgium. It's a possiblity - there is a lot more research to be done.
This is a table owned by Pat Bartlett in Switzerland who kindly sent some pictures of it after renovation. He found a date on the table - 21.2.1936 and it was prduced by Paul Brunner who had originally a carpentry workshop and was also known to import snooker tables to Switzerland several which are in use today. He also produced pool/billard tables in his workshop. So it seems likely that Brunner made this table originally - whether he copied a design or came up with his own is unknown.
As you can see, the table has the 2 wide holes set nearest in the table and there are 3 holes at the back compared with 5 on an English table.
Stanko Milosavljevic of Belgrade, Serbia wrote in with about this table (right) which he got from his grandfather's bar. It has seven balls, one red and six white ones, seven holes and one skittle (although possibly there were more skittles which are lost). On the front is a plaque that simply says "Atlas". Atlas was an English manufacturer who were eventually bought by Sams Brothers. Presumably this is a design of table that they made at one time. Stanko is interested to hear from anyone with any information about his table.
Peter Primozic from Slovenia sent me a picture (left) of another table with a sixe hole format in April 2016 after my shop helped him to refurbish it. It's an old style billiards made in Trieste, Italy by a G. Nicotra manufacturer.
Stuart Rumsey sent this photo of another table from France, this time with the configuration of holes around the edge. It is about 1.2m wide by 2.1m long overall. It came with one mushroom, perhaps there were more. The clock mechanism is German from Saarbrucken with 'Automatenfabrik' written on it and its restorer estimated it was made during the world wars. It takes a 1 franc coin.
Nothing like this has surfaced anywhere else yet. Stuart is looking for more information - especially rules, number of skittles etc.
The rules for Bar Billiards vary by pub and location. However, the most common set of Bar Billiards rules based on those dictated by the All-England Bar Billiards Association can be obtained for free from Masters Traditional Games. A description of the game is also included.
Masters Traditional Games sells Bar Billiards tables and spares.
Please see the Bar Billiards Pubs and Leagues page.