HENRY UPTON ALCOCK: ‘FATHER’ OF THE AUSTRALIAN BILLIARDS TRADE
Two registered covers were found advertising Alcock & Co., Billiard Table Manufacturers, 213 Russell Street, Melbourne and it also listed their addresses in the other colonies. The first had 2 QV stamps of Victoria (1d &2d) as well as the green ‘TWO PENNY’ Boer War Charity stamp, with a large ‘R’ in a circle handstamp, and the postmark REGISTERED MELBOURNE/ PM/ 2/ 27.6.00. The reverses was not seen (Figure 1).
The second had the same advertising, there were 2 QV stamps of Victoria (1d & 3d) plus the olive ‘ONE PENNY’ Boer War Charity stamp with the same ‘R’ in a circle, and a REGISTERED MELBOURNE/ PM/ 2/ 11.7.00 postmark. Both covers were addressed to Perth addresses, and the reverse was not seen (Figure 2).
The rise to prominence of billiards in 19th century Australian life has been widely acknowledged as due largely to one man: Henry Upton Alcock. The World of Billiards magazine referred to him as "The father of the Australian Billiards Trade". Keith Dunstan, in his book, ‘Sports2' and Andrew Ricketts ‘Walter Lindrum’ agree. Billiards was being played here before Alcock arrived in 1853. It is said that the first table for public use in Victoria was located in ‘The Angel Inn’, corner of Queen and Collins Streets, Melbourne, as early as 1838. But Alcock's influence managed to make the game so popular that by 1877, he was to write of billiards: "Today the favourite diversion of every gentleman of social influence or educated taste."
Henry Upton Alcock was born in Dublin in 1823. He set sail for Port Phillip in the Colony of Victoria, in October 1852, on the ship Africa. He arrived in Melbourne in April 1853, and set up in business in Fitzroy (corner of Johnston and Gertrude Streets, Fitzroy) with four workmen. By mid-December 1854 his sales were averaging a little over five pounds per day. Alcock managed to gradually build this tiny enterprise until it became one of Melbourne's most substantial businesses in the latter period of the 19th century with branches in Sydney, Adelaide, Brisbane, Perth, and Wellington, New Zealand, with an agency in Tasmania. He developed a reputation for the quality of Alcock billiard tables throughout the English speaking world.
Alcock commenced billiard table manufacture with two aims in mind: To make a really excellent table; and to use local materials and products wherever possible. Alcock saw the value and beauty of Australian timbers: blackwood, mountain ash, oak, maple, tulip wood, etc, at a time when most people thought that high quality furniture could only be constructed out of the traditional walnut or mahogany from Europe. In the earlier years, Alcock had great difficulty in getting slate for tables. He found that some of the earlier settlers in Collingwood had built houses made entirely of slate. So he bought the houses, pulled them down and used the slate for his tables. Later, he was to own a slate quarry at Castlemaine, but to keep up the necessary volume he also needed to import slate from Wales, Italy, and Portugal.
Within a short time, Alcock had moved his factory to 132 Russell Street in the city of Melbourne (on the east side, between Little Bourke and Lonsdale Streets) and gradually set up his manufactory there. By 1862 he was employing over 40 men and had installed quite extensive machinery. During 1867-68 he installed a new veneer saw, with a weight of three tons, 12 feet in diameter, capable of cutting veneers as narrow as 14 to the inch. This machine took approximately six months to instal, cost approximately £1,800, was underpinned with 25,000 feet of red gum for foundations, and was the only one of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere. Using this saw, Alcock was able to supply veneer for the furniture trade throughout the Colony. By 1873 Alcock employed 60 men; by 1877 the establishment was capable of producing tables at the rate of one every four hours; by 1883 there were 140 on the payroll. Between 1883 and 1885 the Company put 4½ million feet of logs through their breaking down saws.
Alcock's carried out virtually all of the processes of billiard table making under the one roof at Russell Street. Timber was brought in as logs, milled and seasoned; table frames were built, legs turned, slates cut to size, dowelled, bolted and finished; here the cushions were made, billiard balls turned out of ivory; cues and other accessories were made, and so on. For some years billiard cloth was the only imported item. Henry Alcock offered a prize of £500 for the first Australian manufacturer to produce a genuine high quality billiard cloth. That prize was never collected.
Alcock's became famous. In 1864 the then current "Champion Billiards Player of the World", John Roberts, arrived in Melbourne. He was reported to have said of the Alcock table used during matches at the Albion Hotel: "I never played on a better table in my life". Later, having toured the Colonies of Australasia, Roberts returned to London, taking an Alcock table with him for his billiard room. That table became a prototype for the "John Roberts Pattern" table, some of which are still being used today.
In 1867 during the visit to the Colonies of Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh (second son of Queen Victoria), Alcock's were commissioned by the Government of Victoria to prepare a table as a gift, since he was fond of billiards. Alcock's developed a distinctive table which became the prototype of the famous "Duke of Edinburgh" model table, some of which today still remain the prized possession of a fortunate few billiards enthusiasts. During the 19th century manufacturing exhibitions became a regular feature of commercial life. Alcock's entered tables in quite a number of them, regularly winning prizes. By 1908 the Company held 27 medals gained as prizes from such exhibitions. In 2003, the company celebrated its 150th Anniversary.
This paper was derived from the Company history of Alcocks. It is always a pleasure to see this pride of documentation. The following billiard cartoon was found at the company’s website, and it reads: PERFECTLY DREADFUL - Florence: " Oh! Kiss. Do kiss?" (N.B.– Aunt Maria is upset for a week, and asks everybody to imagine "what the world’s coming to" (Figure 3).
Addendum (August 2010): "Duke of Edinburgh" model billiard table by Alcock & Co. of Melbourne, manufactured during the 1870's. Framework of Australian cedar; show timbers in magnificent figured blackwood. The prototype model of this table was presented to the then Duke of Edinburgh (Alfred, second son of Queen Victoria) during his visit to the Colonies of Australasia 1867-1868 (Figure 4).
Another Alcock & Co. illustrated cover from Melbourne to a Miss Lucy Packham in Hobart on AUG 7 1907 shows that they were also importers of other Sporting Materials as well as Guns, Rifles and Ammunition (Figure 5).