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 magazine1 referred to him as "The father
of the Australian Billiards Trade". Keith Dunstan, in his book,
Sports2, and Andrew Ricketts, Walter Lindrum: Billiards Phenomenon3
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
Henry Upton Alcock was born in Dublin in 1823. He set sale 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 (we understand at the corner of Johnston
and Gertrude Streets, Fitzroy5) with four workmen. By mid-December
1854 his sales were averaging a little over five pounds per day6.
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, and an agency in Tasmania. And
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 needed to import slate from Wales, Italy, and Portugal.7
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.8 During 1867-68 he installed a new veneer saw,
weight three tons, 12 feet in diameter, 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.9 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 4 1/2 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
(refer page "History"). 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".10 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. (A
list of the most prominent awards attached - see awards page.)