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 (RMA), 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 RMA 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 RMA 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 11, 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 today, 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 19, 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 you 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 McKenzie. (1938)