Rise & fall of Billiard saloons


Tom Richards (right) of Thirroul playing billiards in the Thirroul saloon about 1925. Picture: Supplied

RELIGIOUSLY every Saturday a steady stream of men crossed backwards and forwards from the bar of the Bulli Family Hotel to the billiard saloon opposite. They were not playing billiards, or even having a haircut or buying tobacco, the men were making their way to a tin shed at the back of the saloon where the resident SP bookie was waiting to take their bets on the horse races.

The region’s blue collar workers devotedly visited their local billiard saloons for a punt on the races from the 1920s through to their demise in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Although billiard saloons or halls were a social institution and meeting place within northern Illawarra communities, they were often looked down on by the law and by those who considered themselves “respectable”.

Generally in stones throw of a pub they were more then often fronts for illegal activities such as gambling and drinking.

The north had their fair share of billiard rooms frequented by shady, but likeable and popular characters, with at least a couple saloons trading in the larger towns.

The popularity of billiards increased with the manufacturing of tables in the colony during the 1850s. Publicans built billiard halls near their hotels to attract working class men, who drank and gambled heavily on the results of individual games.

In an effort to keep the saloons in check the government introduced the licensing of public billiard tables. Although publicans had billiard and bagatelle tables as early as the 1860s, the region’s first purpose built billiard saloon was opened by John Pritchard just north of the old Denmark Hotel at Bulli in 1886.

Purposely built billiard halls grew in popularity with legislation forcing the early closing of hotels in 1916. Halls sprang-up all over the district as crowded bars were cleared of their tables for valuable drinking space. Six o’clock closing left no time for recreational activities and only time for downing as many beers as possible before the dreaded call of last drinks – it was the days of the six o’clock swill.
By the late 1920s the billiard halls were becoming infamous for their illegal activities. Betting on billiard games had attracted the attention of SP Bookies, and they were soon accommodating punters for horse racing and other sporting fixtures.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported on March 1 1929 that Hugh Smith, of Woonona, was charged with operating a billiard-room for the purpose of betting, and was fined a whopping £30 and had just over £9 the proceeds of gambling confiscated.

Smith was back in the Bulli Court House six months later on the same charged and had his fine jacked-up to £50. Con Quilkey, who operated the Bulli Billiard Saloon was also convicted of using his premises for betting purposes in September 1929 and was fined £30.

Con Quilkey’s Bulli Billiard and Hairdressing Saloon was built by local tradesman Charley Gray opposite Bulli Family Hotel in 1924.

The saloon, today a hardware store, was opened by Ronald Rankine in December 1924 and boasted two tables, a tobacconist and barber shop. Rankine had a short stay with local identity Cornelius “Con” Quilkey taking the reins in 1925.

Con Quilkey, Bulli Billiard Saloon operator.
Con Quilkey, Bulli Billiard Saloon operator.

Thirty six year old Quilkey ran the saloon until he was elected onto the Bulli Shire Council as an alderman in 1932. Quilkey likely thought the respectability of a civic leader did not sit easy with hosting a billiard saloon.

The Bulli billiard saloon was home to a resident SP bookie with ‘pencils’ kept busy out the back in a tin shed on Saturdays.

Punters, between beers, were said to have worn off the highway line markings from their constant crossing between the pub and the saloon to place bets.

The South Coast Times reported in 1930 that an undercover constable made several bets with SP Bookie George Kay at the Thirroul Billiard Saloon. Sixteen men listening to the “wireless set” at the time and the bookie were all charged by the constable. Although Kay’s first offence, he was fined £20 at the Bulli Court House. The 16 punters were fined five shillings each.

The bookies were often dragged into the local court rooms, but the illegal activity of taking bets off a race course was rife. The Shoalhaven Telegraph reported on October 23 1935:

Six defendants were fined at the last sitting of the Wollongong Police Court for SP betting, and eight defendants at the Bulli Police Court. The alternative in one case at Wollongong was 201 days’ imprisonment. Bulli fines totalled £104 and Wollongong fines £220. A raid on a sports club at Port Kembla was responsible for £49 being received in fines.

The Bulli saloon had a timber veneer radio gram continuously tuned to the races, as well as a small illegal bar, supplied by a local hotel, and even poker machines during the 1940s. During the 1940s a number of “sporting clubs” were formed in the billiard saloons. Read more at: Bulli Woonona Sports Club.

Although continually raided by police, the billiard saloons blatantly thumbed their noses at the law and continued offering illegal activities for their ‘members’ through the war years and into the 1950s.

A major crackdown on billiard saloons, and their ‘sports clubs’, came during the 1950s, with raids made by local police and the Criminal Investigation Branch (CIB) making raids and charging operators. The Perth Sunday Times reported on Sunday June 3 1951:

Poker Machines Seized In Raid
Sydney, Sat: Vice squad, in raids on the South Coast last night, arrested 5 men and seized 17 poker machines. Raids were on 4 billiard clubs. Led by Insp. Crothers, 4 parties of detectives left the CIB early last night and went to Coledale, Thirroul, Austinmer and Bulli. Five men were charged with being keepers of common gaming houses. All were released on £20 bail to appear at Bulli Court next Friday.

Illawarra Daily Mercury reported on May 2 1953 that William Morris, of Main Road, Bulli, was charged with keeping a “common gaming house” and was sentenced to six months in jail. A poker machine was ordered to be destroyed.

The demise of the billiard saloon came with continued police regulation and  the government taking control of illegal betting in the mid 1960s. The introduction of the government controlled Totalisator Agency Board (TAB) sounded the death knell for the colourful institutions. Betting became legal in registered agencies with the the introduction of suburban TAB agencies.

By the 1980s, one of the last remaining billiard rooms was clinging to life in Woonona, opposite Hooper’s Royal Hotel. Another operated above shops at the corner of McCauleys Street and Lawrence Hargrave Drive Thirroul. By the new millennium both had closed, shutting a colourful chapter in local history.

© Copyright Mick Roberts 2015

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