Billiard Halls

Banner photo is of the exterior of the Orr Bros Billiard Academy, circa 1913, from the City of Toronto Archives.

Growing up, I had an oddball idea of adulthood – though I suppose most kids do.  As I’ve mentioned here before, I’d steeped myself in old detective novels and film noir movies as a kid and they’d given me a kind of skewed idea of what passed for a good time once you’d shed your teens.  As a result, I thought there’d be a lot of drinking Manhattans and hanging out in pool halls.  Of course, it’s not impossible that there are people out there that do these things regularly, but it’s probably a good deal less common today than I’d expected it’d be.

Of course, strictly speaking, drinking Manhattans is the only thing you have to be an adult to do.  And as a kid, I guess I believed the same was true of pool because I thought it was only ever played in smoky, poorly lit bars. The first I learned otherwise was when, at 13 or 14, I spent a week at a friend’s grandparents’ place in Cape Cod that had a pool table.  As I picked up a cue for the first time I thought “This is ok? I’m allowed to do this?”

But in a way, my sense that pool was a vaguely-taboo, adult-thing wasn’t too wrong. Back home in Toronto, there were few spots where an innocent teen might go to play. More often than not, tables were found in dark bars, governed over by a band of regulars that made you feel like you’d crashed their private club.  And for the most part, historically speaking, it’d always been this way.

It’s difficult to pin down the exact date that the game of billiards came to Toronto – I’d imagine it was hot on the heels of the establishment of the garrison at Fort York in the 1790s – but, thanks to the government’s zest for being paid duties, we know that there were a number of billiard tables in the city by 1810:

From the second session of the fifth Provincial Parliament, March 1810.

Despite their best efforts to lull you to sleep with the above blather, you’d be startled awake when you realized they were going to charge you £40 a year to own a table.  I’d imagine that having to pay such a duty resulted in not a few tavern keepers throwing blankets over their tables and whistling innocently when an official-type came around.  It may also have had something to do with the low numbers of billiard rooms listed in the first city directories.  And by few, I mean none.

It’s not until 1850 that we find any hint that Torontonians might be enjoying the odd game of billiards – and even then, it’s a small one:

From the 1850-51 Toronto City Directory.

But in 1859, the lid came off (slowly) and the first billiard hall stood up to be counted:

Atta boy, Marty.  From the Toronto City Directory, 1859-60.

Following Ackerman’s lead, others began to appear in print – chief amongst them, a man named James McGinn who went so far as to splash out with various ads:

Billiards, booze, cigars AND ventilation? A veritable heaven. From the Irish Canadian, September 20th 1865.

Thanks to the magic of illustration, we can even see what the Golden City Billiard Parlor looked like, probably:

It certainly was a fine looking parlor – a real pleasure palace where bearded men could play or simply loaf. From the McEvoy & Co Toronto Guide for the Provincial Fair, 1866.

In 1866, billiard parlors were given a further boost when the Provincial Fair came to town.  In honour of the occasion, the publisher McEvoy and Co put out a guide highlighting the best of everything the city had to offer.  Unlike similar guides issued by the large hotels – which were, without fail, always stuffy and formal – the McEvoy and Co guide comes off as quite chatty.  It also appears to have been compiled under the assumption that the reader wanted to have some real fun while in town – not just tour school and church grounds as the other guides suggested they do.  Which is probably why of the five “Places of Amusement” featured billiard parlors accounted for three.  Receiving top billing was James McGinn’s parlor:

“And by ‘all’ we mean just men, of course.” From the McEvoy & Co Toronto Guide for the Provincial Fair, 1866.

But there were a couple other worthies:

It’s funny, somehow  “WE go there to see our friends, and so does every body else” comes off as not so welcoming. From the McEvoy & Co Toronto Guide for the Provincial Fair, 1866.

By the way, McEvoy & Co were trying to be cute when they referred to George Brown of the Queen’s Hotel as “an honorable man,” “not a politician” and connected only with “petroleum ‘globes.’”   They were going (awkwardly ) out of their way to say he was not the same George Brown who was editor of The Globe newspaper, opposed to Tory privilege and an abolitionist.  … you know, all that dishonorable stuff.

Here’s a look at the Queen’s Hotel:

The Queen’s Hotel on Front, between York and Bay, seen here in 1886.  It would eventually be closed in 1927 and torn down to make way for the Royal York hotel which still occupies the site today.  Courtesy of the Toronto Public Library.

However, it’s McEvoy and Co’s third recommendation that is perhaps the most interesting:


The Revere House, seen here at the right of the photo, in 1883. It was located on the south side of King at York. The lighter building with the enormous flagpole is the famed, grand Rossin Hotel. Everything in this photo is no more. …sniff.  From the City of Toronto Archives.

What makes Riley and May so interesting is that, in addition to running one of the largest hotels in the city and a renowned billiard parlor, they also manufactured billiard tables themselves:

From the Toronto City Directory 1867-8.

As for the men themselves, I can tell you that Riley was John B. Riley.  And outside of the fact that he was a Mason – something anybody might’ve guessed – there’s very little information that’s survived him.  Having said that, I think it’s safe to say that running the hotel end of the business was where his interest lay, and that everything billiards related was his partner’s.  Because, boy, Samuel May sure left his mark all over the game…

I’m not going to pretend I know what this means exactly but I do understand that Samuel May won. From Modern Billiards – A complete text-book of the game, containing plain and practical instructions how to play and acquire skill at this scientific amusement, 1908. … that’s all title, not me describing the book.

A few years after this particular win, in 1867, Samuel May took all his billiard know-how and wrote a book on the game:

Come for the history and instructions, stay for the sanitary advantages. Cover of A History and Description of Billiards by Samuel May, 1867.

Here’s an illuminating passage:

Billiards will drive the disease right out of you!  Permanently!  That’s a sanitary advantage, alright.  From A History and Description of Billiards by Samuel May, 1867.

Now, hold onto your hats: May didn’t just win championships and cure the chronically ill, he was also continuously looking to improve on billiard table design:

From Samuel May’s patent application for a new, improved style of table leveler, on July 25th 1876. One of its merits was supposed to be it’s attractiveness over previous designs. It’s certainly more pleasing to the eye than a couple of matchbooks jammed under the leg.

Yet another Samuel May design was patented in 1880 and this one made him the talk of the town.  …Okay fine, the talk of people who talked about such things – in the town.  Behold, May’s improved billiard cushion:

From Samuel May’s patent application, October 19th, 1880.

As excited as you no doubt are by this innovation, you can imagine the thrill it must’ve struck in the breast of all who enjoyed the game and who’d had to suffer under inferior cushions.  No, seriously.  Here’s Charles Pulham Mulvaney singing its praises:

“The cushion from end to end provides the same uniform elasticity, an evenness of speed and accuracy being secured by an ingenious and scientific combination of pure elastic rubber and the finest spring steel.  What is the greatest characteristic of this invention, however, is that it is not subject to climactic influences, a feature the importance of which in a country like Canada cannot be exaggerated.  Everyone knows the misery of playing on a dead, dull cushion; but let it be hot, cold, damp or dry, with the steel combination cushion there is no danger of such torture.”  From Toronto Past and Present: A Handbook of the City, 1884.

Let me tell you, friends, we’ve all had it easy, pool-wise.  I know I for one have always just taken it for granted that when I bank a ball, it’ll bounce back.

Anyhow …

About the same time that May was patenting his cushion, he and John Riley parted ways.  As far as I can tell, Riley held onto the Revere Hotel, while May got the billiard table factory.  And what a factory it was:

I’m fascinated by the entrance being on the second floor.  Perhaps it was for May’s benefit – the better to survey his kingdom. It certainly wasn’t for carrying pool tables down.  The Samuel May Manufactory at 81 Adelaide W. from Toronto Past and Present: A Handbook of the City, 1884.

Now that we know all about the levelers, cushions and hive-like factory, let’s have a look at what it was all about:

Billiard fan or not, I think we can all agree that that’s a serious piece of furniture. From Industries of Canada: Historical and Commercial Sketches of Toronto and Environs, 1886.

By this time, as you might imagine, a number of billiard parlors were popping up all across the city.   Every hotel seemed to boast one and many of the better ones employed their own “billiard marker” – a man whose job it was to stand by and score games for the patrons.

However, though billiards were enjoyed by men from all walks of life, some began to associate them with an unsavory element and employers that enjoyed a sense of moral superiority began to throw their weight around in attempt to control their workers outside the workplace.  And they were very successful …in driving their employees to less obvious places to indulge their love of the game:

It’s not often you associate fast-living and bowling.  From the Sherbrooke News, January 25, 1877.

And really, what better cover for a billiard-fiend than the Mechanic’s Institute?

The Mechanic’s Institute, at the north east corner of Church and Adelaide, circa 1867. Amazing that they could build such grand, solid structures and be so lousy at paving streets, sin’t it?  Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

Established in 1830, Toronto’s Mechanic’s Institute – like numerous others around the world – was built with the grand idea of providing an education to working men.  Much like a library, it offered a collection of instructional and technical books which members could borrow, reading rooms where they could study, and hosted the occasional lecture.  All of which, no doubt, was welcomed warmly by Toronto’s working class.  But perhaps, not quite as warmly as when it opened its recreation rooms:

Sounds grand to me. From the Sherbrooke News, December 14th, 1876.

But, of course, not everyone wanted to become a member of the Institute or to visit a posh hotel to play pool, and so billiard parlors continued to crop up all across the city. Undoubtedly, many were dives but I imagine there were some pretty decent ones too. Here’s a look at a few of them through the years:

It’s possible I’m wrong, but I’m going to guess this was one of the dives. Orr and Haney’s Billiard Hall on Richmond St. E., between Yonge and Victoria, circa 1890.  Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.
John Elliott’s Royal George Saloon and Billiard Parlor at the corner of Church and Shuter. Here we see it in its second incarnation, circa early 1900s, after being renamed the Elliott House. But rest assured, it still had billiard tables.  Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.
On the left is John Shannessy’s Royal Saloon and Billiard Parlor on King St. W., just west of Yonge St. Circa 1875.  Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.
Crown Hotel and Billiards at Bay and Melinda, circa 1895. Something about a guy leaning against a building in his shirtsleeves makes it seem friendly, doesn’t it?   Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.
The Shakespeare Hotel, at King and York in 1868. A fellow named Martin Griffin ran the billiard parlor. That could be him for all I know. Not the kid, of course – though who knows?   Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

Row of storefronts, with Humphrey gas arc lamps light, 35-45 Queen Street East: Orr Brothers, ladies dining room, lunch room and billiard academy. - [ca. 1913]
A definite departure from the halls of yore – the Orr Bros Billiard Academy, just east of Yonge on Queen, circa 1913.  From the City of Toronto Archives.
Interior, Orr Brothers billiard academy, with low overhead gas lamps. - [ca. 1913]
Interior of the Orr Bros Billiard Academy, circa 1913. I think they were really taking the whole ‘academy’ thing seriously.  From the City of Toronto Archives.
Though billiards are still played in and around the city today, there are some aspects of the game that have changed since its rise in old Toronto.  For one thing, it’s almost always called “pool” – a name that came from it being played in a place where bets were “pooled” – as opposed to “billiards” which now seems reserved for those that take the game very seriously and are, not coincidentally, very good at it.*

Also, there aren’t nearly as many dedicated parlors or pool halls as there once were.  Sure, you can still find tables in regular bars, but they’re not likely to advertise the fact the way they once did.   One exception is the wonderful Rivoli where I sometimes played as a teen in the late ’90s.  Another was the well regarded Academy of Spherical Arts in Liberty Village which operated out of a defunct billiard table factory.  In addition to their enormous whiskey selection, they featured a number of beautiful antique tables to play on, including an original Samuel May model – the very one , in fact, illustrated earlier.  But sadly, the Academy – like James McGinn’s Golden Palace, Riley and May’s Revere House and the Mechanics’ Institute – has closed its doors and is no more.

* Note: The terms ‘pool’ and ‘billiards’ can be confusing because they are both used to refer to table games in general  – including snooker and carom – as well as specific games and table styles.  I know this – please don’t write me angry letters for not being more specific.

On a personal note:

Recently, I mentioned to my mother that I was writing about old billiard halls and she said “Oh, your Uncle Omer used to run a pool hall in Port Colborne.”  This came as a surprise to me – though it probably shouldn’t have, in retrospect.

My Uncle Omer, my mother’s older brother, was one of my great favourites.  My first memory of him – I suppose I was five or six – was at a party where I was feeling out-of-place and shy.  He reached into a pocket, took out a box of Smarties and gave them to me.  Let me to tell you something – keys to my heart, right there.  But beyond his ability to make chocolate magically appear, he was a lovable, warm man and a pretty remarkable character.

My parents often refer to him as “a Damon Runyon-type” and he truly was.  He was a large man, always wore a fedora and was a regular at the racetrack.   He often kept his right hand tucked in his pocket to hide the four fingers he was missing after a childhood accident while playing on some box cars.  My dad remembers him being a great pool player and believes he was able to make the injured hand work to his benefit while playing.

About his running a pool hall, my mother said he’d always ask for the TV to be turned down because he’d have a headache from listening to the balls smack against each other all day.  Of the hall itself, my mother remembers visiting once and hearing one of the patrons say “Dummy up, there’s a dame in here” when she walked in.

When Uncle Omer died a couple of days before my 12th birthday, my sister recalled that his wish was to have his ashes spread at the starting line of the racetrack.  I believe it took some wrangling but, in the end, my mother made it happen.  On the day of the memorial, there was a grand buffet in the racetrack’s dining room and an enormous number of his racing pals – a great bunch of characters themselves – came to pay their last respects.  The final race was run in his honour and the winning horse was presented with a blanket emblazoned with the words “Omer’s Grand Finale.”

… So I guess, thinking back on it now, it’s possible that detective novels and old movies weren’t the only things to shape my idea of adulthood.  They probably just seemed all the more real for having known my uncle.

Uncle Omer in the 1940s.

18 thoughts on “Billiard Halls

  1. I was just reading about the history of snooker the other day, and here I am learning about billiards! That’s a lot of pool-education for someone who can’t even play. (I don’t even know why, something goes wrong with the cue when I try to use it, and there’s no power behind it. The balls don’t even move!) Interesting nonetheless, and I suspect I could use the guide containing the “sanitary advantages”! You uncle looks like a cool cat! And I have to ask, what were the other two non-billiards places of amusement in McEvoy’s guide? Because I’m picturing unwholesome entertainments…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! He really was a cool cat – and also something of a ladies’ man, I think – though no one tells me anything about that. Between you and me, I really stink at pool myself. But I enjoy playing just the same. It’s about the only game I like playing with others – though, from time to time, I can be wrangled into a board game. I’m glad you asked about the other “places of amusement” – I’d wanted to mention them but was afraid of veering off on another tangent. They were both theatres. The first was The Lyceum which put on dramatic plays, and the other was The Oxford Hall which specialized in “Negro minstrelsy, comicalities, travesties, first-rate songs, side-rending conundrums, inimitable dances, and a big supply of the best wines, liquors and cigars.” The terribleness of minstrel shows aside, “side-rending conundrums”?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m somewhat relieved they’re theatres and not brothels or some such (I guess that’s more the purview of Harris’s List). But I’m not even entirely sure what side-rending means in that context. I think of side-rending as maybe something that makes you grab your sides in laughter (like side-splittingly funny? That’s a thing, right?), but how that applies to a conundrum, I do not know. I think I would have had to check the Oxford out on a non-minstrel show night just to satisfy my curiosity on the subject, had I read McEvoy’s back in the day!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. This was a delight to read! As usual you delve into wonderful detail revealing the whole. It made me a wee bit nostalgic – as a teenager I used to hang in an Italian pool hall on St. Clair West. They had good pinball games too =D

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much Nick! I’m pleased to hear you get nostalgic about pool halls too. Even though there’s still the odd one around, it really does feel like they’re slipping away – at least as we knew them. Funny too, I was thinking about a couple places on St. Clair when I was writing this!


  3. I grew up at Keele and Lawrence and hanging out at the North Park Plaza there that was built in about 1962. I was 12. Down a long set of stairs to below street level I was drawn by the fascinating, magnetic Rack & Que Billiard Hall. Still open, a bit sketchy like a pool hall should be, and worth checking out.
    Later in life, in Parkdale/Liberty Village, we were blessed with the sophisticated Academy of Spherical Arts in what was originally the John Brunswick factory where they made pool tables, balls and cues. The Academy had antique tables, great big comfy armchairs, original art on the walls, and the largest single malt Scotch selection in Toronto. World class. Sadly they closed in 2012.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great! I’ve always sucked at playing pool…but now I know that it’s probably just because I wasn’t drinking enough Manhattans! Fascinating read! I like the dividers on the bench seating in The Golden City Billiard Parlor litho at the beginning…no ner-do-wells sleeping on the benches here! And the Uncle Omar story is fantastic!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha! Good eye on the bench dividers – I hadn’t noticed that! I’m so happy you enjoyed the billiards history and my Uncle Omer’s story. I’d have loved to have spent more time with my uncle and heard more of his stories. I imagine he got up to a whole lot more than I’ve been told about.


  5. It’s a Christmas Miracle! I’m supposedly “following” your blog, but hadn’t seen these past few posts. (Seriously, WordPress? Let’s put the “follow” back in “following.”) But, here I am on Christmas Day, outsmarting WordPress and binge-reading. And, having a lovely time!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Really love these history bites (actually quite detailed) about Toronto. So much of the City is being forgotten and buried under flashy condos and uberchic gentrifications. We are our history and when we forget our stories we forget who we are. (I forget who quoted that one) and I enjoy hearing about your Mum and Dad’s younger years as well. Thank you! Keep writing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the kind words and support. I’m so happy to hear you enjoy these posts! And I absolutely agree, our stories are precious – I fear for them every time another building tumbles. Which is far too often in this city.


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