The rise and fall of billiard saloons and their notorious ‘sports clubs’

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


RELIGIOUSLY, during most of the first half of last century, a steady stream of men could be seen crossing the road, backwards and forwards, from Bulli’s Family Hotel to the billiard and hairdressing saloon, on Saturdays.

Most of the men were not playing billiards, buying tobacco, or even having a haircut, they were making their way to a tin shed out the back of the saloon, where the resident ‘starting price bookmaker’ (SP bookie) was waiting to take wagers on horse races, broadcasted from an old radiogram.

Blue collar workers devotedly visited their local bookie at the billiard saloon 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 many Australian communities, they were often looked down upon by the law, and by those who considered themselves “respectable”.

Generally in stones throw of a pub, they were more than often a front for illegal activities, such as gambling and sly-grog.

Like most working class areas in Australia, the Illawarra region, south of Sydney, had its fair share of billiard rooms, frequented by coal miners, with at least a couple of them 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 first purpose built billiard saloon in the northern part of the Illawarra 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. With pubs forced to close at 6pm, halls sprang-up all over the district as an alternative evening recreational venues. In addition, crowded bars in pubs were cleared of their billiard tables to make space for valuable drinking space.

Six o’clock closing left no time for billiards and only time for sinking as many beers as possible after work, before the dreaded call of last drinks at 6pm. It was the infamous days of the six o’clock swill.

By the late 1920s the billiard halls were becoming notorious 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. Smith had just over £9, the proceeds of gambling, confiscated. He 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 a billiard saloon, opposite the Family Hotel at Bulli, was also convicted of using his premises for betting purposes in September 1929 and was fined £30.

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

The saloon 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.

The former Bulli Sports Club, Billiard and Hairdressing Saloon, when it traded as a hardware store in the 1980s. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection. Inset: Billiard saloon operator, Con Quilkey. Picture: Wollongong City Libraries.

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.

During the 1940s many of the billiard saloons had “sports clubs” established within their walls. The ‘clubs’ became notorious for illegally activities, and were watched closely by the law.

The Bulli Sports Club had a timber veneer radiogram continuously tuned to the horse races, as well as a small illegal bar, supplied by a local hotel, and even a poker machine concealed in a cupboard during the 1940s.

Although continually raided by police, the ‘sports clubs’ 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), with charges often laid against the operators. The Perth Sunday Times reported on 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.

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

The demise of the billiard saloon and their sports clubs came with continued police enforcement 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 introduction of suburban TAB agencies.

Bulli Woonona Sports Club, operated opposite the Royal Hotel at Woonona. This image was taken during a visit to Woonona Bulli by a Sydney Sun newspaper reporter during the great coal miners’ strike of April 1940. Two of the men in this photo have been identified; they are, extreme left, George ‘Bunny’ Brown, and second from left, Kelly Swan. Picture: Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW, Courtesy ACP.
Bulli Woonona Sports Club, operated opposite the Royal Hotel at Woonona. This image was taken during a visit to Woonona Bulli by a Sydney Sun newspaper reporter during the great coal miners’ strike of April 1940. Picture: Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW, Courtesy ACP.

By the 1980s, one of the last remaining billiard rooms in the northern part of the Illawarra was clinging to life in Woonona, opposite Hooper’s Royal Hotel.

Although operating as a ‘snooker hall’, the premises had once been home to the Bulli Woonona Sports Club, a popular haunt of local coal miners, and a place to place a bet with the local SP bookie.

Another billiiard saloon operated above shops at the corner of McCauleys Street and Lawrence Hargrave Drive Thirroul during the 1980s.

By the new millennium, the remnants of the region’s billiard saloons at Woonona and Thirroul had closed, ending a colourful chapter in local history.

Were you a member of a ‘sports club’ or frequented a billiard saloon? Scroll down to the comments sections to share your memories

First published 2013. Updated 2021

© Copyright Mick Roberts 2021

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Categories: Illawarra Hotels, NSW hotels, poker machines

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