courtesy of Bill Hunter
Lord Palmerston was a British statesman who twice served as Prime Minister in the 19th century.
A controversial figure and no stranger to scandal he was the political giant of his age.
He was also quite good at billiards.
Up until the early 1800s billiards was very much a recreational pastime for the aristocracy and royalty. It was for that reason described as the ‘Noble Game of Billiards’.
However the sport gradually gained acceptance by the wider populace. The growth in popularity owed much to celebrities of the time, such as Lord Palmerston, who were known to enjoy the game.
In the first half of the 19th century English Billiards was the preferred game. It was played with three balls and six pockets on a rectangular table. However as the century progressed ‘pyramid pool’ became popular.
In that game there were 15 red balls and a white cue ball. Players scored one point for each red ball potted.
By the way the word ‘pool’ in that context refers to a collective bet or ante.
Black pool, a forerunner to snooker, took the game further. The rules were much the same as those for pyramid pool but a black ball was added which gained extra scoring points.
Lord Palmerston played all forms of the game and practised in the billiard hall of his magnificent mansion in Hertfordshire.
He played competitively in ‘The Travellers’… a Pall Mall gentlemen’s club which exists today and can boast of five prime ministers as members.
It is interesting to read recently released archives of minutes taken during a Travellers club committee meeting which disclose a certain Mr. Percival Osborne (in his youth an acquaintance of Lord Palmerston) committed suicide in the lower billiards room.
An idiosyncrasy of the bullet’s path meant that it caused damage to both Mr. Osborne and a billiard table.
This caused much consternation and resulted in an amendment to the club’s constitution which demanded members only shoot themselves (should the urge take them) in the lavatory.
Sadly, in 1865, at the age of 81, Palmerston also met his end.
He suffered a heart attack while seducing a pretty young housemaid atop his beloved billiard table. In fact it is said that he was discovered by his wife Emily ‘in flagrante delicto’ astride the latter.
The French have a phrase for this. It is ‘la mort d’amour.’
Lord Palmerston’s last words were… ‘Die, my dear doctor? That is the last thing I shall do. I still have balls on the table.’
Such was his love for the game.
Like the ivory billiard balls of his day, Palmerston’s political reputation has not endured well, but he undoubtedly died the way he lived with an enthusiasm for life whilst indulging two of his not so private passions.
The Hertford Mercury of Saturday October 28, 1865, reported how his coffin, tastefully decorated with colourful illustrations of billiard balls, left Lord Palmerston’s grand Hertfordshire estate (Brocket Hall) in a horse-drawn hearse.
The funeral cortège proceeded in the rain past the appropriately named Potters Bar to a final destination in Piccadilly.
This is a photograph of Lord Palmerston’s man cave.
It is preserved to this day.
It is said that a ghastly apparition of the grim reaper grasping a billiard cue appears to those entering the room. The fateful words are then heard… ‘Fancy a game mate ?’
You couldn’t make it up !