English Amateur Billiards Association

EABA : The Amateur Billiard Player : Winter 2002

The Amateur Billiard Player : Winter 2002

RILEY’S: THE END OF AN ERA

Riley Leisure, one of the biggest names in billiard-table manufacture
has collapsed with £3.5m of debt, and having been trading in
administration since November. It is understood that rivals, BCE of
Bristol, have now bought the company name, but the works in Burnley,
which employed 113 people, closed its doors for the last time in
December.

The company began life in 1878 when Edward John Riley a keen
sports enthusiast, left the bank where he was employed and started a
shop retailing the goods which were the object of his passion. Mr.

Riley was very fond of playing cricket and tennis, and was also regarded
as one of the best amateur billiard players in the district. Shortly after
taking over the retail business, Mr. Riley started manufacturing cricket
bats, sports goods and toys, and in the 1890s expanded into the
production of billiard tables. In 1896, the Company was
incorporated as E. J. Riley Limited, with a capital
of £10,000, and Mr. J. T. Kenyon was
appointed Managing Director, with Mr.
Riley acting as Secretary. Two years
later the firm moved to the site in
Accrington with which it would be
long associated. The specially
constructed Works had a
production room which was 120
yards long, and a local professional
sprinter, Max Whittenburgh, used the
first floor of the facilities to practise his
100 yards dash.

Photo of Riley

In 1902 they opened Showrooms at 147 Aldersgate
Street, London EC, and with it declared their intention of breaking the
cartel which had been established with the leading Table manufacturers
in the Capital. The turning point for the business came in 1903 when
the Billiard Association allowed the contenders for the professional
championship, Charles Dawson and W. H. Stevenson, the freedom to
select a table of their choice. To the great embarrassment of the
Association, which had strong links with the leading London firms, the
players selected a model made by Riley’s. It is widely accepted that the
enterprising Riley’s management had given considerable financial
encouragement to the two players to make this selection.

Prior to this only four manufacturers had supplied tables for
Championship matches (Thurston’s, Burroughes & Watts, Cox &
Yeman, Geo. Wright & Co.) and the Association had never intended
that the choice of table would go outside these companies. A meeting
of the Billiard Association, held on 10th February 1903 while accepting
the decision to use Riley’s, ruled that the choice of table would in future
be decided by the Association. Press comment on this decision was
generally hostile to the Association being involved with the selection
of tables while manufacturers were actively represented on the
Committee. It was as a direct result of this controversy that the
manufacturers withdrew their representation and the Billiard
Association became a truly amateur body.

The publicity was priceless for Riley’s who continued to grow and
expand their business. By 1908 the capital was again increased to
£60,000 and in 1910 they went into the Billiard Hall business, opening
the Ardwick Hall, Manchester, with 40 full-size tables. The move,
perfectly timed, coincided with a billiards boom, was encouraged in no
small part by the visit in 1910 of the phenomenal red-ball player,
George Gray, from Australia. Riley’s, again showing their entrepreneurial
skill, were prominently involved in the arrangement of this tour, and
once more the focus was on Riley billiard-tables. In 1910 their sales
were just over 4,000 tables per year, and three years later this figure had
increased to 5,500. The fateful year of 1914 saw the capital increased to
£120,000, but in August, the war started and the machines were turned
over to war work, with Rifle Butts and Aeroplane Struts being made
instead of billiard tables.

Photo of Turning Ivory Balls (11k)

Turning ivory balls at the Accrington works in 1926.

Edward John Riley, died in 1926 at the age of 70, having seen his
company grow into one of the largest billiard table firms in Great
Britain. The links with the company formation were completely severed
when founding partner Mr. J. T. Kenyon also died in 1938. The
commencement of the War shortly afterwards saw a sharp decline in
the market and by 1951 it was decided to branch out into the occasional
furniture trade, to use the surplus production capacity.

Without any significant improvement in their
fortunes it was decided in 1967 to
amalgamate their manufacturing and
maintenance departments with those
of Burroughes & Watts, becoming
known as Riley Burwat Limited.

Just two years later this had become
a full take-over of B&W and in
conjunction with property
developer, Hurst Park Syndicate, they
increased their involvement in the
running of billiard halls.

In 1979 Riley’s became a public company, being
re-christened E. J. Riley (Billiards) Ltd and during the
same year they made further expansion by acquiring the business of
John Bennett (Billiards and Sports) Ltd. A few years later they had
moved into the Canadian market, taking a 50% shareholding in the
Ontario Billiards Supply Co and by 1982 profits had risen to almost
one million pounds. The snooker boom at this time resulted in the
company turning out 1,820 new tables during the course of that year.

However, not all of Riley’s acquisitions were beneficial and their
purchase of Leisure Industries in Bideford, a miniature and toy table
manufacturer, was a financial disaster. Bought for £7m it was sold soon
afterwards for a substantial loss, causing the Riley share price to plummet
and leaving them vulnerable to a take-over. This occurred in 1987, the
purchaser being Midsummer Leisure, a group principally involved with
ownership of pubs, nightclubs, discos, restaurants, venue bars.

Continuing to trade under the Riley name, they struck an important
deal with the WPBSA in 1992 when their Riley Aristocrat Table became
the official and exclusive table used for all World Snooker Ranking
Tournaments. A situation which persisted to the current season.

Photo of Making cues by hand (9k)

Riley’s craftsmen making cues by hand – not a lathe in sight!

Three years ago the Riley billiard-table business was the subject of a
£2.2M management buy out and shortly afterwards the acquisition of
pool table manufacturer Avante saw a new concentration on snooker
and pool tables for the home. However the deal was quickly in trouble
with blame being placed on re-structuring costs of combining the
businesses, together with lack of capital, resulting in the huge loss
which caused the company failure.

Fittings and surplus stock were sold off by auction at the Burnley
works on 16th January. Riley Snooker and Pool Clubs are unaffected,
being owned and run by Georgica Cue Sports Ltd, an entirely separate
company.


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