E.J. Riley

A great Lancashire Billiard Company

An authoritative history of the E. J. Riley Ltd. business was written by the grandson of one of the founders of the business, which was published in the book - Billiards & Snooker a Trade History complied by Mr. J. R. Mitchell (the retired Managing Director of Thurston) and published by the British Sports & Allied Industries Federation (now called the Federation of Sports and Play Association, who kindly gave their permission to use the article.).

The article was written by the then Chairman of E.J. Riley Mr C. G. Kenyon, and so for the early history it is that article that has been used, which charted the early days up to the early 1980's. Photographs of tables and catalogues have been added which have been taken from the Norman Clare Heritage Collection. Sadly as the later history of the business relates the optimism shown at the end of Mr. Kenyon's article was not to be and the actual business finally collapse in late 2002, although the name lives on within other businesses that acquired use of the name.

E. J. Riley Ltd: by C. G. Kenyon, chairman

C.G. Kenyon - E. J. Riley

Mr. C.G. Kenyon

The early part of the story of E. J. Riley Ltd. is the story of two men, both of them extraordinary characters. One of them was, of course, E. J. Riley, known to everybody as E.J., and the other was my grandfather, known to everybody as Mr. Kenyon.

E.J. started work as a bank clerk. He left to open his own sports shop but failed twice. Mr. Kenyon was, in effect, a small time company doctor. He made his living by buying ailing businesses, probably retail shops, restoring them to profitability, and then selling them again. He was not interested in trading profits, only in capital profits.

E.J. was on the point of failure for the third time when Mr. Kenyon joined him and saved him. Their joint success was so immediate, and the prospect of future growth so great, that Mr. Kenyon changed course and decided to retain his interest. However, it is interesting to note that although he spent all of his time at work, he could not really be called a working director. Instead he was a consultant, a financial controller, and maybe 'Supervisor to the managing director, E.J.'. As far as I can judge, he gave instructions only to E.J. who in turn was responsible for implementing all 'action'.

E.J Riley Billiard factory Accrington

Of the two men it was E.J. who provided the energy and an inexhaustible supply of ideas and suggestions on how to get rich quick. By contrast Mr. Kenyon was shrewd, logical, and tough. We have, in our archives, a notice signed by Mr. Kenyon which announced the dates on which the works would close for the annual holiday. There followed this sentence 'If any man is dissatisfied with his wage or conditions of work he need not come back'.

On a second occasion E.J. approached our works manager of the 1930's and told him to pay off all the men. The manager protested about the amount of work in hand and E.J. replied 'A know all about that, but Mr. Kenyon says he's not going to sign another wage cheque until we've got some money in the bank'.

This particular incident demonstrates the early lack of strict organisation and delegation. Despite the existence of so-called departmental managers, E.J. personally managed everything ; if he spent too little time in the accounts office then nobody thought of chasing the debtors.

During the 1890's the two men formed a limited company. I do not know exactly when they started to manufacture billiard tables, cricket bats, or bowling green bowls, nor when they opened their first billiard hall but certainly they moved fast. Evidently at one time, the company was the largest manufacturer of cricket bats in the world and the first to offer autographed bats for sale. At that time the autograph was not stamped on. Instead, the selected player came to the works, was presented with a fountain pen and was led to a huge display of bats from which he personally selected and autographed the agreed number.

The billiards side of the company had small beginnings, when it was eventually decided to sell under-size slate bed billiard tables in the company's own sports shops. These first tables were purchased from Orme & Son, the well-known billiard table makers of Manchester.

The small tables sold readily, so it was then decided that the company should manufacture its own tables in its own workshops where the cricked bats and other sports equipment were also being made.

These under-size tables were well made and very good quality materials were used in their manufacture. With this success, full-size billiard tables of the traditional design were then made.

E.J. Riley Billiard advert

The company quickly became the largest manufacturers of billiard tables, though it had difficulty in breaking into London where Burroughs and Watts, and Thurston's were in full control. These two firms always supplied the tables for the professional championships until they decided one year to ask the finalists on whose table they would like to play. This was a publicity stunt and was announced in advance in the press. As soon as the finalists were known, E.J. went to London with his cheque book, and in due course the players made it known that they had chosen a Riley table.(Only Thurston remains trading see - www.thurston.co.uk )

By 1910 or thereabouts, the company was making up to 800 full-sized billiard tables per year. In addition 800 convertible billiard and dining tables and 4,000 portable tables were sold by mail order on instalments. Although described as 'portable' these tables had +in. slate beds, and the larger ones were very heavy. The pressure of demand was so great, that the other sports goods became side lines although it was probably not until the early 1920's that the three sports shops in Manchester were sold.

E.j. Riley indoor games catalogue

The company then owned nearly 40 billiard halls and had reached the peak of prosperity and achievement. In 1925 E.J. died, although I wonder how he would have fared if he had lived on into the 1970's.

Ej Riley 1933 golf

As can be seen from the above 1933 catalogue E.J. Riley's also had interest in promoting Golf. The above picture was kindly supplied by Mr. Roland Esch of Colonge, Germany

Ri-Leene Coloured Bowls

Coloured crown green bowls as shown in their 1949 catalogue

1926 Riley catalogue

Taken from a catalogue circa 1926

During World War II the company undertook war work of various kinds whilst trying, despite desperate shortages, to at least keep the table repair business in existence.

After the war it was soon realised that the old principal operation of manufacturing and selling tables was no longer an economical proposition. It was decided to close the machine shop and concentrate on table repairs, using outside sources for the manufacture of parts which were assembled and completed in a much smaller space than had been formerly used.

This operation meant that surplus space was available for disposal. Two directors visited a manufacturer in the town who was believed to be looking for larger premises and returned having agreed to buy his business instead. This acquisition of C. D. Pierce & Son Ltd. as a wholly owned subsidiary was the company's first diversification right outside billiards and sports. A further, but allied diversification, was the acquisition of Stevens and Mercer Ltd., chair frame manufacturers, who were the principal suppliers to Pierces. Rapid expansion by these two companies made it necessary for E. J. Riley Ltd. to move out to their present premises at Pioneer Works, and for the two furniture companies to move into the old Willow Mills premises. Pierce now also have a second large factory in another part of town, and, following a fire in 1973, Stevens and Mercer now have a much larger factory on the old site.

In 1967 E. J. Riley Ltd. bought the billiard repair side of Burroughes and Watts from the Hurst Park Syndicate, and Riley Burwat Ltd. was born. The fusion of the two companies into one was completely smooth and at no time was there the slightest dissension. The 'merger' when completed gave branches in Accrington, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow, London, Newcastle and Sheffield. In time the branches at Bristol, Cardiff and Sheffield were closed. The Newcastle branch was moved to Gateshead, and the Burroughes and Watts office in Belfast was disposed of.

In 1968 a joint company, Modern Recreations Ltd., was formed by E. J. Riley Ltd. and the Hurst Park Syndicate to bring together and operate the billiard halls, or clubs as they then became, formerly owned by Rileys and Burroughes and Watts. In 1971 Rileys bought out their partner and the name of the company was changed to Riley Snooker Clubs Ltd.

It now operates 22 clubs, many with carpeted lounge areas and bars and all offering billiards and snooker in pleasant and comfortable surroundings, a far cry from the old spit-and sawdust atmosphere unfortunately so often associated with the games of billiards and snooker.

Riley Burwat sheerline snooker table

In design the company has always tried to keep with the times - in fact the 'Imperial' billiard table design was many years ahead of its time. The 'Sheerline' and 'Starline' have incorporated a completely new concept of supporting frame and use modern materials such as resin laminates, plastics, and glass-fibre. While using modern materials and techniques, the traditional crafts too have been maintained in the company's training school.   

Riley Burwat starline Snooker table

(note - Sheerline & Starline tables were notoriously difficult to level and the one piece cushion housing on the Starline made recovering the bed and cushions a two man job)

This brings us up to the present time when the games of billiards and snooker are enjoying a terrific boom. A great deal of publicity has been given to the game by the many excellent competitions now shown on television, many of which are watched by literally millions of viewers. On reflection this is not surprising - after all they really are the best games in the world.

In 1977, a merger was arranged between the company and Headcrest Ltd., and E. J. Riley became a public company with a quotation on the Stock Exchange. As a result of this merger, two subsidiaries have been established in the Group - Tiedene Investments Ltd., management consultants - and Glendale Management Services Ltd., leasing consultants.

In 1978 Andor Arts Ltd. was acquired. This company has shops in Southampton, Winchester and Boscombe, selling high-class glassware, china, and collector's pieces.

In 1979, the name of Modern Recreations was revived, and this company, bases in North Shields, now wholesales equipment for 'adult' games - chess, backgammon, roulette, mah-jong, etc.

E. J. Riley Ltd. intends to expand its activities, particularly in the leisure field in its broadest sense

Thus the article by Mr. Kenyon finished - the additional information has been add to take the story forward -

E.J. Riley business did expand rapidly in the 1980's when snooker took off in both Hong Kong and the Northern European Countries such as Belgium and Holland and so, in 1984, moved from their Accrington 'home' to a new factory in Padiham

Riley Leisure Plc opening new factory

The invitation to the opening to one of the Directors of Thurston

Also it will be noted that by this time they had dropped the Burwat from their trade name, thus loosing the connection to one of the more prestigious early Billiard table names. Although in their 1987 catalogue they still offered Burwat Cues.

In the 1990's the business moved from Padiham to a new industrial unit Network 65 in Burnley.

The demise of this long established business was reported in an article by © Peter Ainsworth in 'The Amateur Billiard Player - winter 2002 [www.eaba.co.uk].

(Peter Ainsworth kindly gave his permission to use his article) . The article has had further information on the history of Riley's included. Additional information added to the original article is in italic.

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 (2002).

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.

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 only one of those business that remains trading is Thurston see - www.thurston.co.uk )

The publicity was priceless for Riley's who continued to grow and expand their business. By 1908 the capital was again increased to 160,000 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 1120,000, 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.

E. J. Riley's wood yard

E.J. Riley's wood yard circa 1920

Riley badmington accessories

Page from a 1926 Riley catalogue

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.

E J Riley Billiard Tables

Ejr 1925_ins

The links with the company formation were completely severed when the founding partner Mr. J.T. Kenyon 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 surplus production capacity.

1950 Riley bowling Green Bowls catalogue

E J Riley Bowls

Without any significant improvement in their fortunes it was decided in 1967 to amalgamate their manufacturing and maintenance departments with Burroughes & Watts Ltd. 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., the Bennett company name has been reregistered as a trading company in 2009.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. In 1984 they acquired the business of Billiards & Snooker (Wales) Ltd.

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.,(from the 2009/10 season the WPBSA has signed a three year contract with another table supplier to provide the 'match' tables for the World Championships and some other ranking events)

In the late 1990's the business was again troubled and was then acquired by one of the well known snooker cloth suppliers, who in 1997 merged E.J.Riley and Hazel Grove (makers of Supreme pool tables) along with Greenmaster bowls into one organisation called Riley Leisure Ltd.

Three years ago (1999) 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 (2003). Riley Snooker and Pool Clubs are unaffected, being owned and run by Georgica Cue Sports Ltd, an entirely separate company.

The name lives on, as mentioned with the Riley Snooker Clubs being a separate business and E.J. Riley (Ireland) again a separate business. B.C.E. also ensured the names lived on re-branding their range to use Riley's. However the 'Riley's of Accrington' ceased to exist when in late 2002 the administrators appointed the Receivers to liquidate the business.

Acknowledgements :- The Federation of Sports and Play Association

Billiard & Snooker - A Trade History compiled by J.R. Michell

Peter Ainsworth

E.A.B.A. The Amateur Billiard Player.

The Norman Clare Heritage Collection



© E.A. Clare & Son Ltd. 2018. © Peter N. Clare 2018
Reproduction of this article allowed only with the permission from E.A. Clare & Son Ltd.

Thurston have antique Riley tables ready for restoration as well as other Billiard / Snooker tables from other well repected table makers such as Ashcroft, Orme & Sons, Padmore and Bouroughes & Watts. Thurston also have a new tables of their own manufacture for Snooker, Pool and Billiards as well as a full range of accessories at very competitive prices.

Just contact our table department on - 0151 482 2700

or visit our e-shop at - www.thurston.co.uk

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