John Bennett & co - A brief history

john bennett.jpg One of London’s finest manufacturers of billiard tables. John Bennet & Co was founded in 1821. The business was lucky enough to carry the Royal Coat of Arms with the words “By Appointment to the Royal Family and War Office “. They also made the bold claim “Tables for India and the Colonies not affected by variations of climate”

The early years of the company’s existence are shrouded in mystery. Unfortunately many of the company’s records were destroyed by two dreadful fires , one in 1898 and the other at the hands of the German Luftwaffe. The one clue to the early days is the tables bearing the address Surrey Street on the Table plates. The significance of the Surrey Street address on these tables is that they were manufactured between 1821 - 1898. This can be confirmed by the most remarkable of coincidences.

In September of 1963 a man was walking down a street in the suburb of Lambeth in London. The gentleman noticed an unopened letter lying on the pavement. The envelope bore a Victorian penny stamp postmarked London , W.C. and was dated 1893. It was addressed to the North British & Mercantile Insurance Co. The pedestrian opened the envelope to find a letter , written by the son of John Bennett and a Coutts cheque made payable to the insurance company to renew the fire insurance.

Due to the incredible discovery the pedestrian handed it to the “London Evening News” paper who launched an investigation only to find that the insurance companies records did not go back that far.However Coutts bank could confirm that they did have a customer called John Gibson Bennett who died in April 1899 and archives of the paper showed that 35 Surrey Street Stand was destroyed by fire on June 28th 1898.

We do know that after the fire the company moved premises to Vincent Square London SW. Due to the untimely deaths of two of the family members the business was operated by two of the younger members of the family. One of them leaving school at 14 to get involved full time in the business.

It appears that during this time the owners became very dependent on the trusty foreman/fitter who taught the other family members the detailed skills of the trade.

The company were soon on the move again and soon after the turn of the century they moved to 120 Newington Causeway London SE1. The business was run in this manner under the same management team until 1918 when one of them died. The Newington Causeway premises had living accomodation , shop and offices with workshops and stables at the rear. At the end of World War 1 the rear of the premises was redeveloped and therefore new premises were required once again. The owners obtained another property at 35 Rockingham Street which was about 600 yards away from the existing premises.

The company decided to branch out from the manufacturing of tables and formed a new business in 1920 called “Grosvenor Billiard Halls”. This company ran five sites in  Hackney , Watford , Canonbury , Islington and Highbury. Its a sad fact that every one of these was destroyed by bombs in the Second World War.

In the interim (1932) London County Council acquired 35 Rockingham Street for redevelopment as council flats , so the garage and works were moved again this time to No 8 Rockingham Street. This had the benefit of being more modern and more convenient.

Sadly in 1941 the premises at 120 Newington Causeway was completely destroyed by the Luftwaffe in a fire bomb raid. The heat was so intense than even the slates were turned to dust and nothing at all could be salvaged. Just pause for a moment to consider how awful this situation must have been for both the family and the business. 

Incredibly the Bennetts were undeterred and struggled to continue with a reduced staff and very few basic materials available in war torn Britain. The workroom in Rockingham Street was adapted to allow a small shop area and office in order that the business could continue. It was not until 1952 that a more suitable premises were found. They decided to purchase 49 Newington Causeway and trade started to recover to a normal level. The old premises at Rockingham Street also fell victim to a compulsory purchase and the site became part of the new Ministry of Health building.

John Gibson Bennett Jnr died in 1965 and the business was carried on by another family member John K Bennett. Bizarrely their premises were compulsorily purchased once again by the London County Council and they moved to 157-163 Old Kent Road. The larger premises enabled considerable expansion. In 1967 the company aborbed the business of W.Stevens & Son who had previously absorbed R.Stevens & Sons. In 1974 the company acquired the “traditional” side of the Mister Billiards business and took over further premises on the Streatham High Road.  

Thus the business continued trading until in 1980 the business was sold to the acquisitive E.J.Riley (Billiards) Ltd. The outcome of that business is well known - but we will deal with that later in a forthcoming Blog.

The table pictured is a restored example of a John Bennett table currently situated in Christchurch New Zealand.

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