Bagatelle is booming in Chester pubs (with audio)

PUBLISHED: 10:23 07 June 2010 | UPDATED: 17:06 20 February 2013

League chairman John Pritchard keeping score

League chairman John Pritchard keeping score

It's the last bagatelle league in the world, and it's in Chester. <br/>Andrew Hobbs investigates

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If the bagatelle fight-back is going to start anywhere, it will be in Chester, home of the last bagatelle league in the world (probably). Certainly, league chairman and secretary John Pritchard knows of no other surviving leagues.

In Chester we have been down to as few as eight teams, now weve fought back to ten, he says. Just recently it seems to be increasing in popularity, the key is getting the younger people back into it. Its one of the oldest pub games in Britain, a very skilful game to play, and its very social.

If the name conjures up little boxes with spring-loaded triggers, ball bearings and rows of tacks surrounding tiny holes, think again. This is the grown-up version, a relative of snooker, billiards and pool, and closest to bar billiards.

This kind of bagatelle is played with cues on green baize tables, but with a wooden section at the near end of the table flush with the baize, and a curved far end. Instead of pockets, there are ten cups or depressions in the table, arranged in a circle at the far end of the table.

How do you play? Pot as many balls as you can, says John, a BT engineer who lives in Westminster Park. You start with the black ball on the spot, and eight other balls, and you try to get them into the cups. Its a jolly good game to play, I have always enjoyed it.

Its such a fast game, two or three minutes to play a stick (a single game). In a bagatelle match each players only on the table for five minutes, so theres plenty of opportunity to socialise.

Play is only from one end of the table, which means bagatelle takes up much less room than a pool table.

You can get it into any corner of a bar, some of the pubs have got them into amazingly small corners, but theyre still perfectly playable.
No one is quite sure how long the Chester league has been going, but it was certainly active in Victorian times, when the game was at the height of its popularity.

Bagatelle has suffered from the decline of the pub, with two of Chesters 16 remaining tables trapped inside recently closed premises

When I first started in the 1970s we had lots of old people playing, 90-year-olds who had played when they were a lad, so that takes you back to the 1800s. Some of the tables are Victorian. Ive got a copy of a league table from the 1950s, and there were four divisions of 12 teams each, with eight players in each team.

Bagatelle has suffered from the wider decline of the pub, with two of Chesters 16 remaining tables trapped inside recently closed premises, but John believes that the game can draw in new customers.

The landlord of the Cross Foxes recently added a bagatelle table to his six pool tables, with promising results. Young people have shown an interest, and John is hoping that the pub will soon field a second team in the league. A new landlady at the Royal Oak in Hoole bought a bagatelle table for 1,700 when she re-opened the pub.

Pool has impacted on bagatelle, younger people tend to play pool, says John, who plays for the Talbots team. And as the older people stop playing bagatelle, there isnt the influx of younger people to take their places. They dont appreciate what a good game it is.

But things could change. Four Chester pubs are currently on the look-out for bagatelle tables, which have become increasingly scarce since the last firm to make them, Thurstons in Liverpool, ceased production in the 1970s to concentrate instead on snooker and pool tables. Custom-made ones are still produced, and battered second-hand ones come up occasionally they make good dining tables, with a cover over the baize.

We are fighting hard to keep it going, says John. We have open knock-outs, cups, and we are trying to get landlords to get tables installed, and then to get them into the league. It would be sad if the only place you could see a bagatelle table was in the Grosvenor Museum.

For a list of Chester pubs offering bagatelle, and everything else you might want to know about the game, see the Chester and District Bagatelle Leagues website, at

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