Rex Williams’s big break helped bring his sport to the masses

King of the billiards table took on snooker greats as he helped to establish the sport as one of the most popular during its heyday.

Rex Williams at Pockets Snooker Club, Kidderminster
Rex Williams at Pockets Snooker Club, Kidderminster

Rex Williams hadn’t even reached his teens when his family realised he knew his way around a billiards table.

His father Bill, having been tipped off that Rex was taking on all comers on the eight-foot table at his Blackheath print works, brought in a full size one and watched the boy play.

He was a natural almost from the moment he first picked up a cue, racking up a 153 break within three months of starting playing.

Rex showed a similar aptitude for snooker, and had soon landed the first of many titles as he embarked on a journey that would see him become a true heavyweight in both sports.

Now 87, his incredible career and service to snooker and billiards has been recognised with the award of a British Empire Medal (BEM) in the Queen’s Honours list.

A young Rex Williams in action

“It’s a great honour - and very unexpected as you don’t get these things happening very often late in life,” he tells me, speaking from his home in Hackmans Gate, near Clent, where he lives with his wife Rita.

“Billiards and snooker have been my life, from playing as a small boy to being a professional for so many years.

“I’ve played more snooker over the years and that’s where most people probably know me from, but it is great to see the ‘mother sport’ of billiards get recognised for the first time, particularly for the younger billiards players coming through.”

Rex was born in Stourbridge and lived in Romsley before his family moved to Blackheath so his father could be closer to work.

He hit his first century in snooker aged 15, during a post-war period when billiards and snooker shared the same high levels of popularity.

After winning the under-19 and amateur snooker championships his reputation grew and he had turned professional by the early 1950s.

A career filled with high points would take him all around the world. Rex won the World Billiards Championship seven times, firstly in 1968.

In Cape Town in 1965 he made the second-ever recognised maximum 147 break, and to this day is the oldest player to get to a world ranking final, losing to Jimmy White in the 1986 Rothmans Grand Prix at the age of 53.

Epic

He came closest to landing the World Snooker Championship in 1972, losing in the final frame of an epic semi-final battle against an up-and-coming talent by the name of Alex Higgins, who went on to become champion for the first time that year.

“Alex told me how winning that final frame changed his career,” recalls Rex. “At the start I was playing safety shots that Alex didn’t know, but not long afterwards he was playing the same shots!

“He was learning as he went on in the match, which shows what a wonderful snooker brain he had.”

Higgins is not the only snooker great he has fond memories of.

He speaks glowingly of pioneers such as Fred and Joe Davis, and describes Australian billiards ace Walter Lindrum as “the greatest player that ever lived”.

“In fact he’s probably the greatest sportsman who ever lived,” Rex says. “His record was just unbelievable.

“People think snooker started in the 80s, because it was always on the television, but there were some great players around before that.”

He loved Jimmy White, who he beat 5-1 in his first professional game and refers to as “a very nice, polite young man and a great player”; and says six-time World Champion Ronnie O’Sullivan is the most natural player he has ever seen.

Thrive

If it wasn’t for Rex, there may not have been a professional game for them to thrive at.

The advent of television in the 1950s had hit snooker hard, with people sitting at home in front of the box rather than heading out to the clubs.

Interest started to return in the following decade, but there was no proper championship or organisation, something which Rex decided to put right.

“One of the big venues, Leicester Square Hall, had been closed for a while and I wanted to get things up and running again,” he recalls.

“Fred (Davis) said I was wasting my time, but I called everyone to a meeting at my home in Stourbridge and I ended up organising a challenge match at Burroughes & Watts in London.”

A knockout tournament followed, before Rex founded and became first chairman of the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association in 1970.

Helped by the BBC television series Pot Black, snooker began to surge in popularity. By the time the championships were first held at The Crucible in 1977, there was blanket coverage on the small screen.

“Snooker really took off,” says Rex. “Television had nearly killed it years earlier but it played a big part in its growth going into the 1980s. It is easy to film and doesn’t depend on the weather, which really makes it the perfect sport for television.”

Commentator

Rex retired from the professional game aged 61, by which time he was already into a 20-year career as a commentator, where he offered analysis alongside the likes of Ted Lowe.

Unsurprisingly, after dedicating more than half a century to the game his appetite had waned.

“You can play snooker at the top level well into your 50s, but it’s about motivation,” Rex says.

“When I first became a pro I could practice all day. You had to drag me off the table. Then when I got into my 40s practising for 10 minutes was hard work!

“That’s what some of these players now will find. For people like O’Sullivan and John Higgins, practicing has got to be hard, and that is what eventually leads to most players packing the game in.

“People used to say to me, ‘don’t you play for fun anymore?’ I said ‘fun?’ The fun went out of it a long time ago.”

He replaced the green baize with the fairway at Ombersley Golf Club, where he still plays five days a week, come rain or shine. Is he any good, I ask? "Absolutely not!” comes his immediate response. “Snooker and golf are the only two sports where you strike a stationary ball, so people tell me I should be a natural golfer, but I’m certainly not.

Good causes

“I’m 87 years of age and in the last six months I’m pleased to say I have shot under my age, which is not easy to do!”

He says a huge part of his life is Pedmore Sporting Club, which was established by local businessmen at Pedmore House in 1970 and has given £1.5million to local good causes over the years.

“I’m very proud of the work we do,” says Rex.

“We pay all the admin fees from our own pocket so every penny we raise is given to good causes. I think that’s unique among charities.”

A proud Baggies fan who is not short of opinions when it comes to the current side’s woes, he tells me he was also handy at crown green bowls in his younger days.

Rex chuckles when I suggest he has dedicated his life to sport.

“Sport has always been around me,” he says. “My father was a keen athlete and was a member of Birchfield Harriers for 20 years.

“When we were all sitting around the table having a meal my mother used to say: ‘Can’t we talk about something else but sport?’”

Nothing much has changed.

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