EAST ANGLIAN Reading Rooms

The billiard table in Costessey Reading Room.

The billiard table in Costessey Reading Room, 1908. The Reading Room was built in 1902.

Billiards has been replaced by snooker as the popular table game, but I remember playing billiards on the table at Southwold Sailors’ Reading Room (built 1864) with my father in the late 1950s (I was quite small to use a cue). Two of the pictures of Norfolk reading rooms in this article give a prominent place to the billiard table. In the days before the First World War there was no wireless, no theatre outside the larger towns and therefore little to do in the evening except drink in the pub. In these circumstances the Reading Room was a social and cultural boon. Reading was not to everyone’s taste (although compulsory education to the age of ten made literacy almost universal). Playing the piano was a much more common accomplishment than it is today, but I gather it was more popular among the ladies than with the men. So the opportunity to play billiards was great advance for the time, providing hours of enjoyment for the men of village. It was of course exclusively played by men, as to an extent snooker still is.

There is an oil lamp hanging over the billiard table at Costessey, and two at Cawston. Although electric light had begun to be used in the City it had not yet penetrated into the countryside. Even in Norwich only the most advanced houses had the benefit of electricity – and it was DC, not the AC which is now standard. For domestic use the supply was 110 volts. The illumination for the picture was probably flash – magnesium ribbon – because the only other light was from the oil lamps you see hanging from the ceiling.

Cawston billiard room was in basement under the reading room.

Cawston billiard room was in basement under the reading room; about 1913.

I thought that I had just about exhausted my supply of Cawston photographs, when I posted my second page on the Rivett family,  but I have come across this one of the men of the village indulging in a game of billiards.

The billiards room was in the cellar below the reading room at the former pub, the Prince of Wales. This picture postcard shows a much better view of the school master Mr A. E. Chaffey’s face than we have in the next postcard. It is he who is about to take a shot with his cue. Who the other players are is unfortunately not recorded, but we must be grateful that his name at least is known. It was presumably marked by my mother who started at the village school in 1914.  All the other faces can also be plainly seen in this view of a hundred years ago. Archie Chaffey was obviously an important local character, especially to his young charges. He was head of the school from 1896 until 1931.


THE READING ROOM, CHAPEL ST. CAWSTON.                   Mr Chaffey is standing at the far left.

About thirty years after the retirement of Mr Chaffey from the school it had a pupil who later became a well-known actor and celebrity; his name is Stephen Fry.  He has written his memories of his time in the school in his book Moab is my Washpot (1999). There is now a longer time (over 40 years) between young Fry starting at the school and today than between Mr Chaffey’s retirement and the 1960s.

For more of the history of village Reading Rooms visit this page about the one at Stanhoe village (built 1886). Norfolk seems to have been particularly well endowed with this local facility. It were a local institution which relied on some well-intentioned person to provide the premises and reading material. At Costessey the Reading was built on land given by Lord Stafford, and at Cawston the room was provided by  local businessman William Bush in 1907. An earlier Reading Room had been opened at Oak House in Cawston High Street (1863).





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