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  Joseph Davis (1901–1978), by A. J. O'Brien, 1939 [right, with Fred Davis] Joseph Davis (1901–1978), by A. J. O'Brien, 1939 [right, with Fred Davis]
Davis, Joseph [Joe] (1901–1978), billiards and snooker player, was born on 15 April 1901 at Low Pit Lane, Whitwell, Derbyshire, the eldest in the family of three sons and three daughters of Fred Davis, coalminer and publican, and his wife, Ann-Eliza Clark. While he was still at elementary school at Newbold, he spent virtually every spare moment in the billiard room of his father's public house, the Queen's Hotel, in Whittington Moor, another Derbyshire village, developing the skill which was to enable him to win the world professional billiards championship four times and hold the world professional snooker title continuously from 1927 until he relinquished it in 1946. The youngest child of this family, , was the only other player to hold the world title at both games though, unlike Joe, he never did so simultaneously.

Davis was only thirteen when he won the Chesterfield and district amateur billiards championship. He practised assiduously at the home of his coach, Ernest Rudge, who also staged exhibitions in the area featuring leading exponents whom his protégé might thus study at first hand. He managed various billiard halls in which his family or Rudge had an interest and after very few professional engagements won the midland professional billiards championship in 1922 and also the (later defunct) second division championship, which gave him right of entry to the world championship.

Davis was well beaten by Tom Newman, as happened again when, much more experienced, he next entered in 1926, but after losing narrowly to Newman in 1927 he beat him by a small margin to win the title in 1928. After retaining the title in 1929, 1930, and 1932, he was beaten in 1933 and 1934 by the Australian Walter Lindrum, the only player in the history of the game whom either statistics or informed opinion rated above Davis. No other sport has been so thoroughly conquered by its leading practitioners as billiards was in the late 1920s and early 1930s by Lindrum, Davis, Newman, and the New Zealander Clark McConachy. Their very mastery killed billiards as a public spectacle. Among the scoring feats of this era which now seem more appropriate to the realms of fantasy, Davis himself was prouder of the break of 1247 with which, having occupied the non-striker's chair for two and a half sessions, he immediately responded to Lindrum's world record of 4137 than he was of such efforts as 2501 in the championship against Newman, 2002 under a new baulk line rule designed to limit the potency of nursery cannons, and 1784 under an even more stringent baulk line rule.

From his days managing billiard halls around Chesterfield, however, Davis knew that snooker was increasingly becoming the people's game. The establishment was slow to appreciate snooker's possibilities but Davis and a Birmingham equipment trader, Bill Camkin, prevailed on the then governing body, the Billiards Association and Control Council, to sanction a professional snooker championship in the 1926–7 season. Davis, who won the title with ease, pocketed £6 10s. 0d. for his trouble. Davis was an innovator in that, in the time he could spare from billiards, he evolved the positional and break-building shots, sequences, and techniques which are taken for granted nowadays but which were then far in advance of the rudimentary assets of his rivals. In January 1928 he made the first public snooker century break (exactly 100) of the 687 he made in public before his retirement in 1964. He retained the world title annually with little apparent difficulty until his younger brother Fred extended him to 17–14 in the 1939 semi-final and 37–35 in the 1940 final. By this time snooker had become the premier billiard-table game. The world professional billiards championship had lapsed and the British professional billiards championship, won annually by Davis from 1934 until 1939, did not attract a level of public interest commensurate to the skill displayed. By 1938 he had gradually increased the record snooker break to 138.

During the war Davis raised over £125,000 for war charities and appeared on various variety stages, including the London Palladium, with a trick shot performance involving the use of a large tilting mirror. In 1946 he won the last of his fifteen world professional snooker titles. His skill and personality had brought snooker to its first peak of popularity but his decision to retire from world championship play while continuing to compete in other tournaments devalued the game's premier event and contributed to a decline which reached its nadir in the suspension of the championship from 1957 until 1964. As the best player (even when he was not officially champion), the chairman of the players' body, the partner with the biggest say in who played at Leicester Square Hall, then the showcase of professional snooker, Davis virtually ran the game. He also wrote several books on the techniques of playing. Outside the world championship, professional tournaments were conducted on a handicap basis, with Davis inevitably the back marker. Victory confirmed his superiority, defeat did not threaten his pre-eminence. In his entire career he lost only four matches on level terms, all of them to his brother Fred. In 1951 and 1954 he made century breaks in three consecutive frames and in 1955, having just made a break of 146, he achieved his dearly held ambition of a break of 147, the first time a player had potted fifteen reds, fifteen blacks, and all the colours in one break in record conditions. He was appointed OBE in 1963 shortly before his retirement.

On 8 June 1921 Davis married Florence Enid Stevenson (b. 1898/9), daughter of Francis Stevenson, farmer; they had a son and a daughter. This marriage was dissolved in 1931 and on 6 April 1945 he married Juanita Ida Triggs (b. 1914/15), who sang under the stage name of June Malo; she was the daughter of William Warren Triggs, a consultant engineer and patent agent. Davis died on 10 July 1978 at Grayshott Hall, Grayshott, Hampshire, and was survived by his wife.

Clive Everton, rev.

Sources  

J. Davis, The breaks came my way (1976) · C. Everton, The story of billiards and snooker (1979) · personal knowledge (1986) · private information (1986) · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert.

Archives  

 

FILM

 

BFINA, documentary footage · BFINA, sports footage


Likenesses  

J. Capstick, photograph, c.1939, C. Capstick portrait archive; repro. in J. Huntington-Whiteley, The book of British sporting heroes (1998), 82 [exhibition catalogue, National Portrait Gallery, London, 16 Oct 1998–24 Jan 1999] · A. J. O'Brien, photograph, 1939, Hult. Arch. [see illus.]

Wealth at death  

£87,308: probate, 26 Oct 1978, CGPLA Eng. & Wales