At the time of the Women’s Amateur Billiards Championship in 1931, Thelma Carpenter, who only started playing English billiards seriously some five years earlier, was already a name to look out for. The 20-year-old from Bournemouth had quickly earned a reputation that preceded her, having established a style of play described as being bright, open and adventuresome.
Unfortunately, Thelma didn’t emerge victorious in her maiden tournament but did receive formal recognition from the Women’s Billiards Association – a certificate of achievement commemorating a break of 59 in competition.
The very next year, Thelma took the 41-player championship by storm, beating Ethel Brown in the final by a 1000-730 score line. Thelma had well and truly arrived.
Serious health scare
In 1933, Thelma built on her first taste of victory by winning the amateur championship for a second year running with a dominant victory over Leicester’s Vera Seals.
However, it wasn’t plain sailing for the youthful cueist who, in December, was left seriously ill with pneumonia. Despite the severe symptoms, a resilient Thelma was able to return to full health, take to the baize and practise hard in preparation for another title defence.
Against all odds, Thelma asserted her dominance and achieved a hat-trick of women’s amateur championship wins with a second victory over Vera Seals in the final – only this time with a more closely contested game, which finished 1,200-915.
Professional player and pioneer
After three consecutive amateur billiards championship wins, Thelma was hungry for a new challenge. On Saturday 18th August 1934, Thelma announced to the world that she would become a freelance professional.
If aspiring to a higher level of competition wasn’t enough, Thelma also seized an opportunity to innovate a unique Women’s Billiards Academy in an effort to grow the women’s game.
Even though a professional billiards title would seemingly pass her by, Thelma continued to elevate her status, earning notoriety for her eye-catching performances and break-building prowess.
Thelma’s on-camera charisma was there for all to see when she featured in newsreels that were broadcast in the 1930s and 40s. As well as showcasing her impressive nursery cannons and trick shots, she took advantage of the media coverage to fly the flag for female participation.
In 1936, Thelma became the first female commentator for the BBC when she commentated on a competitive snooker match between her skillful contemporaries, Ruth Harrison and Joyce Gardner.
Epic wartime battles
Britain, 1940. The country rations its supplies of butter, bacon and sugar to cope with food shortage during World War II; Winston Churchill is appointed British Prime Minister; and German forces are bravely fought off in the skies during The Battle of Britain.
On land, Thelma Carpenter was contesting a gruelling battle of her own. At her seventh attempt, she finally managed to win her first professional billiards championship, defeating the two-time and defending champion, Ruth Harrison, by an impressive 2,184-1,641 score line.
Benefiting from a break in play
The War put a halt to the Women’s Professional Billiards Championship for seven years, during which time Thelma was able to concentrate on looking after her young son, who was born in the eventful year of 1940.
While the lack of competition could have been detrimental to her progress, an invigorated Thelma returned to the baize in 1948 and blitzed her way past seven-time champion, Joyce Gardner by a 2,659-1,670 score line.
Thelma clearly had the edge on her talented rival because in the following year she proved to be too strong for Joyce and coasted to victory once more (3,120-2,528).
Reaching the pinnacle of cue-sport mastery
Despite continuing to improve her play well into her 40s, the 1950 championships proved to be Thelma’s competitive swan song – it was therefore fitting that she went out in a blaze of glory.
The evident quality of regular rival, Joyce Gardner, wasn’t enough to overcome Thelma’s barrage of fluent breaks during the billiards final, which finished 1,978-1,374. Her fourth consecutive victory meant that she held the title of women’s professional billiards champion for a decade.
While English Billiards was her strong suit, Thelma achieved the unthinkable by winning the women’s professional snooker championship while holding the billiards crown – a feat previously achieved only once before by Ruth Harrison.
Naturally, skill and technical proficiency are necessary to reach a high standard of play in any sport, but to move with the times and stay at the top for multiple decades takes immeasurable dedication and determination – not least when serious illness or a world war gets in the way.
Not only a title-winner, Thelma Carpenter was a record-breaker, pioneer and advocate for female participation in cue sports, whose legacy deserves to be remembered, honoured and celebrated.
Thelma’s break-building achievements
(1932) Certificates of achievement for breaks of 45 and 68.
(1932) Thelma creates a new amateur record for women by compiling a break of 81.
(1933) Thelma makes unrecognised breaks of 95 and 108.
(1933) Thelma’s break of 114 becomes a record for an amateur female player.
(1934) Thelma’s break of 118, which included a run of 46 nursery cannons becomes a record for a female billiards player.
(1935) Thelma becomes the first woman to make a century at Thurston’s – a run of 109
(1936) Thelma makes her record break of 184.
(1939) Thelma receives recognition of a 44 snooker break as a woman’s record.
(1946) Thelma achieves personal best breaks: a billiards break of 216 and a snooker break of 51.
(1947) Thelma smashes her personal best break, reaching 354 in practice.
(1950) After being encouraged by onlookers to carry on after the red-ball limit, Thelma reaches a break of 326 – the last 234 points being scored off the red ball alone.
(1952) Thelma made a break of 290 with 15 nursery cannons and many top-of-the-table spells.
(1953) Thelma’s official break of 328 during a game at Bournemouth, is believed to be the first 300-break ever made by a woman.
Featured image is a digital copy of the original photo donated to Peter Clare by the family of Fred Jones (pictured in the background).
Billiards and Snooker Heritage Collection: snookerheritage.co.uk
Billiard Player magazine series:
September 1933, February 1934, September 1934, February 1935, November 1936, April 1939, March 1940, July 1946, December 1947, June 1948, July 1949, August 1950, November 1952, May 1953
Burwat Billiard View magazine series:
November 1931, January 1932, February 1932, March 1932, January 1933, March 1933, May 1933
(1933) Aberdeen Journal, 30 December p.4.
(1934) Western Morning News, 28 July, p.14.
(1934) Dundee Courier, 20 August, p.10.
(1936) Bournemouth Graphic, 11 December, p.13.
British Pathé. (2019) WW2: Key Events. [online] Available at: https://www.britishpathe.com/blog/ww2-key-events [Accessed 12 August 2019]
Johnson, B. (2019) World War 2 Timeline – 1940. [online] Available at: https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofBritain/World-War-2-Timeline-1940 [Accessed 15 August 2019]
We also extend our gratitude to Thelma’s family for their endorsement and to P. Ainsworth, whose research and collation of information has helped us to bring Thelma’s inspiring story to light.