History of Bowls

The Unofficial Version

11 Feb 2013

Before eulogising the feats of our modern day champions, it is relevant to picture the local scene in 1861, just 11 years after the establishment of the borough, when the Auckland club introduced the grand old game to Australasia at the Domain, a cannon ball's blast from the harbour dotted with British naval and trading vessels, when transport along rutted roads dirt roads and tracks was by either horse or foot.

An insight into those early days was given by prominent businessman and bowler Mr. N. Alfred Nathan, on the celebration of his 81st birthday on January 1, 1931. His father, David, had arrived in Sydney in 1838 and moved on to the Bay of Islands to set up a business in Russell before Governor Hobson landed. Later he was one of the early Europeans to settle in Auckland upon purchase of the borough from the Maoris in 1850, the year N. Alfred Nathan was born.

Relationships between the Europeans and Maori were not always harmonious, the elder Nathan recalling a Maori threat to sack Auckland before Governor George Gray persuaded them on a more peaceful solution. However the presence of military barracks was evidence of an uneasy truce. In 1931 a portion of the old fortress wall, erected to protect the townsfolk, remained at the bottom of Nathan garden in Princess Street, complete with its loop holes for rifles, though most of the stone was utilised for the foundation of the University buildings.

As a former volunteer officer in the Rifle Brigade, Mr N. Alfred Nathan regretted the departure of New Zealand Naval Squadron parades which he felt played an important role in gaining recruits.

The public love to see the sailors marching with their swinging stride, and the band playing. We see very little of the naval unit now, except when the men are on leave. he said with a tinge of sadness.

There was an esprit de corps in the early days of volunteering that helped considerably in the formation of volunteer companies.

Another regret was he could no longer buy a kit of kumaras or peaches from the Maori for a penny. Now we have to pay sixpence each for a peach and nearly as much for a sweet potato, he sighed.

That bowls should prove so popular with the colonials was somewhat ironic for it had been banned in the United Kingdom for centuries by seven kings who were concerned it took up time better used for archery practice. However early Greek, Egyptian and English paintings suggest that some form of bowling had existed long before the reign of Henry VI who, in 1445, established the first bowling alley as a legal pastime within the walls of London.

A hundred knights, truly tolde.
Shall play at bowles in alleys colde.

Although there is no proof that the game came to England with the Normans in 1066, it is known that it was played on the European continent for over 500 years and that soldiers of Henry VI played a bowling game of sorts at Rouen prior to the burning of Joan of Arc in 1431. Southampton had a green in 1299 which still exists despite World War Two damage done to it and the pavilion by German bombs.

Author Cyril K. Guiney reports in The History of the Royal New South Wales Bowling Association 1880-1980, that the game had been prohibited in England because of the betting and a fear it was discouraging the common people from practising their archery. Stow's Survey of London refers to London citizens going outside the wall to play and that there were also alleys inside the walls which were such scenes of riot they were forbidden by Richard II and Edward IV.

Henry VIII also took an interest in the sport but felt obliged to restrict it to the wealthy or well to do. In fact in 1541 he passed an Act which forbade artificers, servants, apprentices etc., playing at any time other than Christmas after bowyers, fletchers, stringers and arrowhead makers had complained of lost trade. Anyone caught playing bowls was fined 40 shillings for every day the game was played. It was a different story for the wealthy although Henry VIII not only required a fee of 100 pounds for anyone wishing to keep a green for private play but forbade anyone to play beyond his own garden or orchard.

Magistrates, Mayors and other officials were empowered to visit places and alleys to discover whether forbidden games were being pursued and given power to arrest and imprison offenders until they paid bail. Repression prevailed for three centuries when prison sentences of up to two years were imposed although some kings, such as Henry VIII, did play at the Whitehall Gardens Palace upon which greens Anne Bolyn lost twelve pounds, seven shillings and sixpence to the Sergeant of the Cellar some time before she also lost her head.

More skill was required when biased bowls were introduced in the sixteenth century although the game was still regarded as an unsavoury pastime. Wrote Stephen Gosson in his School of Abuse, 1579. Bowling alleys are privy moths that eat up the credit of many idle citizens: whose shops are so far from maintaining their play that their wives and children go to bed supperless.

It took until 1845 before the Act was repealed although as early as 1617 the reigning monarch, James, gave his royal patronage, licensed 31 alleys in favouring moderate indulgence in the sport except for the meaner sort of people and condemned football and golf.

However the game did find a champion for its cause in Francis Bacon 1561-1626, who wrote Bowling is good for the stone and reines (kidneys), for the noblemen of England took great interest in the game and usually wagered large sums on the result. Charles I (1625-49) was an enthusiastic bowler who liked to play for heavy stakes, losing one hundred pounds to Richard Shute one afternoon at Barkley Hall, Essex.

Another time he lost one thousand pounds to a merchant and maintained his interest in the game even when detained as a prisoner at Carisbrooke Castle in the Isle of Wight.

Yet it remained a game of disrepute in the eyes of many, including John Earle, Bishop of Westminster, who, in 1628, wrote:

A Bowles Alley is a place where there are three things thrown away besides bowles, to wit time, money and curses - and the last ten to one. Best sport in it is the gamester and he that bets not, but looks on, enjoys it most. It is the schoole of wrangling, and worse than schooles, for men will cavill here for a haire's-breadth and make a stir when a straw (used to measure) would end the controversy. No anticke screwes men's bodies into such strange flexures, and you would think them here senseless, to speak sense to their bowle, and put their trust in entreaties for a good cast. To give you the morall of it: It is the embleme of the world , or the world's ambition; where most are short or wide or wrong-byas't and some few justle in to the mistris, fortune. And it is here, as in the Court, where the nearest are most sprighted, and all bowles aym'd at the toucher.

Among the participants was Sir Francis Drake although there remains debate whether he really did delay engaging the Spanish Armada to finish his game at Plymouth Hoe in 1588. The sport also found a keen competitor and advocate in William Shakespeare who made a number of references to it in his famous plays. Another keen exponent of the game was Dr. W. G. Grace, whose prowess at bowls was said to rival that of his legendary cricketing feats.

In 1641, Marylebone was noted for its bowling greens. The green at the Rose of Normandy was recorded as being 112 paces one way and 88 paces the other, surrounded with quickset hedges, full grown and kept in excellent order.

Charles II, his brother James, Duke of York, and the Duke of Buckingham, drew up what is purported to be the the first set of Laws of the Game in 1670. They are listed in the pavilion of the Southampton Old Bowling Green as such:

The game to consist of five or seven points as may be agreed upon by the party engaged. Four or six bowlers constitute a set.

  1. Whoever shall once throw the Jack off the green, shall lose the leading of the Jack to their opponents, and shall be obliged to follow the Jack so led by their opponents, or adverse party.
  2. The party who has the highest die shall lead the Jack, keeping his foot upon the trig, which must be placed at least one yard from the verge of the green.
  3. At the commencement of every end, the trig shall be places where the Jack was taken up, or three strides wide of it in any direction before the Jack be thrown, provided by so doing the cast be not less than thirty yards.
  4. If the Jack be bowled off the green, there shall be a fresh cast, and the same party again lead.
  5. If a bowl, whilst running, be stopped by the adverse party, it shall be laid close behind the Jack.
  6. If any bowler do take up the Jack before the cast or casts won be granted, he shall lose the cast to the adverse party.
  7. If any bowler who lieth all, i.e. who is nearest the Jack, do take up the Jack or cause the same to be taken up before his opponent hath thrown the last bowl, his side shall lose the cast and the lead shall begin again.
  8. If any bowler who lieth all do take up the Jack or cause the same to be taken up before his own partner hath thrown his last bowl, he shall lose the benefit of that bowl.
  9. If any bowl do lie between the Jack and the bowl that is to be measured, or the Jack leaneth upon the bowl, or the bowl upon the Jack, it shall be lawful to bolster the bowl or Jack, and to take away the bowl which hindered the measuring, provided it doth not prejudice the adverse party in so doing. If it shall appear to the spectators (being no bettors), the adverse party was prejudiced thereby, although the bowl did not win, yet the benefit thereof shall be lost.
  10. If in measuring it shall appear that the bowl or Jack was removed, or made worse by the measurer, the cast so measured shall be allowed to the adverse party.
  11. If any bowler bowl out of turn, his bowl may be stopped by the adverse party, but not by him who delivered the same.
  12. If any bowl be stopped while running, or touched by its own party, it shall be taken away.
  13. If any bowler deliver his bowl or bowls not touching the trig with his foot, it shall be lawful for the adverse party to stop the same whilst running and make him bowl it again; but it shall not be lawful for him that bowls it to stop it.
  14. If any bowler who lieth all do take up a bowl or bowls before the adverse party hath granted him, the cast shall be lost, and the Jack shall be thrown again.
  15. No cast shall be measured before all bowls are bowled.
  16. If he that is to throw the last bowl do take up the trig, or cause it to be taken up, supposing the game to be won, or that he shall do some hurt, the same bowls shall not be bowled that cast or end, for the trig once taken up shall not be set again.
  17. If any running bowl be stopped, or touched by a spectator, not being a bettor, whether it be to the benefit or hindrance of the caster, the same bowl shall take its chance and lie.
  18. If a bowl be moved out of its place by the party that bowled the same at any time before the cast be ended, the same shall be cleared away by the adverse party.
  19. Keep your temper! and remember he who plays at bowls must take Rubbers.

History records that a candle burnt up a careless Sir Isaac Newton's notes on The Methods of Fluxions while the celebrated scientist was having a quiet game at Trinity College. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries bowls gained popularity with royalty, the nobility, the clergy and the well-to-do. And as late as 1921 George V, a keen bowler, provided the servants of the Royal Household with a green at Frogmore.

Some of the oldest bowling greens in England include Southampton 1299, Hereford 1481, Chesterfield 1604, Milton Regis 1634, and Torrington 1634.

In Scotland, with Town Councils laying down bowling greens in Public Parks, the game progressed rapidly, especially when the introduction of standard Rules was introduced.

The origin of the Laws of the Game dates back to 1848 when a meeting of West of Scotland clubs sought standardisation. The new Laws were published in Mitchell's Manual of Bowling which remained in vogue until 1892 when following the formation of the Scottish Bowling Association, further amendments were made.

Mitchell's Manual also carried some splendid verse, including the following:

Life, like the game of bowls, is but an end
Which to play well, this moral verse attend.
Throw not your bowl too rashly from your hand
First let its course by reason's eye be planned,
Lest it roll useless o'er the verdant plain
Like needless Life, that finishes in vain.
Know well your bias - here the moral school
Scarce needs a comment on the bowling rule,
Play not too wide, with a caution eye your cast
Use not extent of green, or Life to waste.
Nor yet too straight, in Life observe the same
The narrowminded often miss their aim!
Bowling too short, you but obstruct the green
Life him who loiters 'n Life's public scene.
Who'er at bowls or business causes strife
Will rub on greens receive, and eke in Life.
One bowling trick avoid in moral play
Ah, never, never block your neighbour's way
These rules observed, a man may play his game
On the bowling greens - or thro' the World with fame.

When the Imperial Bowling Association and the English Bowling Association amalgamated to form the new English Bowling Association in 1911, Scotland permitted the English to adopt their laws.

Interesting is a description of the game from an English Rule Book of All Sports published in 1856:

This is almost as simple as a game of football, requiring only a bowling green and an indefinite number of bowls, one for each player. Unlike football, however, it is a very quiet game, and calculated rather for the steady old gentleman, than for his rackety old son.

The bowls are spheres of lignum vitae, or any other hard and heavy wood; and they are generally made of the side of the tree. The heart being heavier than the outside, makes one side of the ball heavier than the other; the consequence is that each ball has a bias of its own, and every player must learn its peculiarities before he can play successfully.

The bowling green is, or should be, a perfectly level piece of turf, square in shape or nearly so, and 30, 40 or 50 yards wide, according to the capabilities of the ground. This should be kept smooth and closely shaved, by means of the scythe and roller; and from its possessing these qualities in perfection the expression has arisen, as smooth as a bowling green!

The game is very simple in theory, and consists only of each player endeavouring to bowl his own so as to remain as near as possible to a particular bowl. The bias creates the difficulty, which is greater than might be imagined; and 30 or 40 elderly gentlemen will often amuse them selves every evening throughout the summer without arriving at anything like absolute control of their erratic instruments.

The nature of the ancient balls discovered in archaeological excavations clearly demonstrate that these were for rolling rather than throwing. From the tombs and excavations have come balls made of skins and similar materials which were suitable for rolling. Earthen ware and porcelain balls were found in Egyptian tombs. Stone bowls have been unearthed in Shropshire and Staffordshire in England and stone bowls wrere also used by the Red Indians of British Columbia.

Interestingly, these were similar to those used by the ancient Maori; specimens of these bowls having been found in Tuapanga. There is some thought that the game was introduced by the original Maori when they emigrated from Polynesia via Hawaii and Tahiti. Although the Maori could not confirm this following British colonialisation, among early Maori relics to be found were well made ornamental bowls of the type Captain James Cook saw when he visited the Sandwich Islands, now Hawaii.

Wrote Cook:

I saw the natives play at bowls with pieces of whetstone, shaped somewhat like a small cheese, but rounded at the edges and sides, which are very nicely polished; and they have other bowls of the same sort made of heavy brown clay, neatly glazed over with a composition of the same colour, and others of a coarse dark slate.

These bowls were cylindrical, 3 or 4 inches in diameter, with an edge about 1 inch across, thicker in the centre, but precisely rounded. In other parts of the world iron and bronze bowls have been found and it wasn't until the start of the fifteenth century that wooden bowls appeared, made of boxwood, holly, oak, or yew.

Not until about 1750 did lignum vitae bowls come into use. These were made from a tree which grew in the West Indies - a slow growing tree with very dense heartwood which had a specific gravity greater than water with a low tendency to split or crack, excellent material for turning on a wooden lathe. Loading with lead, bronze, or pewter followed with the desire for more weight, rather than more bias.

Early this century a German company formulated a crude vulcanite shaped roughly like a bowl. This was then covered with a skin of celluloid sufficiently thick to enable the bowl to be shaped from the composition. By varying the components of the vulcanite, it was possible to make a bowl of a small size, but with the maximum weight. The use of these bowls gave rise to much discussion and an overseas committee was formed to investigate the whole matter of weight and draw of bowls.

At first the committee was of the opinion that the testing of all bowls should be done on the green, so that any anomalies created by heavy bowls with little draw could be corrected. But after careful investigation it decided the only satisfactory way to test bowls was on a special table as it was impossible for an official tester to keep a green in sufficiently good order to make green testing a feasible proposition.

This decision was not easily reached and the committee decided to recommend that all bowls should be made the same shape as the standard bowl, so that they would reproduce on the green the same performance as on the table; thus all bowls that have the standard draw should be of the same shape. It would be possible to modify those with a greater draw by slight modification. Those with a lesser draw would be rejected.

Following the vulcanite-celluloid bowl came the vulcanised rubber or ebonite bowl and later the modern plastic composition bowl. Bowls used today all have a uniform density and are table tested against a standard bowl. The Standard bowl firstly is approved by the International Bowling Board. Copies of the master bowl are issued to member countries for use by the national bodies.

One astute man once wrote of the game:

Bowls is a science, the study of a lifetime, in which you may exhaust yourself but not your subject. It is a contest, a duel, calling for courage, skill and self control. It is a test of temper, a trial of honour, a revealer of character. It affords the chance to play the man and act the gentlemen. It is a cure for care, an antidote for worry. It includes companionship with friends, social intercourse and opportunity for courtesy, kindness and generosity to an opponent. It provides not only physical health, but moral force.

Bowls is a sport, played by Gentlemen.


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