BOWLS THROUGH THE CENTURIES
The game of bowls is thought to have originated in Egypt more than 5,000 years ago. Artifacts found during archaeological digs suggest the game was played with round rocks and small wooden cones used as targets. The modern game may have started in England in the 12th century and historical documents confirm it was played there in the late 13th century. The world’s oldest surviving bowling green is the Southampton Old Bowling Green, first used in 1299. Scotland’s oldest continuously played bowls club is the Kilmarnock Bowling Club, instituted in 1740 and still going strong.
The picture below illustrates an enduring story connected to the game of bowls. It is said that on July 18, 1588, Sir Frances Drake was playing bowls at Plymouth Hoe when he was informed of an imminent attack by the Spanish Armada. His immortalized response was, “We still have time to finish the game and to thrash the Spaniards, too!”. The story goes that Drake finished the game, which he lost, then went out to engage the Armada in a battle, which he won. There is much controversy as to whether this event actually took place. Nevertheless, the story has been forever tied to the sport of lawn bowls.
Sir Frances Drake before engaging with the Spanish Armada in 1588.
The game became popular in England but was eventually prohibited by king and parliament, both fearing it might jeopardize the practice of archery, so vital to the defense of king and country. Statutes forbidding the game were enacted in the reigns of Edward III (1307-1327), Richard II (1377-1399) and later monarchs, even after the bow had fallen into disuse as a weapon of war due to the invention of gunpowder and firearms.
The defining word ‘bowls’ first occurred in a statute of 1511 in which Henry VIII, himself a bowler, confirmed previous enactments against unlawful games. A subsequent enactment in 1541 forbade ‘…artificers, labourers, apprentices, servants and the like…’ to play bowls at any time except Christmas, and then only in their master’s house and presence. The act further stated that anyone playing bowls outside his own garden or orchard was liable to a penalty of 6 shillings and 8 pence, while those owning lands with a yearly assessed value of £100. might obtain licences to play on their own private greens. In other words, only the wealthy could enjoy the pleasures of the game without punishment. The 1541 act was repealed in 1845 and the common people were again allowed to play bowls after five centuries of prohibition.
In 1864, William Wallace Mitchell, a Glasgow cotton merchant, published his Manual of Bowls Playing which became the basis for the rules of the modern game. Mitchell started playing the game at the Kilmarnock Bowling Club when he was eleven years old.
As with many sports popular in England, bowls spread to the British colonies and was first played in North America in the early 1600s. Records show that greens were present in Boston and New Amsterdam (New York) in 1615, and not long afterwards in Washington and Virginia. In 1732, George Washington’s father constructed a green on the family estate at Mount Vernon. George, the first president of the United States of America, became an avid bowler in his youth and never lost his love of the game.
In April 1734, British officers at the garrison grounds in Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia petitioned to have a small area turned into a bowling green. Their request was granted, and a piece of the governor’s garden became the first bowling green in Canada. The game’s popularity in Canada flourished during the early part of the 20th century. In 1901, the ‘points playing’ system was introduced and electric lights were first used for late evening play. The first Canadian touring team travelled to Britain in 1904 and two years later a British team toured Canada. The 1913 Canadian team to Britain was the most successful of such groups; it won 17 matches, lost 13 and tied one.
British bowls team visits Canada in 1906.
Bowls was first played in Australia in 1844, at Sandy Bay, Tasmania. The game appeared in New Zealand sometime during the 30 years that followed. Today, fifty-two countries are members of World Bowls, the international federation for the sport of bowls.