The History of Bowling

Time to look back at the history of bowling as we kill time in the lockdown period waiting to be released to return to the bowling greens hopefully in early April ready for the new summer season. This record is primarily about the later years of bowling but starts out looking back as far as the 14th century.

This 6-part series of articles majors on the later years and in particular the impact of television coverage of our sport from 1962 and concludes with film footage of the 1982 Waterloo Streaker Final!

The majority of these postings have been compiled from an article on the website although it is unclear if this is an original or sourced elsewhere. I think it provides an excellent introduction to the history of Crown Green bowling in England. Apologies to the original author of this piece and if anyone does know of its origins perhaps they would let me know so that retrospective permission and due acknowledgement can be sought and included.

It was clearly written before the year 1990 as there is reference to the difficulty in providing an indoor surface suitable for crown green bowling. This problem has subsequently been overcome and there has indeed been such a facility for some years at The Dome at Leeds Road Playing Fields in Huddersfield.

The later postings concentrate of television coverage from 1962 including the 1982 Streaker Final and I have added film coverage of this notable event. Let's start at the beginning.

The History of Bowling - from 1299

Historians debate when bowling was introduced to England. The earliest known evidence of the sport is an antique bowling green in Southampton that dates back to 1299. In 1366, King Henry III banned bowling from the country, as it was a distraction from archery practice for soldiers. This date marks the first official mention of bowling in historical records.

The essential difference between flat and crown green bowling is the surface on which the game is played. Crown greens are undulating, with bumps known as crowns. Some greens have just one, others may have two or three and they can be up to 14 inches high from edge to centre.

On the other hand flat greens, known as rinks, are on a large surface of grass as level as it possibly can be. On one area there can be many rinks of around 16 feet wide and 120 feet long. This is the standard flat green rink size and can only vary very slightly.

Since television took an interest in bowls, both flat and crown codes are providing participants for the new indoor flat green competitions and it is significant that the crown green bowlers are taking to the flat, whilst the flat green bowlers rarely venture into the crown green world. This is obviously because it is easier to adapt to flat green rinks due to their one standard size and width. It is extremely difficult to build indoor crown greens as it’s almost impossible to stop the bowls from rolling down into the ditch. Until a surface is designed that has the braking power of standard outside turf greens, the crown game is committed to outdoors only.

It is because of the vast differences of surfaces that the method and techniques of both codes, including equipment, are far apart. Crown green bowlers have to concentrate so much on beating the green that they don’t rely too heavily on tactics and strategy but aim to get as close to the jack as possible. Flat green bowlers, on the other hand, have a much easier task to reach close to the jack, as their rink is a constant size and width. Consequently, they dwell heavily on the tactical side of preventing their opponent scoring.

How crown green developed as a separate game is difficult to pinpoint, but the preferred theory is that bowling from the 15th century to the 18th century separated into two classes. The rich and the moneyed who owned large gardens made bowling alleys on their lawns, flanked by hedges – in other words, rinks. The less affluent played on common ground and parks close to inns and taverns, which were the forerunners of the crown greens built adjacent to pubs and hotels.

It is hard to say when crown green became properly organised, but Lancashire was certainly a leading force in the 19th century. Blackpool Sweepstakes started in 1878 and it is worth noting that in 1897 Lancashire and Cheshire combined for the first time and played Warwickshire and Worcester in a series of county games. These ended in 1903 and four years later the British Crown Green Amateur Association was formed.

There were already quite a number of other associations in existence, including Cheshire, Manchester and District, Liverpool, Huddersfield, Leeds, Spen Valley, plus public parks and licensed victuallers’ leagues and many others.

Crown green bowling is an excellent game and, if anybody is thinking it’s too minor a sport, there are thousands of crown greens in Britain and are all in full use! There’s no doubt that television has had a great influence and increased the public interest in the game. It is also as well to note that bowls, flat and crown, is a relatively easy game to learn – but, like all other sports, hard to be good at. Many younger people are playing the game and holding their own in the senior ranks. Handicaps are on the increase and springing up all the time.

Unfortunately this has brought some problems with too many competitions being organised. Some of the top officials think it has reached saturation point. The top bowlers, particularly the professionals who rely on the game for a living, are sometimes travelling through three counties in a day to play in three simultaneous tournaments. They have even found themselves in two different finals on the same day, on different sides of the country. Having to opt to play in one final, they obviously go for the richest prize money – which leaves the other final a walk-over.

This doesn’t do much for the organiser’s headache, as he’s probably advertised the two finalists. The game is trying to overcome this problem and there is now a diary available to all crown green bowlers showing all competitions with dates of every round.

TOMORROW: Part 2 - Sunday bowling, professional bowlers, the Blackpool Waterloo, TV coverage and sponsorship

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