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The History of Bowling 2


‘Seven days a week is not enough’ is so often the cry of the over-committed crown green bowler. Not so long ago he would have had to manage with six days and to have suffered some harassment if he had tried to make it seven. While it seems normal now that bowls should be played on a Sunday, it wasn’t always so. The Lord’s Day Observance Society wanted to keep Sunday free from sport of any kind, and as the two sides prepared to do battle, the bowlers found that the Church, the Law and the Establishment were lined up on the side of the Observance Society.


However, in 1962, Threlfalls Breweries, opened their bowling greens in Manchester, Salford and Liverpool for the first time on a Sunday. Floodlit bowling was in the offing, outdoor winter bowling was just beginning to develop in popularity, handicap bowling was starting to flourish and television was to bring the game to a wider public and foster further changes that could never have happened without it. Most of the top crown players were, at the time, actually prejudiced against anything but singles, but television, and money, changed all that.


The way crown green bowlers played, the way they dressed, and the way they thought about the game was to change too. Only now are they coming to accept that the other half of the game – the flat green – is not quite as easy as they imagined it to be, and that flat players are not the easy pushover that, in their great wisdom, the crown green players prophesied they would be if ever the twain should meet. Now the realisation is gradually dawning upon the crown men that not only have they been playing only one facet of the game but that, in their own insular way, they have restricted themselves to just one section – namely singles.


The attitude to bowling on Sunday was just one of the many changes which took place in crown green bowling from the late 1950s and early 1960s. The Professional Panel Bowler’s Association was a tightly-knit organisation and a law unto itself, and it held a firm, uncompromising grip on the bright stars of bowling who came under its authority. But the changes in the game as this time loosened even its hold and players like Brian Duncan, Norman Fletcher and Vernon Lee were able to move out into what was eventually to become the more lucrative area – the flat game.

The advent of television was undoubtedly the prime influence. It replaced the Panel as the platform of the stars. The players who appeared on the screen became the ‘known’ players. It was television that really put an end to the harassing of Sunday bowlers, bringing Sunday sport to a wider public and changing the public’s attitude to sport on Sunday generally.


One very important figure in the development of crown green bowls is undoubtedly Eddie Elson, secretary to the BCGBA. He sees his greatest achievement in his time in the ‘hot seat’ to have been his success in persuading the BCGBAA to go open, hence dropping the word ‘amateur’ from its title. This enabled the game to go for sponsorship with prize money and, more importantly, build up its television coverage.


The first controversial move was to change the name of the All England British Crown Green Merit Championship to suit the sponsors. This caused an uproar, but Eddie stood fast and won the battle. Hence the first sponsored event was known as the Watney Webster Merit and continued under the title for a number of years. One of the most successful sponsorships negotiated by Eddie was the Tom Thumb Champion of Champions tournament played at the Waterloo Hotel in Blackpool.


The huge popularity of the first championship in 1974 took the Waterloo by surprise. It wasn’t long before the sponsors realised that this down-market sponsorship was really upmarket with Grandstand television coverage, and they changed the name firstly to the John Player and later to the Embassy. Many stars of the crown green world have their name on the trophy. Tony Poole twice – in 1976 and 1984 – Noel Burrows twice – in 1978 and 1980 – but, surprisingly, no Brian Duncan or Dennis Mercer.


TOMORROW: Part 3 - TV coverage and coloured bowls


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