The  History of Lawn Bowling

Author: Jeff Schaper

Bowling Green, Kentucky. Bowling Green, Ohio. Bowling Green, Virginia. The town names repeat themselves in Missouri, Florida, Maryland, etc. Countless streets are named Bowling Green. All are likely found in the places which had lawn bowling greens. This was where people gathered to play the game.

The sport, called bowls in England, is quite old, deriving from a game first developed in Egypt 5000 years ago. The objective of the game is simply for your ball to get closer to the “jack”, another ball, than your opponent’s. There are many variations in different cultures on this theme: bocce (Italian), bolla (Saxon), bolle (Danish), boules (French) and ula miaka (Polynesian).

Today lawn bowling is quintessentially English, but it probably originated in France and may have been brought over by the conquering Normans in 1066 or shortly thereafter, though there is no evidence that this is true. For all anyone knows, it may have been brought to Briton by Julius Caesar as it was popular among his troops. The word bowls undoubtedly comes from the French boules.

Bowling was so well established in England by 1299 A.D. that a group of players organized the Southhamptom Old Bowling Green Club, the oldest established bowling club in the world that is still active today.

The game became so popular in England it was prohibited by law in 1361 by King Edward III, because archery, essential to the national defense, was being neglected. By a further act of Henry VIII in 1541 (which was not repealed until 1845), common folk were forbidden to play bowls at any time except Christmas, and then only in their master’s house. Of course, nobles were able to continue to have private bowling greens and play by paying the crown 100 pounds.

The bowls, originally made of wood, were round and rolled as straight as the ground allowed. It’s believed that the “bias” was accidentally introduced in 1522 by the Duke of Suffolk. His bowl had split after striking other bowls and he took a knob off of a stairway banister post for a replacement. The flat side of the knob caused it to roll with an arc (bias) and he experimented by curving his bowl around the bowls of his opponents. Word spread, and biased bowls gradually came into use.

Certainly, the most famous story in lawn bowling is about Sir Francis Drake and the Spanish Armada. On July 19, 1588, Drake was involved in a game at Plymouth when he was notified that the Spanish Armada had been sighted. The tale says his response was, “There is plenty of time to win the game and thrash the Spaniards too.” He then proceeded to finish his match and the British Navy soundly defeated the Armada. There is controversy as to whether this event actually took place.

North London Bowling Club – Lawn-bowling early 20th century

Lawn bowling was introduced into the American colonies in the 1600s. A bowling green was established in Boston in 1615; New Amsterdam (as New York was then called) and Virginia were not long in following. George Washington’s father, Augustus, constructed a bowling green at Mount Vernon in 1732. At this time the game was favored as a genteel pastime by the ranking officers of the British Colonial Army.

However, the game lost its popularity in the American colonies during the revolution. On July 4, 1776, with the Declaration of Independence, the colonists were torn apart. The wartime hysteria swept away many things British, including lawn bowling. It never left Canada.

Lawn bowling enjoyed a revival after a group of Scottish immigrants restored it in the late 19th century. In 1879 a bowler named Shepplin started a small private club in New Jersey. New clubs soon appeared in Boston, and bowling greens began flourishing along the eastern seaboard. Fourteen years passed before the first West Coast club was formed. In 1899 the St. Andrews Society of San Francisco and Oakland combined to construct the first bowling green in the West in Golden Gate Park.