The History of Bowls

Sir Frances Drake bowls and Spanish Armada

Those of you who have fallen for the gentle image of the game of bowls had better think again. Of course, it’s true that the nods of appreciation, the civilised applause, the polite handshakes are genuine enough, but they hide the same aggressive killer-instincts so common – and so obvious – in more violent sports.

Indeed, historically speaking, bowls was a violent sport. It took a Scottish lawyer, W.W. Mitchell, to clean up the game a century or so ago. He saw fit to outlaw ‘kicking, hacking and tripping’ on the sacred turf… well perhaps not so sacred in those days: bowls (like its popular French cousin, boules) was played on any reasonably flat piece of ground, preferably, but not essentially, with a modest covering of grass!

Centuries before Mr Mitchell had civilised the game, bowling alleys were very unsavoury places, ‘productive of very evil consequences’, and full of ‘idle citizens’. They were described as ‘the means of promoting a pernicious spirit’. Drinking and gambling were inevitably associated with the game and, like other pub games, bowling was made illegal, chiefly so that the military (young men easily led astray) could actually get on with their archery practice.

Before that, legend has it, when the barbarians were plundering Europe, they found it relaxing after a (successful) battle to set up a game strikingly similar to our bowls. Agreeing on a target object, they would sever the heads of their unhappy opponents and roll them ever so gently across the battle terrain – aiming to get them as close as possible to whatever they chose as a target. Hence, presumably, the expression ‘Be up to the head’!

If we travel further back into the mists of time, we find that the Egyptians played marbles with knuckle-bones. This craze for launching a missile at a target seems to be so much a part of human nature that we could claim that bowls was perhaps the second oldest game of them all. Did Adam ever roll an apple at the Tree of Knowledge? I wonder. Certainly every child I know responds to a pebble beach by quite naturally picking up a pebble and throwing it into the sea, often with a target in mind.

Many games have developed from the same roots. Golf, croquet, billiards, snooker, archery and darts all involve targets, but marbles, quoits, skittles, petanque, bocca and bowls all have one thing in common which makes them more primitive and natural games: there is no element – no club, sling, cue, bat, racket or bow – to distance the man from the ball.

Bowls, like those close cousins, is the simplest of all ball games. If you can roll a ball, you can play bowls. The ball itself is the only artifice… after that, it’s all hand and eye. Roll the ball in the right direction and at the right speed every time and you’ll win every game you play.

But let’s get back to the child on the seashore. Maybe he’s going for accuracy; maybe, feeling out to impress, he’s going for distance. It’s clear that shot putting, javelin throwing, caber tossing and even welly whanging have derived from the urge to chuck that pebble out of sight.

In the Middle Ages, strong men would challenge each other to a game of Jactu Lapidum – stone throwing. Much more recently, in 1739, a Croyden farmer placed a bet that he could get from his home to London in 500 throws. He proceeded to complete the 11 mile journey in 445! Incidentally, some believe that the first syllable of Jactu Lapidum has given bowls the endearing term for the little white target ball – the jack. In some regions the jack is variously referred to as the ‘cot’, ‘kitty’, ‘pot’ or ‘white’.

The other projectiles – the larger, black or brown spheroids – are commonly known as woods, again for reasons steeped in history. Woods were once made of wood; lignum vitae (or living wood) is the heaviest timber on this earth. World supplies ran out, and now, you can’t get the wood. So today woods are made of plastic, or at least a resin composition: phenol-formaldehyde powder. Rather like bakelite, these plastic woods bear, normally, the commercial name of the manufacturer: hence Henselite, Jacquelite, Phynalite, Vitalite, Drakelite, Tyrolite etc. With all those ‘lites’, it’s surprising the bowls are so heavy – around three and a half pounds each, on average.

Old men still insist that there is nothing quite like the responsive touch of lignum vitae. If you search a bit, you’ll see some warped specimens still being trundled – especially in the more remote, rural village clubs. Although still perfectly legal, ‘real’ woods are not likely to be seen in televised tournaments. Top players, it seems, prefer the greater stability provided by modern chemical technology.

There’s a story from the days when woods were wooden. I would like to think it is true. A high-society game was being played at Goole in Yorkshire, with Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk, as one of the players. Someone puts up a fast one and struck accurately but tragically. One of the Duke’s woods cracked and fell into two halves. What was to be done? A sudden brainwave sent Brandon scurrying indoors to the grand hall where the bannister of the impressive staircase terminated in a spherical knob. The protuberance was quickly sawn off and the game continued as though nothing had happened. The Duke, however, soon found that the flattened part of the globe (where it had been attached to the bannister) caused the improvised bowl to run in a curve – a useful device which enabled him to gain access to the jack even when it was hidden behind a forest of short woods. Bias had been invented.

For years bias was imparted by means of weights (brass or pewter) inserted into the bowl, but now (wood or plastic) it’s the shape of bowl which makes it bend – a quirky quality which prompted Shakespeare to pen this royal exchange in Richard II:

Queen: What sport shall we devise here in this garden to drive away the heavy thought of case?

Lady: Madam, we’ll play at bowls.

Queen: ‘Twill make me think the world is full of rubs, and that my fortune runs against the bias.

Eleven further references to bowls have been discovered in Shakespeare’s plays, although in many cases it is just as likely he was referring to skittles, which was also played in places known as bowling alleys.

Henry VIII (1491-1547) was a devotee of bowls. Although he prohibited his subjects from playing, he installed at Whitehall ‘divers fair tennice courts and bowling alleys’. James I (1566-1625) commended ‘a moderate practice of bowls’… but not by ‘the meaner sort of people’! Charles I (1600-1649) was also bowls crazy. He lost a cool thousand at Barking Hall on a green laid by one Richard Shute. It was Charles II (1630-1685) who installed a green at Windsor Castle. It cost him twenty pounds, seven shillings and eleven pence – a sum which included eight shillings to Will Tonks for four days work. Enter Cromwell. The Puritans frowned on bows, as on so many other enjoyable pastimes, and an era was over.

In spite of all the royal patronage that bowls received, the most famous historical bowler must be the phlegmatic Sir Francis Drake. Even Sir Winston Churchill had to agree when he made one of his historic war broadcasts: ‘We must regard the next week or so as very important weeks in our history. They rank with the days when the Spanish Armada was approaching the Channel and Drake was finishing his game of bowls.’

As one English poet put it:

‘He was playing at Plymouth a rubber of bowls

When the great Armada came;

But he said, “They must wait their turn, good souls”,

And he stooped and finished the game.’

That picture, cherished by all patriots, was once committed to canvas by Seymour Lucas. It conjures up true British grit and sang froid. Sir Francis was indeed a brave nutter.

It is an interesting sequel to the Drake legend that, although on 19 July 1588 Sir Frances would have been using just two bowls (or woods), there are on display, purporting to be those very woods, one pair at the Sir Francis Drake Bowling Club at Plymouth, one pair at Torquay in Devon, and a single wood at Wellington Bowling Club in New Zealand, and possibly many more ‘originals’ scattered over the globe.

[codespacing_light_map width='100%' height='500px' show_overlay ='yes']

One thought on “The History of Bowls

  1. Steve says:

    Hello there, I am currently undertaking my level 3 in grounds maintenance, I have been asked to compare the pqs standards between football, cricket and bowls, yet i can’t find any information on how a bowling lawn is made up, as in is there standards on grass coverage, percolation rates, and things like the fall of pitches?

    Is there anyone here that could possibly point me in the right direction?

    Many thanks,


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *