World History of Lawn Bowling

Stone Age > Ancient Egypt > Aztecs > Polynesians > North American Aboriginies > Europeans

The history of bowls, in one form or another, reaches well back into antiquity in various parts of the world.  Stone Age excavations have confirmed that some sort of game was played with rounded rocks which were rolled or bowled to a peg or other marker.  Historical evidence of bowls-like games have been found in the cultures of the Ancient Egyptians, the Aztecs, the early Polynesians, and various North American aboriginal cultures. Based on artifacts found in tombes dating circa 5,000 B.C. it has been determined one of the Egyptian pastimes was a game of skittles played with round stones.

The sport spread accross the world and took a variety of forms, Bocce (Italian), Bolla (Saxon), Bolle (Danish), Boules (french) and Ula Miaka (Polynesian) and is also regarded as the forerunner of curling.

The oldest lawn bowls site still played on is in Southampton, England. Records show that the green has been in operation since 1299 A.D. There are other claims of greens being in use before that time, but these are unsubstantiated by proper or sufficient documentation. During the reign of Richard II bowls were referred to as "gettre de pere" or "jetter de pierre," and describes throwing a stone, probably as round as possible. In the early 15th century bowls were made of hardwoods and, after the 16th century discovery of Santo Domingo, of lignum vitae, a very dense wood.

Bowls Bias

There are records of organized lawn bowls being played as far back as the 12th century in Great Britain.  The bowls used in these early days were merely rounded, without bias. The bias was not introduced until 1522 due entirely (it is claimed), to the accidental breaking of a bowl by Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk whereby he rushed indoors and sawed off an ornamental knob from a stairway banister post as a replacement. Accordingly, one part was flat and it took a curving direction at the end of its run, instead of continuing on a straight line. He experimented by curving his bowl around others, the word soon spread, and biased bowls gradually came into use.

Bowls 'Against the Law'

The increasing popularity of bowls in 14th century England created the fear by King and Parliament that the practice of archery was being neglected and that the effectiveness of the archers in battle or military operations would therefore be lowered.  As a result, various Statutes were passed restricting or forbidding sports such as bowls and tennis during the reigns of Edward III in 1361, Richard II in 1388, and Henry IV in 1409. These Statutes did not prevent the game from being played and the game’s popularity continued to grow.  

Henry VIII was also a lawn bowler. However, in 1541 he banned the game for those who were not wealthy or "well to do" because "Bowyes, Fletchers, Stringers and Arrowhead makers" were spending more time at recreational events such as bowls instead of practicing their trade. Henry requested that anybody who wished to keep a green pay a fee of 100 pounds. However, the green could only be used for private play and he forbade anyone to "play at any bowle or bowles in open space out of his own garden or orchard." King James I issued a publication called "The Book of Sports" and, although he condemned football (soccer) and golf, encouraged the play of bowls. Despite these laws the game continued to flourish.

 Queen Mary took it one step further in 1555 and disallowed the playing of the Christmas games on the grounds that the game of bowls was being used as an excuse for “unlawful assemblies, conventiclers, seditions, and conspiracies".   The 1541 Act was in place for another three centuries when it was finally repealed in 1845 under the reign of Queen Victoria.

Drake - True Story?

Certainly the most famous story in lawn bowls 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 a lot of controversy as to whether this event actually took place.

Shakespeare on Bowls

Shakespeare references the sport in Act III of Richard II indicating that both men and women could be found on the bowling greens.  By the early 19th century, many of the inns in England had established bowling greens, presumably as an amenity to attract customers.  

Bowls to America

English and Scottish colonists brought the game to America. There was a bowling green in Williamsburg, Virginia in 1632 and many states have towns named "Bowling Green" due to the early settlers abiding interest in the sport. Even George Washington laid out a green at Mount Vernon in 1732.

Interest lapsed for years until the wave of Scottish immigration to the US revived it in the latter part of the 19th century. The American Lawn Bowls Association (now Bowls USA) was established in 1915, more than a decade after the founding of the SFLBC.

Scots pull it all together

As with golf, the game of Bowls owes its organized existence to the Scots.  Following a meeting in Glasgow in 1848, attended by about two hundred players from various clubs all with different Laws for playing the game, W.W. Mitchell of Glasgow drew up a "uniform code of Laws".  These are the basis  of all subsequent Laws. In 1892, the Scottish Bowling Association was formed and in 1893, it drew up rules or Laws based on Mitchell's Code and also published a Code of Ethics. The International Bowling Board was formed in 1905, the foundation members being Scotland, England, Ireland, and Wales. Canada was first admitted in 1928, as were Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the United States of America. Today the sport is played in over 40 countries with more than 50 member national authorities. The home of the modern game is still Scotland with the World Bowls centre in Edinburgh.