Article 1 - History of Bowls

History of Bowls (Originally published in 1997 and revised in 2009)

When Keith Hale, the Editor of World Bowls, asked me to write about bowls manufacture, I wondered where to start. I think it would be fair to say, that to have an understanding of the current hi tech manufacturing processes used by to-days bowls makers, some mention must be made concerning the history of the sport.

Even though my company Drakes Pride can trace its history back to 1820, via the Liverpool firm of Darlington's, and Thomas Taylor's celebrated its 200thAnniversary in 1996, both companies are but mere youngsters when it comes to the history of the game.

Nobody ever speaks about the history of bowls without referring to Sir Francis Drake, playing at Plymouth on 19th July 1588, when Captain Thomas Flemming, advised that the Armada had been sighted off the Lizard. Drake's response has gone down as one of the most famous lines in history, "There is plenty of time to win the game and thrash the Spaniards too". The original trade mark used by by Drakes Pride alludes to this game.

original Drakes Pride Trade mark

However, almost 300 years earlier, the Southampton Bowls Club green is reputed to have been laid and in regular use since the year 1299. (The Southampton Club displays a set of rules said to have been drawn up by Charles II, his brother James, Duke of York, and the Duke of Buckingham in 1670 - the rules are attached to the end of this article). Chesterfield Bowling Club claims their rink dates from 1294, and certainly in the early part of the 14thcentury Edward III banned the playing of bowls so that the 'Bowmen of England' would practice their archery. It does seem that bowls has not always been associated with the gentle art as we now know it, and during its early years the game was prohibited and quite high penalties could be levied by magistrates, if anyone broke the prohibition.

Charles I was also said to be a keen bowler so when in 1647 he was held at Carisbrooke Castle the owner turn the barbican outside the Castle in to a bowling green for Charles I to play on.

There is no real evidence as to the style of game, although during the reign of Richard II, bowls was then referred to as 'gettre de pere'  presumably Norman French for 'jetter de pierre' and so describes throwing a "stone". So there is not much doubt that the original bowls are made from stone, they would be as round as possible, nothing like the shape we now use. Sometime after 1409, we do not know the actual date, bowls of wood were used, made from Boxwood, Holly, Yew or Oak.

It is presumed that Lignum Vitae was introduced in making of bowls during the 16thcentury, after the discovery of the Santo Domingo in 1492. Santo Domingo is in the Caribbean Sea, where the best Lignum Vitae is sourced, which is still true to day.  It is now very difficult to obtain 'bowls grade' Lignum as the timber is on the UN CITES register meaning that it is protected. Bowls making requires a tree with heart wood approx. 150mm in diameter. Trees of the size for such heart wood are not being harvested. So the best Lignum bowls are now produced by reclaiming well seasoned 'old' stock' Lignum, which is short supply

According to anecdotal evidence, the introduction of bias to the design of bowls seems to have been by accident. It in said that in 1522, Charles Brandon the Duke of Suffolk, whose bowl split in two pieces on striking another bowl, then rushed into the house and sawed off the spherical knob from the banister post, in order to provide himself with a replacement bowl. The flat cut then caused his substitute bowl to roll with a bias. Observing this effect, the Duke experimented by curving his bowl around others. He passed on his knowledge to his friends, and so, in the course of time, biassed bowls came into general use.

Later, bias was produced by loading the bowls on one side by inserting weights; some players think that this is still done today. So it is, that even now we occasionally find bowls, which have been brought in for renovation or re adjusting, that have been loaded by inserting metal or load on one side of the bowl. 

To bias by loading in this manner in no longer permitted by the rules and the bias is now produced entirely by the shape of the bowl. In fact with the bowls made to to days very tight specifications using computer controlled lathes means that such loading would cause the bowls to perform erratically, a similar problem to a car wheel that in out of balance. Further information about bias will be covered in future articles.

Prior to 1871, the bias of a bowl was not stipulated and a test of any kind was unknown. The bowls were entirely hand turned and finished in the absence of any testing method, it was impossible for bowls' turners to make bowls which could be accurately matched, every bowl was different and indeed matching bowls were not expected by the players. In the next article, I will explain further, why 1871 was the significant point with regard to bias testing.

The Rule of the game said to have been drawn up in 1670. Reading them I would suggest that the game of bowls described is more akin to Crown Green than Lawn / Flat Green as it seems to indicate a roaming jack although Federation Bowlers might also claim it is closer to their version of the sport:-

The game to consist of five or seven points as may be agreed upon by the party engaged. Four or six bowlers constitute a set.

1. The party who has the highest die shall lead the Jack, keeping his foot upon the trig, [the mat or footer"which must be placed at least one yard from the verge of the green.
2. Whoever shall once throw the Jack off the green, shall lose the leading of the Jack to their opponents, and shall be obliged to follow the Jack so led by their opponents, or adverse party.

3. At the commencement of every end, the trig shall be places where the Jack was taken up, or three strides wide of it in any direction before the Jack be thrown, provided by so doing the cast be not less than thirty yards.

4. If the Jack be bowled off the green, there shall be a fresh cast, and the same party again lead.

5. If a bowl, whilst running, be stopped by the adverse party, it shall be laid close behind the Jack.

6. If any bowler do take up the Jack before the cast or casts won be granted, he shall lose the cast to the adverse party.

7. If any bowler who lieth all, i.e. who is nearest the Jack, do take up the Jack or cause the same to be taken up before his opponent hath thrown the last bowl, his side shall lose the cast and the lead shall begin again.

8. If any bowler who lieth all do take up the Jack or cause the same to be taken up before his own partner hath thrown his last bowl, he shall lose the benefit of that bowl.

9. If any bowl do lie between the Jack and the bowl that is to be measured, or the Jack leaneth upon the bowl, or the bowl upon the Jack, it shall be lawful to bolster the bowl or Jack, and to take away the bowl which hindered the measuring, provided it doth not prejudice the adverse party in so doing. If it shall appear to the spectators (being no bettors), the adverse party was prejudiced thereby, although the bowl did not win, yet the benefit thereof shall be lost.

10. If in measuring it shall appear that the bowl or Jack was removed, or made worse by the measurer, the cast so measured shall be allowed to the adverse party.

11. If any bowler bowl out of turn, his bowl may be stopped by the adverse party, but not by him who delivered the same.

12. If any bowl be stopped while running, or touched by its own party, it shall be taken away.

13. If any bowler deliver his bowl or bowls not touching the trig with his foot, it shall be lawful for the adverse party to stop the same whilst running and make him bowl it again; but it shall not be lawful for him that bowls it to stop it.

14. If any bowler who lieth all do take up a bowl or bowls before the adverse party hath granted him, the cast shall be lost, and the Jack shall be thrown again.

15. No cast shall be measured before all bowls are bowled.

16. If he that is to throw the last bowl do take up the trig, or cause it to be taken up, supposing the game to be won, or that he shall do some hurt, the same bowls shall not be bowled that cast or end, for the trig once taken up shall not be set again.

17. If any running bowl be stopped, or touched by a spectator, not being a bettor, whether it be to the benefit or hindrance of the caster, the same bowl shall take its chance and lie.

18. If a bowl be moved out of its place by the party that bowled the same at any time before the cast be ended, the same shall be cleared away by the adverse party.

19. Keep your temper! and remember he who plays at bowls must take Rubbers.

© Peter N. Clare 2009 © E.A. Clare & Son Ltd. 2018 - reproduction of article allowed only with permission from E.A. Clare & Son Ltd.