Lawn Bowls is the anglicised variant of a family of sports in which several larger balls or biased bowls are rolled or thrown at a smaller target ball. Such sports have spread across the world and have taken on a variety of forms, Bocce (Italian), Bolla (Saxon), Bolle (Danish), Boules or Petanque (French) and Ula Maika (Polynesian). The original English version of the game came about, like many other games, on a grass lawn because that suits the climate in England. In France and Italy, where the hotter weather makes lawns a rarer commodity, they play on gravel or dirt pitches.
The second distinguishing feature of English Bowls is that the balls are rolled rather than thrown. And the final important factor is that the balls are usually not balls at all - they are slightly eccentric which gives them a bias. The important and skilful aspect of Lawn Bowls is that bowls do not travel in a straight line.
Some Bowls historians believe that the game developed from the Egyptians. This has been deduced based on spherical shaped artefacts found in tombs dating circa 5,000 B.C but this should be taken with a pinch of salt - the existence of balls does not imply anything about how the balls were used.
Certainly the most famous story in lawn bowls is with Sir Frances Drake and the Spanish Armada. On July 18, 1588, Drake was involved in a game at Plymouth Hoe when he was notified that the Spanish Armada were approaching. His immortalised response was that "We still have time to finish the game and to thrash the Spaniards, too." He then proceeded to finish the match which he lost before embarking on the fight with the Armada which he won. Whether this famous story really took place has been heavily debated.
King Henry VIII was also a lawn bowler. However, he banned the game for those who were not wealthy or "well to do" because "Bowyers, Fletchers, Stringers and Arrowhead makers" were spending more time at recreational events such as bowls than practising their trade. Henry VIII 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. In 1845, the ban was lifted, and people were again allowed to play bowls and other games of skill.
The earliest documented use of the word 'Jack' in a Bowls context is by William Shakespeare from Cymbeline (thought to have been written in 1609) when he caused Cloten to exclaim, "Was there ever man had such luck! When I kissed the jack, upon an up-cast to be hit away."
There are competing theories as to etymological origin of the word "Jack". John P Monro, Bowls Encyclopaedia (3rd ed.), gives that the name 'jack' is derived from the Latin word jactus, meaning a cast or a throw.
A sport played by young men called "casting the stone" is mentioned by William FitzStephen, a close friend of Thomas à Becket, in the preface of his biography Vita Sancti Thomae written during the twelfth century. Casting of stones translates in Latin as "jactu lapidum" and was a game in which rounded stones were thrown at or bowled towards a target object and so a second related theory is that the modern word 'Jack' derives originally from this game name.
But the most straightforward theory and the one most favoured by this author is that it appears that Jack in some contexts meant a slightly smaller version of something. For example a jack-rabbit is a little rabbit. In this case a 'Jack-Bowl', was the little bowl, later shortened to 'Jack'. In 1697 R. Pierce wrote "He had not Strength to throw the Jack-Bowl half over the Green".
Old English Bowling
It is very difficult to trace back the origin of lawn bowls through English history from the medieval period onwards because the term 'bowling' used to mean two things. 'Bowling' was used for the game that this page is about but it just as often referred to the game of skittles or nine-pins. 'Bowling alleys' were a generic term to describe the area where one or other or sometimes both sports were played and so any writings that use the term usually, regrettably, cannot be said to prove anything.
The oldest Bowls green still played on is in Southampton, England where 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, as yet, unsubstantiated
There is still a league in South East Hampshire that plays an what they claim is the old version of Lawn Bowls. The woods used are a minimum of Jaques No 6 Bias and have to end up within four feet of the jack to score. The clubs in the league are at Titchfield, Gosport (Alverstoke Old English Bowling Club), Portsmouth, Havant, Hayling Island, Emsworth and Bosham.
The English Bowling Association was founded in 1903 and it is very well organised sport which hosts numerous competitions from the club to the national level. The sport is most popular in the South of England with thousands of devotees. Because success doesn't require physical fitness, it is particularly favoured by older folk but there are a lot of younger players, too. As with many English sports, Lawn Bowls spread to the the British colonies from the 1600s onwards.Lawn Bowls was first played in North America in the early 1600's in the United States. Records show that President George Washington played bowls on his estate. In Canada, the sport was introduced around 1730 at Port Royal in Nova Scotia. In Australia, bowls first was played in Sandy Bay, Tasmania in 1844. The game appeared in New Zealand sometime during the 30 years after that. The World Bowling Board (WBB) is responsible for the standardisation of rules across the world, and is charged with the task of encouraging the growth of the game world-wide
Lawn Bowls is usually played straight up and down a lawn. In "Singles", each player has four bowls called "woods" (although these days, 90% of bowls are made from a resin material) which are rolled alternately at a target ball called a Jack or Kitty. Other games are "Pairs" - four players in two teams, each player having four bowls, "Triples" - three players with three bowls each and "Rinks" or "Fours" - four players two bowls each. Each bowl is less rounded on one side which results in the bowl being "biased" in one direction due to the extra weight on one side. The bias of a correctly rolled bowl ensures that it follows a slightly curved path as it rolls which accentuates as the bowl comes to a halt. The Jack is a smaller white ball without a bias.
The sport of Lawn Bowls is the forerunner of Curling, a tremendously popular winter version played in northern countries (including Canada and Scotland) on ice. It isn't clear if the Scots or the Dutch invented the game; the first written records on it are from the 1600's. At one time the stones that slide across the ice were pieces of granite weighing up to 56kg. Gradually they evolved into plump stone discs with a handle protruding from the top surface. The target is a circle 32 metres from the thrower and the game is played by 2 teams of 4 players, each player sliding 2 stones per go. The slightly bizarre final aspect of the game is that each player is equipped with a genuine broom which is used to scrub the ice just ahead of the stone as it slides towards the target. The scrubbing warms the ice which creates a film of water that the stone slides over speeding it slightly. Skilful work with the broom will successfully deviate the direction of the stone or lengthen the distance it travels in such a way that it eventually comes to rest nearer to the target.....
Crown Green Bowls is a game of arguably greater interest since it features an additional dimension. A Crown Green is a square lawn slightly higher in the middle than at the edges and play is conducted all over the lawn in any direction making for a great deal more variety than the flat green game.
The game has always been associated more with pubs and taverns than Lawn Green bowls and although it does not have the enormous popularity of the flat green game, it thrives very happily within its home base of the North of England and the North West Midlands.
Play is almost always singles and each player bowls just two bowls each end. The winner of each turn can play the jack in any direction and at any reasonable distance within the lawn boundary which is a ditch. Some players are best at bowling across the hump, others along the sloping side, some prefer short distances, others long and so many additional tactical complexities are introduced by the unusual lawn. Watching the multiple games occurring in all directions at once across a crown green bowling lawn is an spectating experience worth seeking out. Somehow, the individual games manage to intersect and cross over each other without any adverse consequences!
Crown Green Bowls is a well organised sport arranged on a county basis. Individual clubs, often affiliated to pubs form teams that compete in "midweek" leagues that are grassroots of the sport and, at the next strata up, counties hold their own competitions. Crown Green Inter-County bowls matches date back to 1893 when Yorkshire and the combined county of Lancashire & Cheshire began playing friendly matches and this tradition has carried on until the present day, with the British Crown Green Bowls Association taking over the organisation of the competition in 1908. A complete history of this and other competitions can be found on the BCGBA site. In the year 2000, 15 county teams entered the competition. As can be seen from the following list, not all of the teams are, in fact, single counties and one team actually represents a country.....
|N.Lancs & Fylde||Warwick & Worcester||Merseyside|
|South Yorkshire||North Midlands||Lancashire|
|Yorkshire||Potteries & District (South Staffordshire)||Shropshire|
As well as Wales, the sport is played in Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man. The first officially organised international happened in 1995 between Wales and England and the following year, the inaugural International tournament was staged in the County Association of North Lancs & Fylde. This competition took the four teams from England, combined Scotland/Ireland, Wales and the Isle of Man. The first competition was won by England, while in the 1999 tournament, the combined Scottish/Irish team were victorious.
When winter comes around, Bowls like many outdoor games, become less easy to play. So indoor variations of the game have come into existence. Indoor Bowls is simply the indoor incarnation of Lawn Bowls, played on strips of simulation green which are a similar length to Lawn Bowls rinks. There are subtle differences to the rules but ostensibly it's the same game.
However, Indoor Bowls has two rival formats for the affections of bowling enthusiasts wishing to avoid the elements - see the following sections on Short Mat Bowls and Carpet Bowls.
Very often, there is insufficient space for several full-size bowls strips indoors. For that reason, a second popular indoor variant called Short Mat Bowls, with characteristics all of its own, has become established with a really big following all over Britain and Ireland. Like many pub games, it is really a miniaturised version of the outdoor game to enable it to be played more easily indoors while keeping as many of the features as possible. It is played on a mat measuring 40-45 x 6 feet with full-size bowls, the mat being easily rolled up and put away for convenience. There is a ditch but this is simply an area marked at the end of the mat with white fenders and to compensate for the shorter distance an intimidating block is placed in the centre of the mat. This makes it impossible for a bowler to aim a fast straight bowl at the jack area - all bowls must use the bias to curl around the block o their target.
The short mat bowls game was first played in South Wales by two South Africans who came to work in the area. They had played bowls outdoors in South Africa and, perhaps due to the poor climate and the long close season in this country, they began to play a simulation of the outdoor game on a strip of carpet in a church hall. Some time later, they moved to Northern Ireland and took the new game with them. Rules and conditions of play were drawn up and the game soon became well established in the Province. It was introduced into England by Irish expatriates, but development was slow until the 1980's when its potential as a low cost sport for people of all ages was realised. The English Short Mat Bowling Association (ESMBA) was formed in 1984, and is now the governing body of the sport in England. Thanks to the Cornwall Cornwall County Short Mat Bowling Association for this information.
Here is a summary of the primary differences between the mother game and Short Mat Bowls:
- Short Mat Bowls is, of course, played on a mat indoors. The mat is 12.2m min - 13.75m max long and 1.83m wide.
- Short Mat Bowls has centre block which is 0.38m long which must not be touched by a bowl. This prevents high force shots being played.
- In Short Mat, a bowl must pass over the "dead line" or else it is removed from play.
- The Short Mat Jack is positioned on a central line. The Short Mat Jack is heavier than either a Lawn Bowls or an Indoor Bowls Jack.
- The ditch of Lawn Bowls is simulated by wooden fenders that surround the rear of the mat.
There is a yet a third indoor variant called Carpet Bowls which is something of the poor relative of the Bowls world and does not have the publicity it deserves, particularly in the South of England, although it is played at County and League level in East Anglia, the Midlands and the North. The term "carpet" is not helpful in this respect as many people upon hearing of the game assume it is a trivial indoor game for the home.
Carpet Bowls has seeded itself as far more of a community activity and is mainly played in local social centres such as village halls and other local community meeting places. It has in fact been the saving grace for many village halls, generating some much need revenue for the halls themselves as well as bringing local communities together. There is a formal English Carpet Bowls Association and although the ECBA is relatively small, the game itself is played in many village and school halls up and down the country. Around the turn of the century there were more than 1000 clubs.
In accordance with the village hall background, the bowls mat is significantly smaller at around 30 x 6 feet and the inventors clearly laid less emphasis upon trying to maintain all the rules of the mother game. For instance, Carpet Bowls dispenses with the notion of a 'ditch' and the various sometimes complex rules associated with it.
Bowls are delivered from an 18 inch wide space at the front of the carpet and must avoid an 18 inch circular block placed in the centre of the carpet. The Jack is 2.5 inches in diameter (the same as for Lawn/Indoor Bowls) and is placed on a centre line 3 - 6 feet from the end of the carpet. It does not need to be extra-heavy because, in another departure from the other lawn variants, the bowls used are smaller. Players rarely own their own set of bowls; instead the village hall usually owns the bowls for their club members' use.
Afficionados of Carpet Bowls are keen to point out that, because a bowl must be delivered within the 18 inches delivery area whilst not standing on the carpet, it is rare for players to attempt to "break up the head" (attempt to spoil the end by delivering a forceful bowl that knocks the bowls and jack semi-randomly). Carpet Bowlers regard this as a point of superiority over Short Mat Bowls where a player standing on the carpet may deliver a bowl wide of the designated delivery area with some force to spoil the head.
The most unusual version of Bowls is a miniaturised version of the game called Table Bowls that originally appeared as a pub game around the district of Carlisle. In this game a miniature set of bowls and jack are played on a standard 12 x 6 feet Billiards or Snooker table. The bowls and jack are rolled down a wooden chute which is placed slanting on the table edge with one end on the table. No impetus is allowed to be given to the bowls - it is purely the angle of the chute and how far up it the bowl starts that determines its final position.
The author hasn't found any definitive information as to the origin of Table Bowls but in his opinion it seems highly likely that the game was invented in the second half of the nineteenth century as part of a craze for all sorts of indoor games that overtook the Victorians. A whole number of parlour games were invented by games manufacturers of the time such as John Jaques and F. H. Ayres and these included a number of miniaturised outdoor games including such games as Parlour Croquet, Parlour Aunt Sally and Parlour Quoits. Table Bowls was probably just one more example.
The author has also heard from players in Queensland, Australia where there are several locations playing Table Bowls - see the Pubs section below for further details. This game is more elaborate, requiring specially built tables, around 8 feet long, rather than borrowing a billiards table. In fact, they have a number of competitions including a "World Championship" although they are having second thoughts about the title having now learned of the English game!
The game is played by juniors and by people who are wheelchair bound. Many lawn green bowlers who can no longer play the outdoor game continue indoors at Table Bowls. It has built up quite a following.
Rolle Bolle was developed by Belgians, around the time of the Reformation, somewhat a cross between horseshoes and bowlings. It is played on hard packed sand, with stakes set 30 feet apart. Teams try to roll the beveled, hard rubber Bolle so that it stays closest to the stake.
Please see the Bowls Pubs, Clubs and Leagues page.
Now this is a great site - Books on Bowls with more than 300 references to such literature.
- The English Bowls Association / English Indoor Bowls Association / Bowls Australia
- British Crown Green Bowling Association / used to have their own website but now just have a page on someone elses. / Isle of Man Crown Green Bowling Association / Wales Crown Bowls Association
- Short Mat Bowls Master List / English Short Mat Bowling Association