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Lawn Bowling - A Brief History

Lawn Bowling, or "Bowling on the Green", has a long and diverse history spanning centuries, cultures and continents.  Review the origins of the game, the diversity of its family of forms, its evolution into the modern game and discover just where the story of bowling on Central Park's green is placed along the rich tapestry of lawn bowling history.

Ancient Lawn Bowling Print

When Caesar ruled Rome the game was known as “Bocce” and the Roman Legions may well have carried the game to Europe and the British Isles. By the thirteenth century, bowling had spread to France, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Germany and England.

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 remaining active bowling club in the world. The game became so popular in England and France it was prohibited by law because archery, being essential to the national defense, was being neglected. The French king, Charles IV, prohibited the game for the common people in 1319, and King Edward III issued a similar edict in England in 1361.

Fortunately, bowling was not suppressed in Scotland, where it attained a popularity which has only increased with the centuries. Scottish bowlers developed the present flat green game, established rules, worked out a uniform code of laws, and were instrumental in saving the game for posterity. The ancient game of bowls has always been dear to the heart of every true Scot, and it has always held a prominent place in the history and literature of Scotland. To the Scots goes the credit also for giving the game an international background, as emigrant Scots enthusiastically carried the game with them to all parts of the world.

Uddingston Bowling and Tennis Club

Our friends Marie and Brian of the Uddingston Bowling and Tennis Club - Glasgow, Scotland

King Charles Lawn Bowling
King Charles Lawn Bowling

English Royal Bowling

Lawn bowling, or “bowls” has much literary and historical proof of being the real “Sport of Kings.” From the time of Edward III, the game was restricted by royal decree to “Noblemen and others having manors or lands.” Successive kings played and enjoyed the game. However, King Henry III, who had bowling greens installed at Whitehall, permitted "commoners" to play on Christmas Day.

Fortunately, no serious effort was made to enforce this ban nor did it apply in  Scotland. Almost every English monarch over the last several centuries has been a bowler, and the royal estates were equipped with fine bowling greens - a bowling green being a permanent fixture at Windsor Castle. . King James I was an ardent bowler, as was his son King Charles I.  Anne Boleyn was a bowler, as were many noblewomen, including the first Princess Elizabeth and Queen Victoria. The late Queen Mary, and King Edward V enjoyed the game of bowls. Edward VIII, the late Duke of Windsor, was president of the Royal Household Bowling Club of Windsor Castle. His brother, the late George VI, was also an enthusiastic bowler and patron of the English Bowling Association.

Noble Heritage

In the early days, it was fashionable for the aristocracy to have private bowling greens. Samuel Pepys mentions in his diary being invited to “play at bowls with the nobility and gentry.” Sir Francis Bacon, Sir Water Raleigh, Victor Hugo, and Lord Macauley were all bowlers. British officers installed bowling greens in the American colonies in New York in 1725, and in Port Royal Canada in 1734. George Vanderbilt and John D. Rockefeller had private bowling greens on their estates in 1896.

Today, bowls is no longer solely a rich person’s game. The world famous have played and enjoyed this game from ancient to modern times, ranging from Dr. Samuel Johnson to Dr. William Brady, and from Shakespeare to Walt Disney. Play continues on the very green at Plymouth Hoe where Sir Francis Drake and his captains bowled that memorable day in 1588 when word arrived of the invading Spanish Armada.  His immortalized response, “At first, we still have to finish this match!”

Sir Francis Drake Lawn Bowling

The American Scene

Lawn bowling appears to have been introduced into the American colonies in the1600s, although archaeologists have uncovered biased stone bowls, now in a museum at Vancouver, B.C. which indicate that a similar game was played be the Native Americans centuries before this. Bowling greens were registered in Boston in 1615, New Amsterdam (now New York) and shortly thereafter in Washington and Virginia.

In 1732, the year of George Washington’s birth, his father, Augustus, constructed the bowling green at Mount Vernon. At this time the game was highly favored as a genteel pastime by the ranking officers of the British Colonial Army, and the green at Mount Vernon was undoubtedly very popular. George grew up with the game, became an avid bowler in his youth and remaining a life-long enthusiasm.  The Washington's maintained the Mount Vernon bowling tradition sponsoring bowling on the green as “suitable for the intelligentia and ranking army officers.”  Inevitably the game lost its popularity during the Revolution - war hysteria sweeping all thing British with it, including bowling greens. Greens were plowed up, converted to camp grounds, planted with flowers or trees, and hidden as much as possible. At Mount Vernon the abandoned green was converted to a garden.

Enthusiasm for bowling did not return to the United States until the late 1800's and in 1926 the first greens were built in Central Park.

Women Lawn Bowling in Central Park
Lawn Bowling in Central Park
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