Lawn Bowls: a rich history of community
With its laid back pace and strong community focus, lawn bowling has long been a popular pastime in rural Australia and among older crowds. More recently the introduction of barefoot bowling in both rural and city-based clubs has seen the game enjoying popularity with a broader audience.
While the historic origins of the game were far from civil, lawn bowls has a rich history of bringing communities together. Our RCA retirement villages feature lawn bowls for this very reason. Enthusiastic residents at Wyndham Grange Village, Main Street Village, Beleura Village, Cardinia Waters Village and Point Cook Village enjoy social bowls and friendly competitions, indoor bowls and regularly relish some inter-village rivalry with other RCA villages!
Whether you’re a regular on the green, or just enjoy the occasional beverage at the club, in this article we'll get you up to speed with the colourful history of lawn bowls.
Lawn Bowls: highlights from history
The modern game of lawn bowls is played in over 40 countries across the world, but it almost wasn’t meant to be. A series of bans and prohibitions of the game introduced in 14th and 15th Century Great Britain jeopardised its popularity. At the time sports like bowls and tennis were seen to be a real threat to archery, the practice of which was important in battle.
Despite these prohibitions, lawn bowls continued to be practiced as a social pastime by the nobility who were shielded from the full force of the law. Formerly associated with unseemly activities like gambling and drinking, by the mid 16th-century bowls was seen as a ‘sport of kings.’
In 1541 King Henry VIII reinforced the game’s popularity among noblemen by forbidding people of low-born status such as labourers and servants from playing bowls at any time except Christmas, and then only in their master’s house and presence, while wealthy landholders could apply for licenses to play on private greens.
In 1555 Queen Mary took the prohibitions one step further and made the playing of the Christmas games unlawful because the game was being used as an excuse for ‘unlawful assemblies and conspiracies.’ The prohibitions remained in place until Queen Victoria finally repealed them in 1845.
Historians credit the patenting of the first commercial lawn mower in 1830 in Britain with the increasing popularity of sports played on greens including cricket, tennis and lawn bowls. Certainly, the popularity of lawn bowls as a sport began to ramp up in the late 1800s and it was at this time that the Uniform Code of Laws for the game of lawn bowls was laid down in 1848. The Royal Victorian Bowling Association in Australia was then formed in 1880 followed by the Scottish Bowling Association in 1893. Yes, we beat the Scots to the green!
The International Bowling Board was formed in 1905 with foundation members from Scotland, England, Ireland and Wales. Australia was admitted to the association in 1928 along with New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, and the United States of America.
A brief history of Lawn Bowls in Australia
According to Bowls Australia, it was in 1846 that the first bowling club in Australia was established alongside the Bowling Green Hotel in Sandy Bay, Tasmania. Across the Strait in Victoria, Melbourne Bowling Club was formed in 1864.
“An early game was played between English and Scottish members on 13 January 1865 in the presence of the State Governor, Sir Charles Darling, who indulged in a little practice that day.” – Bowls Australia > History
Mornington Bowling Club was formed on 1 June 1917 on traditional lands - an Aboriginal campsite overlooking Port Phillip Bay - the first Bowling Club on the Mornington Peninsula. The greens were onerously watered by hand. After opening for a short time the club temporarily closed until a permanent water supply was established in 1921. The club has since enjoyed a strong history of friendly competition and community support.
Most bowlers living on the Peninsula, particularly those at the southern end would take the ferry across the Queenscliff Bowls Club, which was established in 1883 and is one of the oldest clubs in Victoria.que
Pakenham Bowls Club in Melbourne’s South East corridor was formed more than three decades later in 1954. It shared a similar challenge with watering the greens. Fortunately the solution was found via a nearby creek, spreading the water with a light wooden grader. Like Mornington Bowls Club, Pakenham Bowls Club today, has a thriving membership.
5 quirky lawn bowls facts for your next trivia night
- Records show organised games of lawn bowls being played as far back as the 12th Century in Great Britain, and the oldest surviving bowling green today is the Southampton Old Bowling Green, established in 1299.
- Bowls didn't always have a bias; the bias was gradually introduced from around 1522. Historians assert that the bias was introduced purely by accident when the Duke of Suffolk split his bowl in two during a rather vigorous game. To continue the match, he removed an ornamental knob from a staircase banister to use as a replacement. The knob rolled with a bias and the Duke adjusted his game to curve his makeshift bowl around his opponent’s bowls.
- The most notable but hotly contested mention of lawn bowls in history is the story of Sir Francis Drake and the Spanish Armada. The story goes that on July 19, 1588, Sir Drake was playing bowls in Plymouth when the Spanish Armada was sighted. “There is plenty of time to win the game and thrash the Spaniards too," he declared. He then finished the match and defeated the Armada.
- George Washington grew up playing lawn bowls on the green that his father, Augustus, established at their Mount Vernon home in 1732.
- In 1597 William Shakespeare wrote Richard II, in which lawn bowls is referenced in Act II, Scene IV:
Queen: What sport shall we devise here in this garden, to drive away the heavy thought of care?
First 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.