Bowled Over

The bowling greens of Britain


By: Hugh Hornby
RRP: £17.99 (post-free to UK)
Format: 232pp softback 210mm x 210mm
ISBN: 978 1 905624 98 0
Published by Historic England in October 2015


Bowls is one of Britain's oldest and best loved sports. Its first recorded rules, published in 1670, predate those of every other major game played in Britain, including football, cricket and golf. It is played at over 7,400 clubs spread across every part of the country, by around 350,000 bowlers of all ages. Yet bowls is little understood by the general public and for centuries its history has been mired in myths and misconceptions.

The result of ten years of painstaking research, Bowled Over is the first book to explain what the game of bowls is all about, and to provide a comprehensive, illustrated look at its unique place in British social life and sporting history.

Beginning in the medieval period, sports historian Hugh Hornby, himself a bowler at county level in Lancashire, traces the sport's origins from rough alleys and open grassland to the reign of Henry VIII, when commoners were banned from bowling because it was thought to encourage gambling and drinking and be a distraction from archery practice. Despite the ban, bowls became Elizabethan England's favourite sport, beloved by the aristocracy, celebrated by Shakespeare and of course, according to legend, played by Sir Francis Drake, who reportedly insisted on finishing his game despite the approach of the Spanish Armada. Hornby explains why the Drake story struck such a chord with the public – one that still resonates today – and how bowls clubs then started to form in the 18th century, with their emphasis on dining and drinking. By the 19th century bowling greens became the focal point of hundreds of towns and village across Britain, not just for bowls but for concerts, dances, flower shows and hustings.

Having visited hundreds of clubs and greens across Britain, Hornby also explores the enduring differences between the 'crown green' game, with its uneven greens and culture of gambling, and the more formal 'flat green', developed in Victorian Scotland, popularised by the cricketing legend WG Grace, and now played around the world. On the south coast of England he discovers a variant called 'Olde English Bowls'. Behind a pub in south west London he encounters 'Elizabethan' bowls, and in pockets of Worcestershire and East Anglia an obscure hybrid involving the mysterious-sounding 'roving cot'. In Scotland he finds out what bowlers really get up to when they decide to play a 'promiscuous game'.

Exploding the popular belief that only old people play bowls and that games only take place in reverential silence, in north west England we join football-style crowds at floodlit crown green bowls tournaments and, in London, groups of beer-toting hipsters enjoying 'barefoot bowls' to the accompaniment of DJs and sizzling street food.

Accompanied throughout by maps and striking photographs, contemporary and archive, Bowled Over is also a visual celebration of bowling greens – from country houses and castles to pubs and public parks, from rural villages to inner city back streets – and of bowls-related buildings, ranging from humble sheds to grand pavilions.



A specialist book, to be sure, but fascinating nonetheless…

Philip Wilkinson

Bowled Over is my pick of the sports books to read in 2016. Hugh Hornby explores a sport little known outside of its coterie of enthusiasts... yet absolutely woven into the fabric of English life. The history and changing culture of that connection tells us so much about both the intrinsic value of sport and the making of Englishness... Never mind the hype of the Premier League, Rio, Wimbledon and so on, Bowled Over is my number one book to help us understand the true meaning of sport in 2016.

— Mark Perryman, Philosophy Football

Only a book like this could make turf interesting.

— Mark Mason, The Spectator

Truly exceptional.

— Geoff Barnett (Amazon)

A great Christmas gift and a book that every bowling club should have on its pavilion’s shelf.

— John Messner (Amazon)

A brilliantly illustrated book, packed with tales.

— Janet Christie, Scotland on Sunday

Great writing, tight editing, lavish production.

— PaulD, @westernfront73


Clun, Shropshire

Clun, Shropshire

Clun Bowling Club in Shropshire enjoys one of the most idyllic locations in British bowls, located on the former eastern bailey of Clun Castle, whose 13th century ruins overlook the green from a neighbouring hill.

From page 29 of Bowled Over
(Photograph © Simon Inglis.)

Southampton Old Bowling Green

Southampton Old Bowling Green

Members of the Southampton Bowling Green Club club pose in front of their new clubhouse in the 1870s. Bowling on this site goes back to at least 1600, making it the oldest recorded green in the world.

From page 72 of Bowled Over
(Photograph © Southampton Old Bowling Green Club.)

Sun Inn, Barnes

Sun Inn, Barnes

Multiple exposure photography illustrates the extreme bias of the 'woods' used at the historic green at the Sun Inn in Barnes, the last remaining pub green in London.

From page 11 of Bowled Over
(Photograph © Historic England.)

Waterloo, Blackpool

Waterloo, Blackpool

Known as the 'Wembley' of crown green bowls, the Waterloo Hotel in Blackpool has been staging the Waterloo Handicap since 1907. At its peak, crowds of up to 4,000 packed into the mini-stadium at the rear of the pub.

From page 152 of Bowled Over
(Photograph © Peter Holme.)

Great Torrington, Devon

Great Torrington, Devon

Bowls has been played on the castle green at Great Torrington since at least the 18th century. The hexagonal Grade II listed summerhouse in the far corner is possibly as old as 1717, while the green itself was squared off and levelled in 1911 to host the newly popular game of flat green, or 'rink' bowling.

From page 97 of Bowled Over
(Photograph © Simon Gill.)

Bowled Over contents


Chapter 1: Bowls in Britain – the codes explained • flat green • crown green • Federation • roving cot • Old English • woods, jacks and bias • indoor bowls • carpet bowls • table bowls •


Chapter 2: Bowling greens – development of greens • from scythes to lawnmowers • Cumberland turf • rollers • green construction • differences between flat and crown • range of shapes and sizes • castle, village, pub and park greens •


Chapter 3: Bowling clubs – heart and soul of the game • development from drinking clubs • friendly leagues • development of clubhouses and pavilions • architectural gems • rules and regulations • dress codes • honours boards and scoreboards • club life • hospitality • badges and medals • memorials •


Chapter 4: Medieval bowls, romance and bias – origins of the game • half bowl and skittles • 14th century illustrated manuscripts •


Chapter 5: Tudors and Stuarts 1485-1688 – establishment of bowling greens • Henry VIII ban • Sir Francis Drake • Oliver Cromwell • Charles I • William Shakespeare references • first use of lignum vitae • gentlemens' pursuit • first public greens • Charles II 1670 Rules • bowls in Bath 1717 • castles and country houses • grand bowling pavilions • Lewes 1753 • Hadley Heath • Chesterfield • Southampton • Painswick Falcon • Framlingham Castle • Milton Regis • Hereford •


Chapter 6: England 1688-1830 – establishment of bowls culture • 'bowling alleys' at country houses • dining clubs • hot air balloons • concerts • bowls manufacturers • Croydon • Helston • Brampton • George Inn, Solihull • Hadleigh • Banbury Chestnus • Bedale • Newark Town • Guildford • Tamworth Castle • Great Torrington • Ellesmere • Bishop's Castle • Sun Inn, Barnes •


Chapter 7: Scotland to 1892 – Scots invent flat green • Thomas Taylor, Glasgow bowls makers • evolution from curling • Glasgow and Edinburgh • Haddington claim to be oldest in Scotland • Kilmarnock rival claim • William Mitchell sets out rules • 19th century boom • Ayr • Troon • Largs • Mauchline • Eglinton Trophy • Kirkcudbright • Garlieston • Wigtown • Alloa • Arbroath • Dalkeith • Hillside, Edinburgh • Galashiels • Whitehouse & Grange, Edinburgh • Greenock • Ardgowan • Paisley • Abercorn • Yoker • Partick • Willowbank, Whitevale & Wellcroft, Glasgow • Queen's Park, Glasgow •


Chapter 8: England and Wales 1830-1914 – widespread growth of game • private bowls clubs • first green in public park • split between professional and amateur game • improvements in greens • formation of county associations • WG Grace and his influence on the game • formation of English Bowling Association 1903 • Irish and Welsh Bowling Associations 1904 • Mackintosh Institute, Cardiff • Hastings • boom for lawn mower manufacturers • launch of The Bowling World 1914 • spread of park and seaside greens • women and bowls • Thomas Mawson garden designs include greens • pub greens • British Crown Green Bowling Association formed 1907 • Talbot Bowling Handicap • Blackpool spiritual home of crown green • All England at Fleetwood • Blackburn Subscription • Cannock • Carlisle Subscription • North London • The Waterloo, Blackpool • The Panel • Old English Bowls •


Chapter 9: Britain 1918-1939 – nationwide surge in municipal greens • company sports clubs • first ladies open tournament • formation English Women's Bowling Association 1931 • seaside greens to boost visitors • Ramsgate • Great Yarmouth • Rhyl • Ilfracombe • Dover • Newmarket Avenue • Spencer Park, Coventry • Acton Park, London • Cambridge Square Gardens, Southend • Langdale, Elterwater • Cardiff Athletic • Llay Institute, Wrexham • Co-operative, Alloa • Patons & Baldwin, Alloa • Reformed Pubs, Birmingham • Carlisle State Management Scheme • Paddington Sports Club • Roving cot • Norfolk, Norwich •


Chapter 10: Indoor bowling – beginnings in Glasow 1849 • experiments with carpet and sawdust • 1899 first indoor club formed Edinburgh • Crystal Palace Indoor formed 1905 • Glasgow Indoor Greens 1913 • Sully Athletic, first Welsh indoor 1922 • 1930s first purpose-built indoor facilities built • winter bowls on covered swimming pools • Temple, Herne Hill • Cambridge & County • Paddington Sports Club • Crystal Palace new home 1937 • Ayr Indoor • Croydon •


Chapter 11: Britain 1945-1990 – post-war peak in popularity • flat green overtaking crown • core sport in Commonwealth Games • English Bowling Federation formed 1945 • News of the World Challenge, Paddington • Worthing centre for EBA tournaments • crown green boost with women playing • British Crown Green Ladies Association formed 1979 • breweries and bowls • growth of wheelchair bowls • British Wheelchair Bowls Association formed 1982 • Skegness seaside bowls festival inaugurated 1957 • Crown green annual tournament Isle of Man • Home Internationals, Mortlake • EBA and World Championships, Worthing • move to composite bowls • last craftsmen working with lignum vitae • 1960s & 70s bowls pavilions • 400th anniversary Armada and Drake at Plymouth •


Chapter 12: Bowls today – protection of greens as Assets of Community Value • support from MPs • numbers of clubs declining • closure of park greens • loss of pub greens • need to recruit young people • community support • Summerhill, Newcastle • Gloucester City and Gloucester Spa • artificial outdoor greens • Chester sheltered housing and green • Royal Leamington Spa • Boxford & District, Suffolk • Hadleigh, Suffolk • Heaton Park, Manchester • Balornock, Glasgow • Hillsborough Park, Sheffield • Penrith Castle • future of bowls • growth of girls and women bowlers • disabled bowlers • visually impaired bowlers • 'barefoot bowls' • encouragement of crown green atmosphere • 2014 Commonwealth Games, Glasgow •


Chapter 13: Conclusions - promoting bowls as a heritage sport • protecting historic bowls buildings • protecting bowling greens • conserving club archives and trophies • William Mitchell commemoration • create a national inventory of pub greens •