Bowled over-the changing world of lawn bowls

2005/170/1-2 Photographic print, Junee Ex-Services Memorial Club, paper, photographed by Max Dupain for Max Dupain and Associates, New South Wales, Australia, 1961
Photographic print, Junee Ex-Services Memorial Club, paper, photographed by Max Dupain for Max Dupain and Associates, New South Wales, Australia, 1961.  Collection: Powerhouse Museum

Lawn bowls is one of Australia’s most popular sports, It has seen several transformations in its history. Beginning as an occasional public house sport, it was a leisure activity for the male elite in the nineteenth century, then a mass sport for men and women after the Second World War and now appeals to a much younger age group.

A player quoted in 1937 acknowledged it was no longer a game for old or rich men but frequently regarded as the most democratic game. “For it knows no social distinction. Jack is as good as his master and probably a bit better on the green.” 1.

Competition has long been an important element of lawn bowls, with inter-colonial competitions starting in 1880 and test matches against Britain in 1901. In the 1920s a number of bowlers sought to build acceptance as a ‘serious’ sport. Uniforms, standard rules of play and green behaviour were introduced around Australia. Local and national competition award winners with pennants, badges and more permanent symbols like honour boards and trophies. International competition provides Australia with world champions. Professional bowlers with television coverage and corporate sponsorship have brought change.

Playing the game has only been one aspect of Australian lawn bowls. The clubs have been diverse organisations providing a number of important social functions.The bowling green has flourished in Australia, fulfilling the role of a local, licensed, community club, depicted in Australian films like CrackerJack and The Road to Nihil.

Image of Rose Bay Bowling club , beofre its demolition in 2008. Image by Jean- François Lanzarone., Collection: Powerhouse Museum.
Image of Rose Bay Bowling club , beofre its demolition in 2008. Image by Jean- François Lanzarone., Collection: Powerhouse Museum.

The different demands for land in urban Sydney and sometimes country towns has put pressure on the valuable land the bowling greens occupy. The Museum has acquired material from the Rose Bay Bowling Club, now closed.

The changing nature in leisure activities this has meant that over the past few decades bowls associations have developed strategies to change the image of the game, aiming to attract more players. Leading to a relaxation in rigid dress code and changes in lawn bowls, and the growth of barefoot bowling as a leisure activity.

Rose Bay Bowling Club bowls, one with the Star of David. Image by Jean-  François Lanzarone, 2008. Collection : Powerhouse Museum
Rose Bay Bowling Club bowls, one with the Star of David. Image by Jean- François Lanzarone, 2008. Collection : Powerhouse Museum

Bowls of the nineteenth century were made from a hard wood. In 1930 an Australian Raymond W. Hensell developed plastic bowls made in parts. Whole moulded bowls were then developed in 1937 by his Australian company Henselite. A new, improved plastic powder compound was used in the bowls in 1959 which allowed the development of a dimple or gripped bowl. Ninety percent of Henselite bowls now contain the dimpled or grip feature. The company made its three millionth ball in 1988 and now manufactures lawn bowls in red, green, blue and burgundy.

Written by Anni Turnbull, curator

1 Hawker, ‘Bowls in New South Wales’, 21 September 1937,p2

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