1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Bowls

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BOWLS, the oldest British outdoor pastime, next to archery, still in vogue. It has been traced certainly to the 13th, and conjecturally to the 12th century. William Fitzstephen (d. about 1190), in his biography of Thomas Becket, gives a graphic sketch of the London of his day and, writing History.of the summer amusements of the young men, says that on holidays they were “exercised in Leaping, Shooting. Wrestling, Casting of Stones [in jactu lapidum], and Throwing of Javelins fitted with Loops for the Purpose, which they strive to fling before the Mark; they also use Bucklers, like fighting Men.” It is commonly supposed that by jactus lapidum Fitzstephen meant the game of bowls, but though it is possible that round stones may sometimes have been employed in an early variety of the game-and there is a record of iron bowls being used, though at a much later date, on festive occasions at Nairn,—nevertheless the inference seems unwarranted. The jactus lapidum of which he speaks was probably more akin to the modern “putting the weight,” once even called “putting the stone.” It is beyond dispute, however, that the game, at any rate in a rudimentary form, was played in the 13th century. A MS. of that period in the royal library, Windsor (No. 20, E iv.), contains a drawing representing two players aiming at a small cone instead of an earthenware ball or jack. Another MS. of the same century has a picture—crude, but spirited—which brings us into close touch with the existing game. Three figures are introduced and a jack. The first player’s bowl has come to rest just in front of the jack; the second has delivered his bowl and is following after it with one of those eccentric contortions still not unusual on modern greens, the first player meanwhile making a repressive gesture with his hand, as if to urge the bowl to stop short of his own; the third player is depicted as in the act of delivering his bowl. A 14th-century MS. Book of Prayers in the Francis Douce collection in the Bodleian library at Oxford contains a drawing in which two persons are shown, but they bowl to no mark. Strutt (Sports and Pastimes) suggests that the first player’s bowl may have been regarded by the second player as a species of jack; but in that case it is not clear what was the first player’s target. In these three earliest illustrations of the pastime it is worth noting that each player has one bowl only, and that the attitude in delivering it was as various five or six hundred years ago as it is to-day. In the third he stands almost upright; in the first he kneels; in the second he stoops, halfway between the upright and the kneeling position.

As the game grew in popularity it came under the ban of king and parliament, both fearing it might jeopardize the practice of archery, then so important in battle; and statutes forbidding it and other sports were enacted in the reigns of Edward III., Richard II. and other monarchs. Even when, on the invention of gunpowder and firearms, the bow had fallen into disuse as a weapon of war, the prohibition was continued. The discredit attaching to bowling alleys, first established in London in 1455, probably encouraged subsequent repressive legislation, for many of the alleys were connected with taverns frequented by the dissolute and gamesters. The word “bowls” occurs for the first time in the statute of 1511 in which Henry VIII. confirmed previous enactments against unlawful games. By a further act of 1541—which was not repealed until 1845—artificers, labourers, apprentices, servants and the like were forbidden to play bowls at any time save Christmas, and then only in their master’s house and presence. It was further enjoined that any one playing bowls outside of his own garden or orchard was liable to a penalty of 6s. 8d., while those possessed of lands of the yearly value of £100 might obtain licences to play on their own private greens. But though the same statute absolutely prohibited bowling alleys, Henry VIII. had them constructed for his own pleasure at Whitehall Palace, and was wont to back himself when he played. In Mary’s reign (1555) the licences were withdrawn, the queen or her advisers deeming the game an excuse for “unlawful assemblies, conventicles, seditions and conspiracies.” The scandals of the bowling alleys grew rampant in Elizabethan London, and Stephen Gosson in his School of Abuse (1579) says, “Common bowling alleys are privy moths that eat up the credit of many idle citizens; whose gains at home are not able to weigh down their losses abroad; whose shops are so far from maintaining their play, that their wives and children cry out for bread, and go to bed supperless often in the year.”

Biased bowls were introduced in the 16th century. “A little altering of the one side,” says Robert Recorde, the mathematician, in his Castle of Knowledge (1556), “maketh the bowl to run biasse waies.” And Shakespeare (Richard II., Act. III. Sc. 4) causes the queen to remonstrate, in reply to her lady’s suggestion of a game at bowls to relieve her ennui, “ ’Twill make me think the world is full of rubs, and that my fortune runs against the bias.” This passage is interesting also as showing that women were accustomed to play the game in those days. It is pleasant to think that there is foundation for the familiar story of Sir Francis Drake playing bowls on Plymouth Hoe as the Armada was beating up Channel, and finishing his game before tackling the Spaniards. Bowls, at that date, was looked upon as a legitimate amusement for Sundays,—as, indeed, were many other sports. When John Knox visited Calvin at Geneva one Sunday, it is said that he discovered him engaged in a game; and John Aylmer (1521–1594), though bishop of London, enjoyed a game of a Sunday afternoon, but used such language “as justly exposed his character to reproach.” The pastime found favour with the Stuarts. In the Book of Sports (1618), James I. recommended a moderate indulgence to his son, Prince Henry, and Charles I. was an enthusiastic bowler, unfortunately encouraging by example wagering and playing for high stakes, habits that ultimately brought the green into as general disrepute as the alley. It is recorded that the king occasionally visited Richard Shute, a Turkey merchant who owned a beautiful green at Barking Hall, and that after one bout his losses were £1000. He was permitted to play his favourite game to beguile the tedium of his captivity. The signboard of a wayside inn near Goring Heath in Oxfordshire long bore a portrait of the king with couplets reciting how his majesty “drank from the bowl, and bowl’d for what he drank.” During his stay at the Northamptonshire village of Holdenby or Holmby—where Sir Thomas Herbert complains the green was not well kept—Charles frequently rode over to Lord Vaux’s place at Harrowden, or to Lord Spencer’s at Althorp, for a game, and, according to one account, was actually playing on the latter green when Cornet Joyce came to Holmby to remove him to other quarters. During this period gambling had become a mania. John Aubrey, the antiquary, chronicles that the sisters of Sir John Suckling, the courtier-poet, once went to the bowling-green in Piccadilly, crying, “for fear he should lose all their portions.” If the Puritans regarded bowls with no friendly eye, as Lord Macaulay asserts, one can hardly wonder at it. But even the Puritans could not suppress betting. So eminently respectable a person as John Evelyn thought no harm in bowling for stakes, and once played at the Durdans, near Epsom, for £10, winning match and money, as he triumphantly notes in his Diary for the 14th of August 1657. Samuel Pepys repeatedly mentions finding great people “at bowles.” But in time the excesses attending the game rendered it unfashionable, and after the Revolution it became practically a pothouse recreation, nearly all the greens, like the alleys, having been constructed in the grounds and gardens attached to taverns.

After a long interval salvation came from Scotland, somewhat unexpectedly, because although, along with its winter analogue of curling, bowls may now be considered, much more than golf, the Scottish national game, it was not until well into the 19th century that the pastime acquired popularity in that country. It had been known in Scotland since the close of the 16th century (the Glasgow kirk session fulminated an edict against Sunday bowls in 1595), but greens were few and far between. There is record of a club in Haddington in 1709, of Tom Bicket’s green in Kilmarnock in 1740, of greens in Candleriggs and Gallowgate, Glasgow, and of one in Lanark in 1750, of greens in the grounds of Heriot’s hospital, Edinburgh, prior to 1768, and of one in Peebles in 1775. These are, of course, mere infants compared with the Southampton Town Bowling Club, founded in 1299, which still uses the green on which it has played for centuries and possesses the quaint custom of describing its master, or president, as “sir,” and are younger even than the Newcastle-on-Tyne club established in 1657. But the earlier clubs did nothing towards organizing the game. In 1848 and 1849, however, when many clubs had come into existence in the west and south of Scotland (the Willowbank, dating from 1816, is the oldest club in Glasgow), meetings were held in Glasgow for the purpose of promoting a national association. This was regarded, by many, as impracticable, but a decision of final importance was reached when a consultative committee was appointed to draft a uniform code of laws to govern the game. This body delegated its functions to its secretary, W. W. Mitchell (1803–1884), who prepared a code that was immediately adopted in Scotland as the standard laws. It was in this sense that Scottish bowlers saved the game. They were, besides, pioneers in laying down level greens of superlative excellence. Not satisfied with seed-sown grass or meadow turf, they experimented with seaside turf and found it answer admirably. The 13th earl of Eglinton also set an example of active interest which many magnates emulated. Himself a keen bowler, he offered for competition, in 1854, a silver bowl and, in 1857, a gold bowl and the Eglinton Cup, all to be played for annually. These trophies excited healthy rivalry in Ayrshire and Lanarkshire, and the enthusiasm as well as the skill with which the game was conducted in Scotland at length proved contagious. Clubs in England began to consider the question of legislation, and to improve their greens. Moreover, Scottish emigrants introduced the game wherever they went, and colonists in Australia and New Zealand established many clubs which, in the main, adopted Mitchell’s laws; while clubs were also started in Canada and in the United States, in South Africa, India (Calcutta, Karachi), Japan (Kobe, Yokohama, Kumamoto) and Hong-Kong. In Ireland the game took root very gradually, but in Ulster, owing doubtless to constant intercourse with Scotland, such clubs as have been founded are strong in numbers and play.

On the European continent the game can scarcely be said to be played on scientific principles. It has existed in France since the 17th century. When John Evelyn was in Paris in 1644 he saw it played in the gardens of the Luxembourg Palace. In the south of France it is rather popular with artisans, who, however, are content to pursue it on any flat surface and use round instead of biased bowls, the bowler, moreover, indulging in a preliminary run before delivering the bowl, after the fashion of a bowler in cricket. A rude variety of the game occurs in Italy, and, as we have seen, John Calvin played it in Geneva, where John Evelyn also noticed it in 1646. There is evidence of its vogue in Holland in the 17th century, for the painting by David Teniers (1610–1690), in the Scottish National Gallery at Edinburgh, is wrongly described as “Peasants playing at Skittles.” In this picture three men are represented as having played a bowl, while the fourth is in the act of delivering his bowl. The game is obviously bowls, the sole difference being that an upright peg, about 4 in. high, is employed instead of a jack,—recalling, in this respect, the old English form of the game already mentioned.

Serious efforts to organize the game were made in the last quarter of the 19th century, but this time the lead came from Australia. The Bowling Associations of Victoria and New South Wales were established in 1880, and it was not until 1892 that the Scottish Bowling Association was founded. Then in rapid succession came several independent bodies—the Midland Counties (1895), the London and Southern Counties (1896), the Imperial (1899), the English (1903) and the Irish and Welsh (1904). These institutions were concerned with the task of regularizing the game within the territories indicated by their titles, but it soon appeared that the multiplicity of associations was likely to prove a hindrance rather than a help, and with a view, therefore, to reducing the number of clashing jurisdictions and bringing about the establishment of a single legislative authority, the Imperial amalgamated with the English B.A. in 1905. The visits to the United Kingdom of properly organized teams of bowlers from Australia and New Zealand in 1901 and from Canada in 1904 demonstrated that the game had gained enormously in popularity. The former visit was commemorated by the institution of the Australia Cup, presented to the Imperial Bowling Association (and now the property of the English B.A.) by Mr Charles Wood, president of the Victorian Bowling Association. An accredited team of bowlers from the mother country visited Canada in 1906, and was accorded a royal welcome. Perhaps the most interesting proof that bowls is a true Volksspiel is to be found in the fact that it has become municipalized. In Edinburgh, Glasgow, and elsewhere in Scotland, and in London (through the county council), Newcastle and other English towns, the corporations have laid down greens in public parks and open spaces. In Scotland the public greens are self-supporting, from a charge, which includes the use of bowls, of one penny an hour for each player; in London the upkeep of the greens falls on the rates, but players must provide their own bowls.

There are two kinds of bowling green, the level and the crown. The crown has a fall which may amount to as much as 18 in. all round from the centre to the sides. This type of green is confined almost wholly to certain of the northern and midland counties of England, where it is popular for The game. single-handed, gate-money contests. But although the crown-green game is of a sporting character, it necessitates the use of bowls of narrow bias and affords but limited scope for the display of skill and science. It is the game on the perfectly level green that constitutes the historical game of bowls. Subject to the rule as to the shortest distance to which the jack must be thrown (25 yds.), there is no prescribed size for the lawn; but 42 yds. square forms an ideal green. The Queen’s Park and Titwood clubs in Glasgow have each three greens, and as they can quite comfortably play six rinks on each, it is not uncommon to see 144 players making their game simultaneously. An undersized lawn is really a poor pitch, because it involves playing from corner to corner instead of up and down—the orthodox direction. For the scientific construction of a green, the whole ground must be excavated to a depth of 18 in. or so, and thoroughly drained, and layers of different materials (gravel, cinders, moulds, silver-sand) laid down before the final covering of turf, 21/2 or 3 in. thick. Seaside turf is the best. It wears longest and keeps its “spring” to the last. Surrounding the green is a space called a ditch, which is nearly but not quite on a level with the green and slopes gently away from it, the side next the turf being lined with boarding, the ditch itself bottomed with wooden spars resting on the foundation. Beyond the ditch are banks generally laid with turf. A green is divided into spaces usually from 18 to 21 ft. in width, commonly styled “rinks”—a word which also designates each set of players—and these are numbered in sequence on a plate fixed in the bank at each end opposite the centre of the space. The end ditch within the limits of the space is, according to Scottish laws, regarded as part of the green, a regulation which prejudices the general acceptance of those laws. In match play each space is further marked off from its neighbour by thin string securely fastened flush with the turf.

Every player uses four lignum vitae bowls in single-handed games and (as a rule) in friendly games, but only two in matches. Every bowl must have a certain amount of bias, which was formerly obtained by loading one side with lead, but is now imparted by the turner making one side more convex than the other, the bulge showing the side of the bias. No bowl must have less than No. 3 bias—that is, it should draw about 6 ft. to a 30 yd. jack on a first-rate green: it follows that on an inferior green the bowler, though using the same bowl, would have to allow for a narrower draw. It is also a rule that the diameter of the bowl shall not be less than 41/2 in. nor more than 51/4 in., and that its weight must not exceed 31/2 ℔ The jack or kitty, as the white earthenware ball to which the bowler bowls is called, is round and 21/2 to 23/4 in. in diameter. On crown-greens it is customary to use a small biased wooden jack to give the bowler some clue to the run of the green. The bowler delivers his bowl with one foot on a mat or footer, made of india-rubber or cocoa-nut fibre, the size of which is also prescribed by rule as 24 by 16 in., though, with a view to protecting the green, Australasian clubs employ a much larger size, and require the bowler to keep both feet on the mat in the act of delivery.

In theory the game of bowls is very simple, the aim of the player being to roll his bowl so as to cause it to rest nearer to the jack than his opponent’s, or to protect a well-placed bowl, or to dislodge a better bowl than his own. But in practice there is every opportunity for skill. On all good greens the game is played in rinks of four a side, there being, however, on the part of many English clubs still an adherence to the old-fashioned method of two and three a side rinks. Ordinarily a match team consists of four rinks of four players each, or sixteen men in all. The four players in a rink are known as the leader, second player, third player and skip (or driver, captain or director), and their positions, at least in matches, are unchangeable. Great responsibility is thus thrown on the skip in the choice of his players, who are selected for well-defined reasons. The leader has to place the mat, to throw the jack, to count the game, and to call the result of each end or head to the skip who is at the other end of the green. He is picked for his skill in playing to the jack. It is, therefore, his business to “be up.” There is no excuse for short play on his part, and his bowls would be better off the green than obstructing the path of subsequent bowls. So he will endeavour to be “on the jack,” the ideal position being a bowl at rest immediately in front of or behind it. The skip plays last, and directs his men from the end that is being played to. The weakest player in the four is invariably played in the second place (the “soft second”). Most frequently he will be required either to protect a good bowl or to rectify a possible error of the leader. His official duty is to mark the game on the scoring card when the leader announces the result. He keeps a record of the play of both sides. The third player, who does any measuring that may be necessary to determine which bowl or bowls may be nearest the jack, holds almost as responsible a position as the captain, whose place, in fact, he takes whenever the skip is temporarily absent. The duties of the skip will already be understood by inference. Before he leaves the jack to play, he must observe the situation of the bowls of both sides. It may be that he has to draw a shot with the utmost nicety to save the end, or even the match, or to lay a cunningly contrived block, or to “fire”—that is, to deliver his bowl almost dead straight at the object, with enough force to kill the bias for the moment. The score having been counted, the leader then places the mat, usually within a yard of the spot where the jack lay at the conclusion of the head, and throws the jack in the opposite direction for a fresh end. On small greens play, for obvious reasons, generally takes place from each ditch. The players play in couples—the first on both sides, then the second and so on. The leader having played his first bowl, the opposing leader will play his first and so on. As a rule, a match consists of 21 points, or 21 ends (or a few more, by agreement).

EB1911 Bowls (sport).jpg Fig. 1.—Drawing. Fig. 2.—Guarding. Fig. 3.—Trailing. Fig. 4.—Driving.
(In every case F is the Footer, B the Bowl, J the Jack.)

Certain points in the play call for notice. In throwing the jack, the leader is bound to throw (i.e. roll) a legal jack. A legal jack must travel at least 25 yds. from the footer and not come to rest within 2 yds. of either side boundary; but it may be thrown as far beyond this as the leader chooses, provided that it does not run within 2 yds. of the end ditch or either side boundary. In English practice the leader is entitled to a second throw if he fail to roll a legal jack at his first attempt; should he fail again, the right to throw passes to his opponent, but not the right of playing first. On Scottish greens the leader has only a single throw. A legal jack should not be interfered with except by the course of play. Should the jack be driven towards the side boundary, it is legitimate for a player to cause his bowl to draw outside of the dividing string, provided that when it has ceased running it shall have come to rest entirely within his own space. If it stop on the string, or outside of it, the bowl is “dead” and must be removed to the bank. A “toucher” bowl is a characteristic of the Scottish game to which great exception is taken by many English clubs. Should a bowl running jackwards touch the jack, however slightly, it is called a toucher and must be marked by the skip with a chalk cross as soon as it is at rest. Such a bowl is alive until the end is finished wherever it may lie, within the limits of the space. Even if it run into the ditch or be driven in by another bowl, it will yet count as alive. A bowl, however, that is forced on to the jack by another is not a toucher. The feat of hitting the jack is so common that it really calls for no special reward. Difference of opinion prevails as to the condition of the jack after it has been driven into the ditch. According to Scottish rules, unless it has been forced clean out of bounds, such a jack is still alive. On most English greens it is a “dead” jack and the end void. Every bowler should learn both forehand and backhand play. In forehand play the bowl as it courses to the jack describes its segment of a circle on the right, in backhand play on the left. In both styles the biased side must always be the inner.

In the United Kingdom the regular bowling season extends from May day till the end of September or the middle of October. At its close the green must be carefully examined, weeds uprooted, worn patches re-turfed, and the whole laid under a winter blanket of silver-sand.

On Scottish greens the game of points is frequently played, but it is rarely seen on English greens. Its main object is to perfect the proficiency of players in certain departments of bowls proper. There are four sections in the game, namely, drawing, guarding, trailing and driving. In drawing (fig. 1), the object is to draw as near as possible to the jack, the player’s bowl passing outside of two other bowls placed 5 ft. apart in a horizontal line 15 ft. from the jack, without touching either of them. Three points are scored if the bowl come to rest within 1 ft. of the jack, two points if within 2 ft., and one point if within 3 ft. Circles of these radii are usually marked around the jack for convenience sake. In guarding (fig. 2), two jacks are laid at the far end of the green 12 ft. apart in a vertical line. A thread is then pinned down between them, and on each side of this thread three others are pinned down parallel with it and 6 in. apart from each other. A bowl that comes to rest on the central line, or within 6 in. of it, counts three points, a bowl 12 in. away two points, and a bowl 18 in. off one point. In trailing (fig. 3), two bowls are laid on the turf 3 ft. apart, and straight lines are chalked from bowl to bowl across their back and front faces, and a jack is then deposited equidistant from each bowl and immediately before the front line. A semicircle is then drawn behind the bowls with a radius of 9 ft. from the jack. Three points are given to the bowl that trails the jack over both lines into the semicircle and goes over them itself. If a bowl trail the jack over both lines, but only itself cross the first; or if it pass both lines, but the jack cross only the first, two points are awarded. A bowl passing between the jack and either of the stationary bowls, and passing over the back line; or touching the jack, yet not trailing it past the first line, but itself crossing the back line; or trailing the jack over the front line without crossing it itself, receives one point. In no case must the stationary bowls be touched, or the semicircle crossed by the trailed jack or played bowls. In driving (fig. 4), two bowls are laid down 2 ft. apart, and then a jack is placed in front of them, 15 in. apart from each, and occupying the position of the apex of an inverted pyramid. The player who drives the jack into the ditch between the two bowls scores three. If he moves the jack, but does not carry it through to the ditch, he scores two. If he pass between the jack and either bowl he scores one, although it is not easy to see what driving he has done. The played bowl must itself run into the ditch without touching either of the stationary bowls. It is obvious that the points game demands an ideally perfect green.

See W. W. Mitchell, Manual of Bowl-playing (Glasgow, 1880); Laws of the Game issued by the Scottish B.A. (1893, et sqq.); H. J. Dingley, Touchers and Rubs (Glasgow, 1893); Sam Aylwin, The Gentle Art of Bowling, with 26 diagrams (London, 1904); James A. Manson, The Bowler’s Handbook (London, 1906).  (J. A. M.)