Bowls has a long, rich history dating back thousands of years, with many twists and turns along the way – for one thing, did you know that playing it was once illegal?
At Bowlr, we’re passionate about bowls and the people who play it. Read on for our comprehensive guide to the history of bowls, from the game’s ancient origins to its modern-day evolution!
The roots of lawn bowls can be traced all the way back to ancient Egypt, over 5,000 years ago.
According to archaeological findings, a game using stone balls was played in Egypt around 3200 BC. The Egyptian version involved using sticks as targets and playing on dirt instead of grass.
Moving forward to ancient Greece, a variation of the game involved throwing light objects such as flat stones, coins, or stones as far as possible. Ancient Rome's version was much closer to the modern understanding of lawn bowls, where players aimed to toss balls closer to a target than their opponents. It is believed that the Romans brought this version of the game to the rest of Europe, with several countries creating their own adaptations, including France's boules and Great Britain's lawn bowls.
A rudimentary form of bowls can be traced back to the 13th century in England. The world's oldest surviving bowling green is the Southampton Old Bowling Green, first used in 1299.
The game faced bans from both the king and parliament due to fears that it could distract from archery, which was critical in battle. Statutes were enacted by monarchs such as Edward III and Richard II to prohibit it and other sports from being played by the lower classes. Even when the advent of firearms made archery obsolete in battle, the ban remained in place. The disreputable reputation of 15th century London bowling alleys, which were often associated with taverns and gambling, likely contributed to the continued restrictive legislation. Although the severity of the bans decreased over time, it wasn't until 1845 that all prohibitions were lifted.
In 1830, bowls took a massive leap forward thanks to Edwin Beard Budding's invention of the lawnmower. This innovation made it possible to prepare and maintain greens to a much higher standard, allowing for a game that's very similar to the one we know and love today.
In 1864, William Wallace Mitchell, a Glasgow cotton merchant, published the "Manual of Bowls Playing". This would become the foundation for the rules of the modern game.
National Bowling Associations began to form in the late 1800s. In the Victorian Colony (now the state of Victoria, Australia), the (Royal) Victorian Bowling Association was established in 1880. The Scottish Bowling Association was founded in 1892, while the English Bowling Association was founded in 1903. In 2008, the English Bowling Association and English Women’s Bowling Association would merge to become Bowls England, the current governing body for outdoor bowls in England.
Bowls is one of the Commonwealth Games’ "core sports", featured at every event since its creation in 1930 (except for the 1966 Games). England has been the dominant force so far, taking home an impressive 51 medals to date.
Bowls has evolved a lot since its ancient origins, and it’s now enjoyed by people of all ages and backgrounds. It’s played in over 40 countries and has more than 50 member national authorities, with various global competitions held every year. Thanks to its straightforward rules and relaxed nature, it remains a popular sport for people all around the world.
If you’re as passionate about bowls as we are, you want to help spread the game’s popularity as far as possible - and that’s exactly what we’re working to do.
Our club membership and league management software is bringing the game into the 21st century (and beyond!). Designed for both indoor and outdoor bowls clubs, it streamlines bookings, membership administration, fee payments, league results, and reports, making running and joining a bowls club easier than ever.
If you’re an owner looking to modernise the way your club is run, you’re in the right place. Chat with us today and find out how our systems can transform the way you run your club for good, just like we’ve done for over 100 clubs across the UK.