History of the Game
Bowls is a variant of the Boules games (Italian Bocce), which, in their general form, are of ancient or prehistoric origin. Ancient Greek variants are recorded that involved throwing light objects (such as flat stones, coins, or later also stone balls) as far as possible. The aspect of tossing the balls to approach a target as closely as possible is recorded in ancient Rome. This game was spread to Roman Gaul by soldiers or sailors. A Roman sepulchre in Florence shows people playing this game, stooping down to measure the points.
Bowls in England has been traced certainly to the 13th century, 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 of the summer amusements of 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 refers to an early variety of bowls, possibly played using round stone; there is a record of iron bowls being used, though at a much later date, on festive occasions at Nairn. On the other hand, the jactus lapidum of which he speaks may have been more akin to shot put!
It is clear, at any rate, that a rudimentary form of the game was played in England in the 13th century. A manuscript of that period in the royal library, Windsor Castle, contains a drawing representing two players aiming at a small cone instead of an earthenware ball or jack. The world's oldest surviving bowling green is the Southampton Old Bowling Green, which was first used in 1299.
Another manuscript of the same century has a crude but spirited picture 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 manuscript, Book of Prayers, 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 today. 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.
The game eventually came under the ban of king and parliament, both fearing it might jeopardise the practice of archery, then so important in battle. 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.
Erasmus referred to the game as globurum. The name of bowls is implied in the gerund bowlyn, recorded in the mid-15th century. The term bowl for "wooden ball" is recorded in the early 1400s. The name is explicitly mentioned, as bowles, in a list of unlawful games in a 1495 act by Henry VII (these were Tenys, Closshe, Dise, Cardes, and Bowles). It occurs again in a similar statute by Henry VIII. 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 except Christmas, and then only in their master's house and presence. It was further enjoined that any one playing bowls outside his own garden or orchard was liable to a penalty of 6s. 8d.(6 shillings and 8 pence), while those possessed of lands of the yearly value of £100 might obtain licences to play on their own private greens.
In 1864, William Wallace Mitchell, a Glasgow Cotton Merchant, published his "Manual of Bowls Playing" following his work as the secretary of his club, formed in 1849 by Scottish bowling clubs, which became the basis of the rules of the modern game. Young Mitchell was only 11 years old when he played on Kilmarnock bowling green, the oldest club in Scotland, instituted in 1740.
The patenting of the first lawn mower in 1830, in Britain, is strongly believed to have been the catalyst for the worldwide preparation of modern-style greens, sporting ovals, playing fields, pitches, grass courts etc. This, in turn, led to the codification of modern rules for many sports, including lawn bowls, most football codes, lawn tennis and others.
National Bowling Associations were established in the late 1800s. In the then Victorian Colony (now the state of Victoria, Australia), the (Royal) Victorian Bowling Association was formed in 1880. The Scottish Bowling Association was established in 1892, although there had been a failed attempt in 1848 by 200 Scottish clubs.
Today, bowls is played in over 40 countries with more than 50 member national authorities. The home of the modern game is still Scotland with the World Bowls Centre in Edinburgh at Caledonia House.