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Recreation For Persons Great and Common - Bowls and Skittles

Like everyone else, I have memories of my younger years. One of those memories is of, as a young US Navy sailor in the 1970s, I had little money and so, I sometimes had to get creative when on liberty in ports overseas. One method of stretching my money I remember using was going to the base bowling alley at the Naval Support Activity in Naples Italy to bowl a few games and drink a few beers to pass the afternoon.

While this style of bowling, more properly called ten-pin bowling, is the most recognized form of bowling today, there was another type of bowling that was popular long before modern ten-pin bowling – Boules or lawn bowling. One of the world’s oldest games, the list of players includes great thinkers such as Galileo and Leonardo di Vinci, rulers such as Caesar Augustus and Queen Elizabeth I, the noble Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Scott, the poet Robert Burns, and even America’s own George Washington.

Join us as we look at the history of bowling-type games and their popularity in both England, her colonies, and the early United States

The Evolution of Bowling Games

As with many “ancient” of “folk” games, the origin of the game of boules (a collective name for a wide range of games like bowls and bocce) is clouded. The earliest evidence of the game comes from a 5200 BC painting of two boys playing the game, which was discovered by an English scientist, Sir Francis Petrial, in an Egyptian tomb.

Carving of Egyptians Playing a Bowling Game
Carving of Egyptians Playing a Bowling Game

Boules spread throughout Palestine and into Asia Minor until, in 600 B.C., the game was picked up by the Greeks. One of the earliest recorded mentions of the game is in the works of Herodotus (484 BC – 425 BC), an ancient Greek historian and geographer from the Greek city of Halicarnassus, part of the Persian Empire. In his “Histories,” Herodotus makes it obvious that the Greeks were familiar with the game as well as giving us his understanding of its origin as he writes:

“In the reign of Atys, the son of Menes, all Lydia was reduced to the severest extremity by a scarcity of corn. Against this they contended for a considerable time, by patient and unremitted industry. This not proving effectual, they sought other resources, each one exerting his own genius. Upon this occasion they invented bowls and dice, with many other games.”

Greek colonists brought the game with them to what is now modern Italy and so the game was passed to the Romans where a variant known as bocce developed. Beginning with Emperor Augustus, bocce became the sport of statesmen and rulers. A Roman sepulcher in Florence shows people playing this game, stooping down to measure the points. As the Roman empire expanded, boules traveled with the Roman legions, sailors, and administrators, settling throughout the empire.

Carving of Roman Bocce
Carving of Roman Bocce

In the Middle Ages, Dutch philosopher and Catholic theologian Erasmus referred to the game as globurum in Latin, and it was played throughout Europe. In fact, it became so popular that, in the 14th century, Holy Roman Emperors Charles IV & V made laws to ban commoners from playing it, which lasted nearly 300 years until the 17th century as it was thought to take the commoners away from more important military practices such as archery.

Bowling in England and Scotland

The Hospital of "God's House" was founded in 1185 for pilgrims who were going either to the shrine of St Swithun at Winchester or to Canterbury. The green adjoining the God's House Hospital had been set up during the reign of Richard I the Lionheart (1189-1199 AD) for the recreational use of the Warden and was first used for a game of bowls in 1299. This green is today what is believed to be the world’s oldest surviving bowling green. The Chesterfield Bowling Club in Derbyshire is said to be the world’s oldest surviving bowling club, having been established in 1294.

14th Century Illustration of Playing at Bowls
14th Century Illustration of Playing at Bowls

The game became so popular in England that, just as in France it was prohibited by law because archery (essential to the national defense) was being neglected. King Edward III prohibited it in 1361. This was the start of the “unlawful games” genre lasting hundreds of years with Richard II in 1388, Edward IV in 1477 and Henry VII 1496 all ruling against the game for the common man. In 1541 Henry VIII imposed the “Inferior Persons” rule where, other than on Christmas day, the working classes were barred from bowling.

“Whereas every Nobleman and others having manors, land, tenements or yearly profits for life in his own or wives right to yearly value of £100 might play bowls without penalty”.

Sir Francis Drake Being Informed of the Spanish Armada While Playing at Bowls
Sir Francis Drake Being Informed of the Spanish Armada While Playing at Bowls

For this reason, the game of bowls became highly favored as a genteel pastime, and it became fashionable for the aristocracy (nobility and gentry) to have private bowling greens on their estates. Certainly, the most famous story in lawn bowls is about Sir Francis Drake and the Spanish Armada. On July 19, 1588, Drake was involved in a game at Plymouth, England when he was notified that the Spanish Armada had been sighted. The tale says his response was:

"There is plenty of time to win the game and thrash the Spaniards too."

He then went ahead and finished his match (losing) and then the British Navy proceeded to soundly defeat the Armada.

During the reign of Charles I, the most enthusiastic royal player at bowls, the game reached its highest favor among the gentry. Charles was known to play regularly at Barking Hall, in Essex, which was the home of Richard Shute, the M.P. for London. Shute’s bowling green was said to be one of the finest in the country and the King regularly came here to play for high stakes wagers. On one occasion, Charles’ losses amounted to £1,000, an exceptionally large sum at the time. Even during his “imprisonment by the Roundheads, he still played the game regularly. While a prisoner at Carisbrook Castle, the governor converted the barbican into “a bowling-green scarcely to be equaled and built, at one side, a pretty summer house.”

17th Century Gentlemen Playing Bowls
17th Century Gentlemen Playing Bowls

Not everyone was “enthralled” with boules in the latter part of the 17th century. The Puritans issued a wholesale denunciation of amusements such as, “rope-dancing, puppet shows, bowls, and horse-racing.” The tutor of Prince Charles (Later King Charles II), John Earle, Bishop of Worcester said that bowling was celebrated for three things wasted, “time, money, and curses.” The tutor’s feelings did not wear off on his charge since Charles II was also a lover of the pastime.

During the reign of Queen Anne, the game spread rapidly in the suburbs of London, with bowling-greens springing up in practically every district. Stow’s Survey of the Cities of London and Westminster reported that:

“the recreations of the citizens comprised, besides drinking, cock-fighting, bowling-greens, and others while the more common sort diverted themselves at football, wrestling, nine-pins, cricket, and quoits.”

The game, as played on the gentry’s bowling-greens differed greatly from that played in the “skittle alleys”, usually attached to taverns, which were blamed for most of the abuses which we find linked to the game in the 17th and 18th centuries. (Skittles was a variant of lawn bowling that we will discuss later in this article.) Perhaps the only thing that saved the reputation of bowls as a healthy and rational outdoor recreation was that it remained, throughout the eighteenth century, one of the fashionable games of the upper ranks of society.

Skittles Played in a Tavern Yard
Skittles Played in a Tavern Yard

Unlike in France and England, the game of Bowls was never suppressed in Scotland. Both James IV and James V were players at bowls but, the game, known as “trulis,” seems to have been looked upon as a childish pastime. In 1497, we find James IV playing at the “lang-bowles” (also called Dutch-rubbers) at St Andrews. This was a game, played in a narrow enclosure about twenty or thirty yards in length, and at the further end was placed a square frame with nine small pins upon it; the players bowled at these pins in succession, while a boy stationed at the frame set up the pins that were put down by the bowl, and returned the bowl to the player by means of a gradually inclined trough on one side of the enclosure. This was no doubt the origin of the more modern game of nine-pins.

This is not to say that the more traditional form of the game, played on the bowling-green, was not popular. A 1742 map of Edinburgh shows at least five bowling greens, three of them within a stone’s throw of each other.

The Game in America

Lawn bowling was introduced into the American colonies in the 1600s. Evidence shows the first occurrences of bowling may have been at the Jamestown Colony in Virginia where, in 1611, Sir Thomas Dale disapproved of the bowler’s language as they played in the streets of Jamestown. A bowling green was established in Boston in 1615 and in New Amsterdam (as New York was then called) in 1631, although the Dutch played the “Dutch Rubbers” or Skittles previously discussed. New York’s first public bowling-green was laid out in 1733. This was located at the Battery which John Drayton describes in 1793:

“The flag staff rises from the midst of a stone tower, and is decorated on the top with a golden ball: and the back part of the ground is laid out in smaller walks, terraces, and a bowling green.— Immediately behind this, and overlooking it, is the government house; built at the expence of the state.”

As early as the 1670s, tavern owners in New York provided bowls, ninepins, or skittles for their customers, resulting in the Common Council’s passage in 1676 of new Sabbath laws, which declared:

“all and Every Wine and Rum or Beare Sellas [beer sellers] who shall permitt any Person Upon the Sabbath day to Drinke or Game In their houses Gardens or Yards Shall for ye first offense forfeict five and Twenty Guildars.”

Dutch Skittles Players
Dutch Skittles Players

The construction of bowling greens occasionally extended to the frontier as demonstrated by the April 1764 description of Fort Pitt by Capt. Simeon Ecuyer where he writes:

“. . . the deer park, the little garden, and the bowling green, I am just now making into one garden, it will be extreamly [sic] pretty and very useful to this garrison, the King’s garden will be put in proper order.”

Bowling greens toward the end of the 18th century were commonly run at taverns, hotels, and public pleasure grounds as part of the growing competition for public entertainment. The Centre House Tavern at Centre Square in Philadelphia and Chatsworth Garden in Baltimore are two such examples. The flat, open space of a bowling green also made it ideal for other recreational purposes, such as a horse race held in Alexandria, Virginia, reported in the September 20, 1790, edition of the Virginia Gazette and Alexandria Advertiser reported as:

“THE VIRGINIA JOCKEY-CLUB RACES will commence at the Bowling Green on the second Tuesday in October next and will continue three days.”

Bowling greens were also constructed in private settings, where they combined ornament and recreation. Since there are so few private bowling greens documented in the 17th and early-18th centuries except on the plantations of those colonists who had substantial resources such as William Byrd II and William Middleton, it has been argued that genteel sports, such as lawn bowling, fencing, and riding helped to define the colonial social structure, particularly in the southern colonies. As the 18th century progressed, the practice of constructing bowling greens on the estates of the economic and political elites grew.

Col. George Braxton (1776-1781), describing his garden in King and Queen County, VA writes:

“I agreed with Alexander Oliver Gardener to make a Courtyard before my Door according to Art; and after the best manner I shall think proper, that is likewise to finish my falling Garden with a Bolling Green.”

View Looking Across the Mt. Vernon Bowling Green
View Looking Across the Mt. Vernon Bowling Green

George Washington, in his diary for September 30 & October 28, 1785, wrote of Mount Vernon:

[September 30] “Began again to Smooth the Face of the Lawn, or Bolling Green on the West front of my House—what I had done before the Rains, proving abortive. . .

[October 28] “Finished levelling and Sowing the lawn in front of the Ho[use] intended for a Bolling Green—as far as the Garden Houses.”

Apparently, the construction was successful, and plantings were continued since in June 1798, Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, described the lawn at George Washington’s Mount Vernon as:

“Two bowling greens, a circular one near the house, the other very large and irregular, form the courtyard in front of the house. All kinds of trees, bushes, flowering plants, ornament the two sides of the court. . . The path which runs all around the bowling green is planted with a thousand kind[s] of trees, plants and bushes; crowning them are two immense Spanish chestnuts that Gl. Wash planted himself.”

While some argue that the popularity of bowls died out following the American Revolution, we see it still regularly mentioned, and bowling greens being constructed, well into the mid-19th century.

In August 1825, J. Hemmings, describing Poplar Forest, the country retreat home of Thomas Jefferson in Bedford County, VA wrote:

“The Area of the Triangle made by the Wash-House, Stable & School-House is perfectly level, & designed for a bowling green, laid out in rectangular walks which are paved with Brick, & covered over with burnt Oyster-Shells.”

And in A Dictionary of Modern Gardening (1847) the author, George William Johnson, in speaking of terraces writes:

“In some cases, the terrace-walls may be so extended as to enclose ground sufficient for a level plot to be used as a bowling green. These are generally connected with one of the living-rooms, or the conservatory; and to the latter is frequently joined an aviary . . .”

Variations of the Game

Lawn Bowling - The game had simple rules. The game of bowls was played on a small green plot of ground, or any suitable piece of smooth and level turf, the dimensions varying, according to the ground available, but from 90 to 150 feet in length and 19 to 21 feet in width. A small white ball of earthenware, called the jack, was rolled onto the green to serve as a target. The jack must be rolled/thrown at least 25 yards down the plot. Players rolled their bowls in turn trying to place them close to the jack. Bowls were slightly flattened at their poles, so that they could not be rolled in a straight line. An opponent’s ball could be aimed at, knocking it out of its position close to the jack. A shot or point is scored for every bowl that rests closer to the jack than any of the opponent’s bowls once all bowls have been delivered.

Late-18th/Early-19th Century Skittles Play
Late-18th/Early-19th Century Skittles Play

Skittles - also known as Nine Pins, Kegelen, Dutch Pins, 4 Corners, Rolly Polly, Closh, Loggats, Kayles, Quilles, Kubb, Aunt Sally. Most forms of Skittles feature projectiles being propelled from one end of an alley to knock down nine pins standing in a square at the other end. That is about all that many of the games do have in common. Over the years, Skittles developed regional variations in skittle size and shape, skittle alley length, use of a kingpin, size and shape of the balls/cheeses and the rules began to vary quite radically through time & place.

At least one 14th century manuscript depicts a skittles game in which one skittle is bigger, differently shaped, and in most cases positioned to be the most difficult to knock over. The throwers, in the pictures, are about to launch a long club-like object at the skittles using an underarm throw.

14th Century Illustration Showing Underarm Throw.
14th Century Illustration Showing Underarm Throw.

Irish Skittles is a unique traditional 5 pin game. The pins are stood on a circle with one in the middle and are aimed at with 4 batons. To score, you must not only knock the pin over but must knock it out of the circle.

Thank you for joining us for today’s post exploring the game of Bowls (bowling). Hopefully, this article has given you an urge to try out this somewhat forgotten sport. Please join us again for our next post exploring colonial and early American patriotic celebrations. Following that, the writers and editors of this site are going to take a few weeks off before resuming our posts in mid-August.

While you are here, on our website, we would also encourage you to join our blog community (Look for the button in the upper right-hand corner of this post). This will allow us to inform you when we post new articles. We also suggest that you return to our blog home page and sample our other articles on a wide variety of late-18th and early-19th century subjects; both military and civilian.

Finally, if you live in Virginia, Maryland, or North Carolina, we invite you to visit The Norfolk Towne Assembly’s home page to learn more about us, what we do, and how you can get involved in our historic dance, public education, and living history efforts.


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