Epsom Bowling Club bares all-First published 2019

December 6, 2021

There’s a number of ‘famous’ fences in New Zealand.
The fence that the late Paul Holmes railed about blocking Aucklanders from their harbour … the bra fence at Cardrona (Kiwis habitually adorn fences with jandals, hubcaps, even toothbrushes!) … the predator fences enclosing mainland eco-sanctuaries like Zealandia … the white picket fence surrounding the Basin Reserve … and until recently, the 6-foot green corrugated iron fence segregating the Epsom Bowling Club in The Drive in Auckland from public gaze.

The club fence was not-so-kindly known as ‘the holding pen to heaven’. It was a fence that many commuters passed on the way to the airport. It had been there for over 70 years – well before the war. And it was only the many coats of paint that held the remaining iron and rust together. No one particularly knows – but it was probably put up by a number of bowling club working bees. After all, the ability to build fences was presumed to be an essential life skill in the day.

The fence recently came down. “We had budgeted to spend $20,000 on a new fence,” says Club Treasurer Graeme Clisby, “but we found that the fence was also holding up the shelters. And for that matter, the shelters held up the fence. They all had to go.”

In the immediate aftermath, the club is without shelters. “We have plans to replace the shelters at a cost of about $1500 each,” says Graeme. “Hopefully we’ll have them by the start of the new season.”

The new 1.2 metre fence has opened the greens up to public view. There’s two artificial greens making Epsom one of the few clubs on the Isthmus where there are winter roll-ups every Thursday. “The club once had 4 greens,” says Graeme, “but one was sold off in 2001, and another replaced with a petanque terrain.”

Despite the loss of those greens, today the club has over 150 members : 50+ full bowls-playing members; 30+ associate members; 40+ social members; 20+ full petanque-playing members; and 20+ petanque social members. That’s still a great club, but it had been used to being a ‘powerhouse’ in central Auckland a few decades ago.

Founded in 1906, the club was one of the big three in the well-healed inner suburbs : Carlton where the champion bowlers played; Remuera where the well-off congregated; and Epsom, the ‘friendly club for men of good middle-class stock’.

In its hey-day, Epsom not only had a membership waiting list, but the players even had to be balloted to use the greens on weekends.

But Club Patron, Ian Birch OBE, reckons that Epsom has stood out over the years for another reason. “The club has continued to produce superb administrators,” he recalls, “E A Craig who was Club and Auckland President (the first) in 1913; J T Harrison who was Club, Auckland and New Zealand President in 1964; G A Davidson who was Club and Auckland President in 1969; P B Davison MBE who was Auckland President in 1986; E I Gorringe MBE who was Auckland President in 1996; and P K Clark OBE who was Bowls New Zealand Chair up until 1995 and International Bowling Board President in 1988.”

Ian can add myself into that list too. He was Club, New Zealand and World President in 1993.

With such great administrators, the club established a reputation for running great tournaments : the Commercial Travellers Club tournament; the Auckland Trotting Club tournament; the Milburn Trophy; and the ANZAC Day Diggers versus The Rest.

“However, the closest we ever got to a National title was in 1963 when Fred Ravlick came 3rd.”

Epsom has been an innovative club. When bowls went professional in 1982, Epsom was the second club in the world to run a professional tournament (Papatoetoe was first). “It was called the Epsom 5000,” Ian says. “It was an invitation-only event of 32 bowlers. In 1983, England came out to play a test series against New Zealand and afterwards, they played in the Epsom 5000. As did Scotland in 1984, Ireland in 1985 and England again in 1986.”

Ian recalls the days vividly. He was the bowls commentator for radio and television. He was the ‘voice of bowls’ with his signature sign-on ‘this is Ian Birch – at the bowls’. “They were days of great change. The move to coloured clothing in 1981 for instance, was huge! As was the move to coloured bowls.”

These days, Ian leaves the bowls and the club admin to others. “They’ve got a great team there,” he says, “Judy Johns, Lyn Kimpton, Graeme Clisby, and others. I didn’t even know anything about the fence coming down until it happened.“

Keep up the good work Epsom. Hopefully, the new fence will last the 80+ years of its predecessor!


-Rob Davis