A century of bowls at St Heliers


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Left to right : Sue Curran, Richard Kempthorne, Pauline Campbell

When the St Heliers Bowling Club came into existence in 1913, the suburb of St Heliers in the eastern bays of Auckland was a very different place.

There was no road ‘around the bays’.  Tamaki Drive wasn’t opened until 1931.  Instead, the road back to the city from St Heliers was a back country road through St John and Remuera.  The more recognised route back to the city was on a ferry running from a 1500 foot pier that had been built in the bay in 1882.

The two huge iconic Moreton Bay Fig Trees at the front of Vellenoweth Green didn’t exist … they weren’t planted until 1923.

The green itself (where the bowling club is sited) was just a rough swampy field that had named the area : St Heliers was originally called ‘Waiparea’ (duck water).

But in 1913, amongst much Indifference and controversy from the residents (local body politics then was very much like it is today!), the green was filled and levelled for a sports precinct.  That included a bowling green, croquet lawn, tennis courts and a cricket pitch.  And the St Heliers Bowling Cub was born.

Despite this, the land for the bowling green was never legally acquired, and it wasn’t until local MP Clem Simich introduced a bill to parliament in 1994 that the occupation of Vellenoweth Green by the St Heliers Bowling Club was legitimized.

“Everyone had always known the club didn’t have the right occupancy consents,” explains Club Treasurer Richard Kempthorne, “But it was too hard to fix.  Even council felt it was better to let sleeping dogs lie.  The problem only reared its head whenever we came to get development consents.  The St Heliers Reserve Bill passed in 1995 finally cleaned things up, and gave retrospective approval to our 80 year occupancy!”

But the club’s cloudy land entitlement hadn’t stopped development over the years.  The bowls pavilion was opened in 1923, and extended in 1952.  One of the neighbouring tennis courts was adopted for a second green which opened in 1934.  The St Heliers Bowling Club continued to become very popular.

“Like all bowling clubs in their heyday, we had to ‘close’ our membership,” explains Richard. “In the early 1940s, membership was limited to 160, upped to 200 in 1961.  It wasn’t until the late 90s that membership was opened again.  Today we’ve got about 220 members … 120 or so of those are full-playing members.”

“Over 50 of these are new members who have been playing bowls for less than 5 years … it’s the most new members we’ve had in years.  I put a lot down to the coaching programme that we run here at St Heliers … Catherine Bien, Barclay Lee and Amy Cheung run a great coaching clinic every Monday morning for members, prospective members, and even members from other clubs.”

40% of the club’s members are women … the women’s and men’s clubs amalgamated amongst much controversy in 1998.  Like many clubs around the country, St Heliers looks back and wonders what all the fuss was about.

“The women are the really competitive bowlers in the club,” laughs Richard, “The men not so much.  We get more than our share of Centre women’s titles.  Sue (Curran) and Paula (Kempthorne) came third in the National Pairs this year, and Catherine Bien third in the National Singles a few years ago.  Ling Qu won the Australian National Fours while she was holidaying in Australia!”

“That’s not entirely true,” corrects Club President, Sue Curran.  “The men have done very well over the years.  Barclay Lee and Rob Ashton have won a New Zealand Pairs title.  Blind bowler Dave Stallard went to the Comm Games in 2014, and our most famous son, Len Keys, went to the British Empire Games in London in 1934.”

“Despite playing nine games and losing nine games in London, Len’s name is now on our most prestigious tournament : the Bayleys Keys Tournament.  It’s an open fours tournament held at the beginning of February each year.  Players mainly come from around the eastern bays, but we also get some super star teams playing for the $4,000 prize pool.”

“Our other special tournament is the Eastern Classic,” adds club member Pauline Campbell.  “It’s played between the four Eastern Bays clubs : Glendowie, Kohimarama, Remuera and ourselves .. usually in April.  We play each club in one game of fours and two games of pairs.”

“There’s a third tournament that also well-supported on the calendar,” says Pauline.  “We have an annual triples tourney with the Helensville Bowling Club, alternately home and away.  It was started by the presidents of both clubs, who were mates.”

But it’s not the tournament bowls that distinguishes St Heliers … there wouldn’t be a day, all year round, when someone isn’t playing on the greens.  It’s a well-used club.

“We’ve just put down a new TigerTurf,” says Richard.  “It’s really great.  Our Greenkeeper, John Brown, does a great job keeping an eye on our greens.”

And so does his feline companion, Coakey … John must be one of the few greenkeepers in New Zealand who lives on-site at the bowling club with a cat!

Not a bad lifestyle for both man and cat!