The oldest bowling club in the world still in existence was founded in 1299; 50 years before the first people settled in New Zealand!

The game has undergone various changes throughout the centuries. Bowls didn’t even have a ‘bias’ until the 1300’s and bowlers of today would struggle to recognise the ‘bowls’ of the 14th century as the one we play now.

However, by the 19th century, the game had developed to a point where it was essentially the modern game that we know today.

It was in 1861 that this game took root in New Zealand, courtesy of enthusiastic Scottish settlers and through the founding of the Auckland Bowling Club.

It is interesting to note that an older form of the game known as Crown Green Bowls, where the jack is biased and there are no set rinks, is still played in the British Isles today.

A Mans game

The century or so that followed the founding of the Auckland Bowling Club saw bowls enjoy a meteoric growth throughout the country.

The three governing bodies of bowls in New Zealand amalgamated in 1913, and with this there came a true national competition, as well as uniform rules throughout the Dominion.

In the decades following this amalgamation, bowls became a steadily more competitive and popular pastime.

New Zealand entered teams into what was then known as the empire games during this time, and they met with moderate success. It’s interesting to note that some of the greens New Zealand players experienced at these games were completely foreign to them, sometimes running at 7 seconds and looking more like a field than a bowling green.

The 30’s saw a dramatic shift in the type of bowl commonly used, with the majority of bowling members in New Zealand switching from Lignum Vitae (a hardwood, so dense that it sunk in water) to what was known as ‘composite’ bowls.

A number of manufacturers operated in the ‘composite’ bowl space, and they were usually made of either compressed rubber or plastic.

Plastic bowls eventually won the battle, and it is a testament to their reliability that all bowls used in the modern game are condensed plastic too. Albeit often in a variety of colours.

In the 40’s the sport experienced another boom in membership as returning servicemen joined up to clubs in droves.

It’s interesting to note however, that during this time there existed very few womens bowling clubs in New Zealand. Although there did exist some Centres (such as the Otago Ladies’ Bowling Association, formed in 1926)  their participation in the game outside of the tearooms was frowned upon and there was no national organisation to administer their game.

This was all about to change.

A game for all, run by two separate bbodies

On the 28th of January 1948 the New Zealand Women’s Bowling Association was formed at a meeting held on the Otago Ladies’ Bowling Association pavilion.

Initially there were 12 member Centres and some 2716 affiliated players. It’s interesting to note that at this time, councillors were the only ones allowed to wear cream coloured clothing instead of white.

This gave rise to them being commonly referred to as ‘the cream puffs’.

It was also at this time that the New Zealand Bowling Association Council decided that it was time to establish a national headquarters for the national body. Auckland was chosen and remains the place from whence Bowls NZ administers the sport.

Over the following half century, the men’s and ladies national organisations co-existed peacefully and followed similar paths. It was during this time that international bowls began to become more serious in nature.

Early international games were often tours that focussed on the social aspect of the game, and rewarded exceptional administrators and ‘bowls men’ rather than purely competitive bowlers.

In 1966, the Empire games were held in Jamaica. Unfortunately there were no suitable greens there and as such, bowling was deleted from that years Empire games. Not content with this state of affairs, a World Bowls Championship was conducted for the first time.

16 Countries competed and the New Zealand fours team won the inaugural fours championship. It was felt that the World Championships were a great success and they have continued to be held every four years since. A World Championship was created for the women’s game in 1969, but New Zealand did not enter a team. New Zealand did enter a team into the World Championships of 1973 and it was an unprecedented success, coming away with a gold medal in three out of the four events, and a silver in the other. In 1988 the Women’s and Men’s World Championships were held at the same venue (Henderson) for the first time, this continues to this day and was a sign of things to come for the sport in New Zealand.

At a domestic level, this era is often thought of as being the halcyon days of bowls in New Zealand.

Both the mens and womens game saw unprecedented and huge entries into their respective nationals, and crowds in the thousands were not uncommon. Other large domestic competitions such as the Taranaki Open Fours also flourished during this tine.

Players like Millie Khan and Peter Belliss were well known names throughout the country, and there were a number of televised tournaments on free-to-air television. However time marches on and things change. Members became more time poor and as the 90’s dawned, bowls in New Zealand faced an uncertain future.

Bowling into the 21st Century

In 1993 a task force comprised of members from both organisations was formed to work towards creating Bowls NZ, the vision was to create an organisation where men and woman would be able to work together to take the sport of bowls in New Zealand into the 21st century.

This labour of love bore fruit in 1996 when both organisations voted to amalgamate and create Bowls New Zealand. The first meeting was held on 1 May and was attended by 52 councillors, at the time of the amalgamation there were a total of 68,210 members. 42,413 men and 25,797.

It is a testament to those who worked together to create Bowls New Zealand that any other system of governing the sport in this country now seems inconceivable.

World Bowls followed suit and amalgamated sometime later, in 2000. The nineties and noughties were an exciting time to be a bowler, as clubs, centres and Bowls New Zealand looked for ways to regain the members that they were losing.

Coloured bowls were introduced in the mid 90’s and coincided with a relaxation around the dress that was deemed acceptable around the greens.

Bowls became one of the fastest growing sports in schools, and initiatives such as having a youth New Zealand team saw more young people take up the sport than ever before.

These initiatives have payed dividends on the international stage with players like Shannon McIlroy making their way through the system and achieving unprecedented success.

In June of 2004 the last of the men’s and women’s centres merged, meaning that the sport of bowls in New Zealand became fully amalgamated.

By 2006 it was beginning to be understood that the number of ‘affiliated’ members wasn’t a true reflection on the amount of people who play the game in some form or another. Initiatives from Bowls New Zealand such as the ‘Mates in bowls’ programme were passed down to clubs in order to take advantage of this.

This has been a largely successful strategy and many clubs now run a ‘twilight’ or ‘business house’ league which has resulted in the continual rise of casual participation.

The future is now

The last decade has seen bowls dragged, willingly or otherwise, into the future.

With the advent of the internet and the subsequent creation of social media, people are able to communicate better and more often with each other than ever before.

Compare and contrast this with the continuing revitalisation of the way the sport of bowls is presented by clubs, centres and Bowls New Zealand and we find a sport that is now arguably more visible and attractive to the non bowling populace than it has been in decades.

The ‘live streaming’ of the sport has been well and truely embraced by the bowls community and it can now be seen anywhere from club to national events.

Initiatives such as Bowls New Zealands ‘Bowls3Five’ televised league now see more bowls on television than we’ve had in over three decades and it could be argued that bowlers and non bowlers now have available to them more bowls content than ever before.

Affiliated membership numbers appear to have plateaued around the 25,000 mark, however casual participation numbers are continuing to skyrocket with the latest report (2017-2018 season) showing over 100,000 participants.

It’s an exciting time to be a bowler in New Zealand, and those Scottish Settlers who first introduced the game here would surely marvel at how we’ve progressed as a sport, and wonder at what may lie ahead.