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Jack of the green

Updated: Jul 20, 2021

Take a walk along Denham Way (off Old Mill Road) towards the cricket pitch on the Way and Tillard recreation ground, and you will reach the Denham Bowls Club. It is largely hidden from view by tall, imposing walls providing protection for the lawns and the players from high-flying cricket balls. Let's tell something of its history

The game of bowls in its several forms is much older than cricket although the Denham Bowls Club was formed some years after the Denham Cricket Club, the history of which was covered in the previous post.

History of Bowls

It isn’t surprising that some historians consider that bowls has been played for centuries and can be traced back to the ancient world. Take children to a pebble beach these days and they will soon begin to enjoy throwing stones into the sea or aiming at a specific pebble in competition with others. Maybe adults too. Instinct perhaps?

The game of bowls has some similarities with boules’, a game played in France and also in Italy where it is called ‘Boccia’. It is thought to be of ancient or prehistoric origin with evidence of light objects such as flat stones, coins, even stone balls being thrown for fun. The idea of tossing balls trying to get as closely as possible to a target is thought to have been played in ancient Rome.

Historians believe the current sport of bowls was first played in the 13th century. Several manuscripts of the period were found to include drawings of people playing a basic form of bowls. The world’s oldest surviving bowling green is believed to be the Southampton Old Bowling Green, first played on in 1299. It is understood that the game became so popular that it was a forbidden sport during the 14th century reigns of King Edward III and Richard II out of concern that archery, a sport regarded as good practice for an important fighting skill, seemed less popular. The ban continued even after the invention of gunpowder and firearms meant archery was not so important.

Tracing the history of the game can be tricky as it can be confused with the rise in ‘bowling alleys’ first established in London in 1455. The game played on these alleys was also known as skittles or nine pins. Though these games were nothing like the lawn bowling of today, many historians claim that the popularity of skittles with the criminal fraternity may well have encouraged the continuation of a ban of all types of bowling.

King Henry VIII enjoyed lawn bowls. However, he regarded it as a sport for the upper classes only, so, except for a game on Christmas Day, it was banned in 1511 for labourers, servants and those regarded as of a more inferior social standing. After Henry’s death in 1547 the ban was partially lifted.

Fact or Fiction?

Mention the history of lawn bowls in England and it will most often trigger the response that it was the game Sir Francis Drake was playing at Plymouth Hoe at the time of the Spanish Armada. It was July 18th 1588 when the message came that the Spanish invaders were approaching and he needed to leave. He is supposed to have responded with, “We still have time to finish the game and to thrash the Spaniards, too." He lost the match but won the war. Whether this famous story describes an event which really took place or not has been heavily debated.

As with many sports, lawn bowls spread to the British colonies from the 1600s. Records show that President George Washington played bowls on his estate. In Canada, it was introduced around 1730 at Port Royal in Nova Scotia. In Australia, bowls first was played in Sandy Bay, Tasmania in 1844. The game appeared in New Zealand sometime thirty years after that.

The Game

Drawings and manuscripts from the 13th and 14th centuries, depicting the game of bowls, help us understand a little of how it was played. A manuscript of that period which can be found in the royal library in Windsor contains a drawing representing two players aiming at a small cone instead of an earthenware ball or jack.

Another manuscript of the same century shows three figures and a jack. Wikipedia explains:

“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.”

From Wikipedia we also learn that

“A 14th-century manuscript, Book of Prayers, in the Francis Douce collection in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, contains a drawing in which two persons are shown, but they bowl to no mark. Joseph Strutt, the historian of the “Sports and Pastimes of the People of England” writing in 1903 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.”

Surprisingly, it is believed that it was the invention of the lawn mower in 1830 that led to the creation of bowling greens. As a result, clear rules were set out for the game followed by the founding of the English Bowling Association in 1903. Today the World Bowling Board is responsible for the standardisation of rules across the world and works to encourage the growth of the game’s popularity.

The Bowls and Jack

On these manicured lawns, players roll their bowls or ‘woods’ straight up and down aiming to get as close as they can to a ‘jack’ or ‘kitty’. The woods are mostly made from a resin material today rather than wood. Each one is less rounded on one side making it slightly heavier and giving it a bias. This ensures the bowl will follow a slightly curved path and a skilled played will be able to take that bias into consideration as they roll it towards the Jack. The Jack is a smaller, white ball without a bias. A popular theory about the name ‘jack’ suggests it simply refers to something smaller i.e. it is a smaller ball than the bowls.

The earliest documented mention of the word “Jack” in this context can be found in Shakespeare’s ‘Cymbeline’, likely written in 1609. In this play, Cloten says, “Was there ever man had such luck! When I kissed the jack, upon an upcast to be hit away.”

This was not Shakespeare’s only reference to the game. In his play Richard II, there is a conversation between the Queen and one of her ladies which refers to the bias of the bowl.

Queen. What sport shall we devise here in this garden, To drive away the heavy thought of care?

Lady. Madam, we'll play at bowls.

Queen. 'Twill make me think the world is full of rubs, And that my fortune rubs against the bias.”

The Denham Bowls Club

Visit the Denham Bowls clubhouse sometime and, as well as a warm welcome, you will see honours boards, photographs and posters depicting the history of the club since it was formed in 1922. Twenty-four years ago, with the help of others, Brian Simpson put together a diary of, as he describes it, “year by year happenings” for the interest of club members. Our thanks are due to Derek Darley for kindly lending us a copy of this record which means we can share some of those ‘happenings’ in this post.

The bowls club was formed at the time of the opening of the Way and Tillard Memorial Ground on May 6th 1922. On July 12th that year, the Parish Council gave permission for a properly constituted bowling club to create a bowling area on the ground. A two-rink green (the “rink” being the name given to a bowling lane) was constructed with further improvements carried out in 1923.

It wasn’t until April 11th 1924 that a first meeting of members was held to establish a properly constituted club. The meeting was held at the Falcon Inn at the suggestion of the landlord, Mr P Briggs, one of the bowlers at the time. At this inaugural meeting, instigated by retired police sergeant and parish councillor, Mr. E. Grieg, it was agreed that the Falcon should become the club’s headquarters and that members should pay an annual subscription of 5 shillings. Money raised went towards measures, scoring cards, six pairs of galoshes and a locker to be placed in the parish council tool shed where members could store their bowls and shoes. While on the green, members were required to wear galoshes or overshoes. A set of fifteen rules were devised and a planned reopening of the green scheduled for the following month.

The grand opening was on May 10th 1924 at 4pm officiated by Colonel Way of Denham Place who, at his own request, played four “ends” with the captain, Mr. Fred Powell. Later that year Col. Way presented a cup to the club, to be called The Way Cup. It was to be used for an annual competition with the proviso that participants had to live in Denham, a requirement that has since been rescinded.

With a growth in membership the two rinks were proving inadequate, so fund-raising began to enable a third rink to be created. Several draws and a dance were held making a magnificent profit of £7 10s 6d. On October 22nd 1924 the first annual dinner was held at the Falcon Inn with Col. Way presenting the prizes.

The Grounds

The first officially elected groundsman was Mr. R Childs, who was already a part-time caretaker of the Way and Tillard ground. His salary for the bowls club was £10 per year. The new three-rink green was the cause of some complaints from members as it was not sufficiently level. H Bowler and Sons from Gerrards Cross were employed to level the ground as they had created the extension of the third rink. Their fee was £14 for which they added eighteen loads of topsoil and levelled the area ready for seeding. The captain, Mr Powell, paid for the ground to be thoroughly weeded before the work was carried out as well as providing the club with a proper mowing machine. This map here from 1925 shows the position of the original green.

By 1950 it was clear that even the three-rink green was insufficient to meet the needs of this thriving club and it really needed to be twice the size. A unanimous decision by the parish council was made to find an appropriate piece of land where a six-rink green could be constructed. Reverend Roderick offered to sell his allotment to the parish council for a children’s play area and the current land on which children played could become the new site for the bowls club. With an all-party agreement the deals were made and the O.S. map of 1970 indicates the new ground which has been in place since 1952. The map from 1970 shows the current position of the green and pavilion.

The Pavilion

By 1927, the club had grown sufficiently strong to be affiliated to the Bucks County Bowling Association. With at least eight home matches a year playing on the home ground, it was becoming vital to have a pavilion to welcome their guest opponents. The club’s book of its 75-year history records, “Mr Carter of Cherry and Carter, general builders based in the village and also a club member, had seen a wooden building for sale at Moorhouse Farm, the former residence of the late Mr Ward. The building was purchased from the widow for sixty pounds. Mr Carter dismantled and re-erected the building on the Way and Tillard ground for a small fee. The only problem encountered was that because of limited space, the green had to be shortened by three feet to allow for a small area in front of the pavilion.”

In May 1933, the pavilion was used for a committee meeting for the first time but that didn’t last long. After two meetings, the pavilion was abandoned in favour of returning to the Falcon where it was warm and alcohol was available.

In 1936, with the growth in membership and the creation of a ladies’ section, the pavilion regained its place and became the regular venue for meetings. Permission was given to extend the building to provide a kitchen, although there was no mains water. But it was obviously still cold. During the harsh winter of 1937, the village school proved to be a warmer venue for the club’s AGM.

In 1947, electricity was installed with the help of Bill Woodley who was happy to have a cable and meter in his garden channelling it through to the clubhouse. A year later an extension was built to house a bar and a liquor license granted. Again, Bill Woodley came to the rescue by having a gate installed in his fence so that he could keep an eye on the ground and ensure the equipment and the alcohol were secure. He was charged 5p per year by the council for the privilege.

Bill was a member of the club for 43 years, an excellent player, winning many competitions. He held various offices within the club as well as being a parish councillor. When he died in August 1980 by his will, he left money for four benches to be placed around the green plus a new trophy later called the Bill Woodley memorial cup.

The arrangements Bill made in 1947 were relatively short-lived as by April 1954 a new clubhouse had been built for the new site accommodating the larger green. The building, still quite cold inside was heated by an oil stove. The annual dinner, usually held in the village hall, was moved to the new pavilion on November 13th 1954. It was presided over by Mrs May Coles, president of the club since 1953. It is the same May Coles who, in 1957 received an MBE and gave her name to a room in the Village Hall. She remained club president until her death in 1976 and although a non-player her interest in the club and in bowls was described as ‘second to none’.

May Coles as President would have presided over further improvements to the clubhouse in the 1960s. The roof was covered with a leak-proofing agent and new guttering fitted. The toilets were converted to a flushing system and the outside porches were filled in so that spectators could watch from inside. Once again it was considered imperative to extend the clubhouse.

This time the work came to the attention of the press. On April 30th 1970 the following appears in the Bucks Advertiser. “Members of Denham B.C., one of the best known and successful in the area, should have opened their season on Saturday with games among themselves but rain stopped play. What the rain could not stop was a function and social gathering to mark the opening of the extension and improvement at the club’s pavilion, including a large changing and dressing room with new toilet and washing facilities (main drainage has been introduced at considerable expense). Congratulating the club, president, Mrs E.M. Coles, mentioned that further extensions at the other end were contemplated for the future so that the probability of members being able to hold dinners in their own headquarters was envisaged.”

A Thriving Club

Today the Denham Bowls Club continues to thrive, to make improvements and to attract new members. It is a club to be proud of with its long history, its charity work along the way, its successes in the game and its warm welcome and support for those who wish to join and learn how to play. For our readers who know little or nothing about the game here is some advice from 1934.

Fred Powell, one of the founder members of the Denham Bowls Club who did a lot for the club in his lifetime was asked by the then president, Colonel F P Braithwaite to describe the game at the annual dinner in 1934. Addressing the members at the end of the meal his response is reported in the minutes:

“He was confident that, however tired one was when he went on the green he would go home quite refreshed after the game and eat a remarkably good dinner. It was the exercise which did it, and Mr Powell gave a demonstration on the spot. “First you stoop” he said, “then you stand up and scratch your head, and then you say, “Confound the thing”.”


Bowls and Jack - Mattinbgn, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons -

Wikimedia Commons images



Thanks to Derek Darley for contacting us to offer help with the history of the Denham Bowls Club and the loan of the 75 year history of the Denham Club.

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