Conflict on the greens! History-​​making lawn bowls controversies

by | Apr 5, 2017

1. Lawn bowlers, the millennials of the 1360s

It was England’s King Edward III who first declared, more or less, “The prob­lem with today’s youth is that they spend too much time look­ing at greens and not enough time prac­tis­ing archery.” He could have blamed per­mis­sive 14th-​century par­ent­ing, but in a “you kids get off my lawn“ tantrum, he banned the wild­ly pop­u­lar sport of bowls. Sort of. “Noble­men and oth­ers hav­ing manors or lands” could play. Because priv­i­lege.

Sev­er­al kings lat­er, Hen­ry VIII (an avid lawn bowler) reit­er­at­ed the ban in 1511. Under the new statute, even a wealthy bowler could not “play at any bowle or bowles in open space out of his own gar­den or orchard” and had to pay £100 in sin tax­es for a pri­vate green. The King allowed arti­fi­cers, labour­ers, appren­tices, and ser­vants to bowl, but only on their mas­ters’ greens and only on Christ­mas Day. Very gen­er­ous, your Majesty.

2. England’s Worst Handyman and the discovery of bias

Hen­ry Cav­ill as the Duke of Suf­folk in The Tudors

As the sto­ry goes, back in 1522, Charles Bran­don, Duke of Suf­folk, was in the mid­dle of a game when anoth­er bowl struck and split his. Rather than for­feit, he ran indoors to do a lit­tle impromp­tu home ren­o­va­tion (and it wasn’t even his home). He sawed off the big spher­i­cal knob from the newel post of the main stair­case. It looked like a bowl and rolled sort of like a bowl, but the saw had flat­tened one side of the sphere so it rolled in a gen­tle arc. There’s no record of how the home­own­ers felt about hav­ing their stairs ampu­tat­ed, but the Duke soon real­ized he could use this “bias” to sneak the bowl behind oth­er bowls. Oth­er play­ers start­ed using biased bowls too, and the game devel­oped a whole new strat­e­gy of play.

The oth­er expla­na­tion for bias is sim­pler, but not as much fun. As wood­en bowls aged they warped, cre­at­ing the bias. Play­ers learned to use the bias strate­gi­cal­ly, and it became part of the game. Even­tu­al­ly, new bowls were carved to be delib­er­ate­ly imper­fect spheres. Some bowls were so heav­i­ly biased, they rolled in a semi­cir­cle. There was chaos on the greens until lawn bowling’s rules—and lim­its on bias—were cod­i­fied in Scot­land in the mid-​19th cen­tu­ry.

3. First we bowl, then we fight

In 1588, the great Span­ish Arma­da was defeat­ed by the puny Eng­lish fleet under the com­mand of Sir Fran­cis Drake. The bat­tle bol­stered Eng­lish pride and the pop­u­lar­i­ty of Eliz­a­beth I and turned Drake into a nation­al hero. Some 40 years lat­er, sto­ries began cir­cu­lat­ing to explain why Drake didn’t launch the Eng­lish fleet imme­di­ate­ly on hear­ing that the Span­ish were approach­ing. Appar­ent­ly, he was bowl­ing on Ply­mouth Hoe when the news came. No one knows whether he felt strong­ly about work-​life bal­ance or just enjoyed a bit of macho trash-​talking, but he decid­ed there would “still be time to fin­ish the game and beat the Spaniards too.”

His­to­ri­ans have since reassessed Drake’s reputation—he prof­it­ed from the slave trade and piracy—and the accu­ra­cy of the bowl­ing leg­end. Winds and cur­rents in Ply­mouth Sound are a more like­ly expla­na­tion for the delay. And like pieces of the True Cross, there are at least five bowls in three places pur­port­ed to be Drake’s woods from the game, even though Drake only played with two bowls.

4. Bowling Green: NYC’s oldest public park showcases its newest artistic standoff

Long before “public-​private part­ner­ship” became a polit­i­cal buzz­word, three New York City landlords—Peter Jay, John Cham­bers, and Peter Bayard—offered to lease a por­tion of the Fort Ams­ter­dam parade grounds to estab­lish the city’s first pub­lic park. It was 1733, and the devel­op­ers’ top pri­or­i­ty for the park was a bowl­ing green for the “delight of the inhab­i­tants of the City.” Jay, Cham­bers, and Bayard lived near Bowl­ing Green Park; it’s thought they were moti­vat­ed by the con­ve­nience of a green on their doorsteps more than pub­lic delight.

Rent­ing land in Man­hat­tan didn’t come cheap, even in the 1730s. The men paid the city one pep­per­corn per year. Expressed in today’s pep­per­corns, that’s at least sev­er­al Grindrs’ worth.

Bowl­ing Green Park, at the south end of Broad­way, still fig­ures in the life of the city. It’s where Fear­less Girl, by sculp­tor Kris­ten Vis­bal, stares down Charg­ing Bull, by Arturo Di Mod­i­ca. Charg­ing Bull was first installed (a lit­tle far­ther north) with­out a per­mit as an act of guer­ril­la art instal­la­tion. Fear­less Girl was installed as part of an adver­tis­ing cam­paign for an index fund. The jux­ta­po­si­tion of the two sculp­tures is con­tro­ver­sial; is it kitsch or a pow­er­ful fem­i­nist state­ment?


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