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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