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History of Southampton (Old) Bowling Green

Welcome to Southampton (Old) Green which is probably the oldest (circa 1299) “Bowling Green” in the world i.e. the oldest ground where bowls from the earliest form to modern times has been continually bowled.

 It is believed that a nearby ancient hospital and chapel called Gods House often used the land where our bowling green is to exercise patients staff and visitors during the thirteenth century. At that time the land was an open expanse of salt marsh adjacent the bank of the River Test and became known as “Gods House Green”. Towards the end of the 13th century games involving rolling round objects were played which are believed to be the fore-runner of the modern game of bowls. These games were not originally played in the confines of rinks or any prescribed area and as likely on undulating ground. Several books show sketches of these games, initially perhaps aiming at the opponents “ball/bowl” later years bowling to a peg and finally to a smaller round object, a Jack.

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The game became very popular to the detriment of “war skills” such that in 1363 Edward iii made a ruling that games played with hand and feet should be banned and every man should take up archery practice during holidays. This was the start of the “unlawful games” genre lasting hundreds of years with Richard ii in 1388, Edward iv in 1477 and Henry vii 1496 all ruling against the game. In 1541 Henry viii arrived at the “Inferior Persons” rule where other than on Christmas day the working classes were barred from bowling. Whereas “every Nobleman and others having manors, land, tenements or yearly profits for life in his own or wives right to yearly value of £100 might play bowls without penalty”.

But despite the harsh penalties the game of bowls (as some other games) became more popular. From 1549/50 onwards Court Leet records of Southampton regularly contain accounts of a people being fined for playing bowls.  

Within the clubhouse is displayed a map of Southampton by a famous cartographer, John Speed published 1611 which depicts figures playing bowls and similar games at our bowling-green location.

Up until the early 18th century Court Leet records include the fact that the area where our green exists was uninclosed Town Land. But in 1704 the wording changed to “The Bowling Grene and ditches without Godes House Tower now inclosed and converted to private life is Town Land”. A paper by J.M.Kaye tiltled “The old bowling green affair” suggests that in 1707 a Mr Lambert who leased the land immediately north of our bowling green, decided that “although his property contained a nine pin alley, and attracting many people to his house (a pub) a bowling green would be of further singular advantage and bringing custom of gentlemen. He planted hedges and trees around the green and created a pathway and gate leading to his house”. He basically stole it! It took until 1749 for Southampton officials to wrestle back Gods House Green, initially by taking over small strips of land to the south and west of Lamberts rented property. They then built a public house at the North West corner of the green mostly on the stolen strips of land. In 1750, following arbitration with Gods House (owned by queens College Oxford), the house and green was handed to a Mr Sadlier to manage on behalf of Southampton. It is likely that when our green was enclosed it led to the formation of a bowling society or club.

1n 1777 a newspaper reported once again the playing for Mr Millers’ silver medal as was tradition. The report validated the start of what is now called “The Knighthood” in 1776, a competition which has been continued and is probably the oldest bowling competition in the world. Some years later the same newspaper reported in 1781 that Mr Miller had been bowling at this location for approximately 60 years.

Our first club house was built between 1820 and 1827 on the west side of the green. It was rebuilt in 1872 but still encroached upon the green by some margin. The clubhouse was torn down in 1929 and rebuilt at the southern end enabling the green to be squared off with 6 rinks each way and thus conforming to the modern game of parallel rinks.

There was major concern when in 1894 Southampton Authorities called a meeting to discuss the future of the valuable land containing our bowling green. Fortunately the Town Clerk, a Mr N.B. Nalder investigated the history of the land and our bowls club very thoroughly. On 8th August he reported to the council “it is probable that the ground was set apart for recreation and bowling from the earliest period of our history of the town..…” He was successful as our Bowling Club was given permission to carry on using the land for bowls.

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The Southampton Bowls club played a massive part in expanding the game of bowls. A former member and Knight of the old green left the club in 1889 to start County Bowls Club, soon attracting 140 more bowlers within Southampton. The Sportsman newspaper dated 18th October 1895 reported the Old Green and County were among eleven clubs attending a meeting 17th October at Winchester House Old Bond Street London “The proposal by Mr Cole of Southampton (Old Green) that an association be formed was accepted unanimously” Thus the London and Southern Counties Bowling Association was formed. More bowling greens were opened and in December 1919 our club met with four others to form Southampton and District Bowling Association. During what was a busy time for our committee a nominee met again with other clubs November 1920, this time to form Hampshire County Bowling Association and by the start of the 1921 season there were 15 clubs affiliated.

The Green and Club House were damaged during World War Two when bombs, aimed at the docks, destroyed part of the green and caused a tree to collapse on the clubhouse. The crater within the green was eighteen feet wide and six feet deep.

During the war considerable help for our members was received from Australia. Once our green was relayed in 1948 at a cost of £950 club members set about repaying the debt owed to Australia. Members collected enough to purchase a large ornate silver trophy which was presented to Middle Park Bowls Club Melbourne and many years on is still a coveted trophy to be won by the Melbourne bowlers.

Our 700 year anniversary of our green prompted a thirst for more knowledge of the clubs history. Archives were revisited, papers re-read. It was a shock when discovered that the agreement with the Town Authorities in 1894 regarding the lease of the land had never been formalised. Senior members and Trustees met to discuss this delicate and potentially disastrous situation. It took some time to carefully approach the matter legally. Finally in 2001 the club was granted “Freehold in Tenure” i.e. the status of the land shall remain whilst bowls continues to be played at the location. Thus the future of the green and our club is guaranteed, perhaps to a 1000 year anniversary!

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