We can all get a bit fed up at times with watching footballers living their opulent lives, with their Lamborghinis and Porsches, glamorous WAGs and superstar status, but back in the late 1800s The Heatons, and other northern townships, had their own sporting idols and they weren’t to be found expending huge amounts of energy covering every square yard of a soccer pitch. Theirs was a much more sedate form of sport but one in which the financial rewards were beyond the dreams of most ordinary Victorians.
We’re all familiar with crown green bowling and there’s something timeless about strolling through one of The Heatons’ parks and hearing the gentle click of polished wood, murmurs of appreciation and restrained clapping as the heavy balls glide silently across the manicured, green turf.
The original form of the game, dating from the 14th Century, would have been played in bowling alleys, which were normally attached to taverns and inns. Heavy gambling was a part of the bowling tradition and subsequently the game was deemed unlawful before being reinstated (with restrictions), by Henry VIII, who built himself a bowling alley at Whitehall Palace.
Soldiers and sailors were banned from playing as it distracted them from practising their fighting skills, despite the fact that Sir Francis Drake seemingly found time to indulge in a leisurely game on Plymouth Hoe while waiting to deal with the approaching Spanish Armada in 1588! However, when Oliver Cromwell came to power in 1649, his government banned many forms of entertainment and bowls fell victim to his Puritanical regime.
The revival of bowls came during the 18th Century when many flat bowling greens were built in the west of Scotland. Official rules were drawn up in this period and, by the 19th Century, a number of crown greens had been established in the North of England. The greens were often situated at the rear of licenced premises so it developed into a predominantly working class sport in the North as opposed to the more genteel and gentrified pursuit of flat green bowling favoured by the South. Matches often attracted sponsorship from local breweries, textile or engineering firms and, even in an era of male domination, women were encouraged to participate – although betting on their games was not allowed.
The laying of bets on games was popular, although not in a formalised way through bookmakers. Players and spectators would bet between themselves as the games progressed, the odds ebbing and flowing with each end completed. In close matches, bets could be considerable, with a lot of money riding on the final throes of the games.
The pubs and inns of the North became a crucible of what became an unlikely ‘glamour sport’ and bowlers were able to command the kinds of earnings we associate with top professional sports people today. A champion bowler at the time could earn around £800 a year in prize money, the equivalent of around £300,000 today. Even modest bowlers could regularly earn £50 at a tournament, which was equivalent to an average labourer’s annual wage at the time. As well as these winnings, the players would also receive a share of the gate money and sometimes even receive a commission on the betting.
Although some of our local greens have fallen into disuse, The Heatons still has a thriving bowling community with The West Heaton Bowling, Tennis and Squash Club, on Princes Road, occupying the same site since its opening on 24th July 1873. The Heaton Moor Park Veterans Bowling Club on Buckingham Road was officially opened by the mayor at that time (Alderman Gurney) on 3rd November 1947 and is still attracting new members. Smaller groups of players can still be seen enjoying the leisurely sport in Thornfield Park and you certainly wouldn’t bet against the game continuing as a part of Heatons life for many years to come.