If you've ever driven through Bruce Park, you've probably noticed a well-manicured grass plot surrounded by a white pickett fence. On some afternoons, you might even see a group of people dressed in white clothes and straw hats congregating inside the fenced-in court. These are members of the Greenwich Lawn Bowls Club, who have beeen engaged in this sport since 1940.
Lawn bowling is a sport that is closely related to the Italian game of bocce. The Greenwich Time (5/12/2002) stated that a predecessor of the game may go back as far as 5200 BC! It's believed to have been played in its modern form in Scotland and England in the late 1200s AD. It was considered to be a popular distraction in Europe in the 1500s, and there's a legend that claims Sir Francis Drake was engaged in a game of lawn bowling before he sailed off to defeat the Spanish Armada in 1588! Many Kings apparently had their own private bowling greens. It's been played in Connecticut since 1715, and 1723 in lower Manhattan - hence the name "Bowling Green".
Bocce and Lawn Bowling are slightly different. The object is essentially the same: to roll a large ball as close as possible to a target ball, while keeping your opponent away. In Lawn Bowling, this white ball is called a "jack" or "kitty". Points are awarded based on position. Bocce is played on a dirt alley. Spherical brass balls are used, which tend to roll straight. In Lawn Bowling, on the other hand, level, manicured grass courts are used. These measure 120 feet by 120 feet. Since the balls are asymmetrical with built in weights, and have flattened tops and bottoms, the balls tend to curve. They are about the size of grapefruit and weigh 3-pounds each. The bowls are not heavy, and require little power to roll. "Bowls" (balls) are black in color, and are fitted to the the player's hand. I understand there are about 9 sizes. Some players carry them in monogrammed cases. Interestingly, the grass changes while playing, making the bowl roll differently. Players stand on special mats to play. A measuring tape is used to determine distances. Lawn Bowling can be played with up to as many as 4 people. A game lasts about 10 minutes on average, and it's customary to play 3 games to determine the winner based on total points
I learned that the Lawn Bowling court was built in Greenwich in 1940 by George Stevenson, the head of Parks and Recreation. There have been as many as 100 members and as few as 15. The season runs from May to October or November, depending on the first frost (Frost changes how the bowl rolls on the grass.) Over the years, the competition has changed from daily to several times a week, the weekends being regular. The competition begins at 1 pm and usually goes until 3 pm, but it can go on into early evening. Occassionally, there is a "Fun Day" when non-members can come and participate in a picnic and receive lessons on bowling. Greenwich has also been home to state and national tournaments. These include an Irvington Memorial Tournament, a Southern Connecticut Lawn Bowlers Association Triples Tournament and the Connecticut State Fours Tournament.
You may think such a sport couldn't generate much controversy, but this is not the case! In 1988, the Bayberry Mallet Club (a local croquet group) submitted a petition with 200 signatures claiming the lawn bowlers had used the court exclusively for their own sport. They said the town favored the GLBC, and wanted the town to build more courts Parks and Recreation Director Frank Keagan got the parties to agree to a compromise. A strip 50-feet by 120-feet was reserved for lawn bowling, while the remaining 70-feet by 120-feet section would be used simultaneously by the croquet players. The entire court would be reserved for croquet after 3pm, and the whole court could be used for lawn bowling tournaments. Both groups contribute to the maintenance of the court. The problem was solved, and the lawn bowlers and croquet players happily co-exist!
In 1995, there was another controversy over a sign that had been placed on the fence around the court. It indicated that only members and guests of the GLBC could use the court. This was to protect the grass. Some local residents took exception, claiming the group had become an exclusive club. Opponents wanted to know why town funds were being used for maintenance that only benefited a small, tight group. They argued the town maintained the the lawn bowling court just as much as the softball fields and tennis courts. The croquet and lawn bowl players countered that they gave money to the town for maintenance. The GLBC gave $250/year while the croquet club gave $500/year. In fact, the croquet players gave $3500 for a new sprinkler system. Members of the GLBC said they were not a closed, exclusive group, but welcomed new members and anyone who wanted to learn more about the sport.
I couldn't find a followup to this story, but I've noticed the sign is still on the fence in Bruce Park. I'm certain the players and town just want to protect the grass. I'm keeping my eyes open for any players that may be using the court, and if I have any time, I may even stop to watch for a while. It's a link to the past that has survived time. The only thing that matters is rolling the "bowl". As several players noted, it's great exercise, you get a lot of fresh air, and you meet a lot of nice people.
Photos by Carl White
Greenwich Time; Times-Warner Corporation, Hearst Corporation; Various dates from 1983 to 2007.