BOWLS - "I’ve seen some fights over the years – it’s not just a sport for old people!" - The Redditch Standard

BOWLS - "I’ve seen some fights over the years – it’s not just a sport for old people!"

Redditch Editorial 27th Oct, 2021   0

“I’ve seen some fights and arguments over the years – it’s not just a sport for old people!” – blasts former White Hart chairman and secretary Dave Kings.


Perhaps not the words you would expect to hear when describing the sport of bowls – a game played in its early form by the Ancient Egyptians more than 7000 years ago.


Redditch is home to White Hart Bowling Club where the bowling green, located behind the White Hart pub on Evesham Road, can be traced back to 1867 – when Andrew Johnson was president of the United States, Jesse James was becoming an infamous outlaw and Alfred Nobel had obtained a patent for dynamite in England.


Now acting as a committee member at White Hart, Kings – who first joined back in 1978 some 43 years ago – has been able to document the origins of the club from its early beginnings in the 19th century to the present day.


Kings said: “We can date the club as far back as 1867 – you had to have tokens to get into bowling greens in those days – in 1868, the Redditch Indicator remarked just how good the White Hart bowling green was.


“We’ve been here at White Hart permanently for over 150 years which makes us unique – we’re one of the most southerly crown green clubs in England.”


The sport enjoyed a boom period in the 1980’s but its popularity was short-lived as other games such as snooker and darts took centre stage on television – a platform that failed to capture the essence of Crown Green Bowls.


Kings believes that the drinking culture around the sport halted the growth of the game with players and officials unwilling to travel due to the introduction of drink-drive laws – The Road Safety Act of 1967 created the first maximum legal blood alcohol (drink driving) limit in the UK.


Kings said: “There was a boom in the early 80’s – it took off not just here but all around – what stopped it from growing is travel.


“There was more of a drinking culture in those days than there is now but because of the danger of drink-driving that killed the potential of attracting bowlers from outside the area.


“There used to be floodlight competitions all over the Midlands and an Argus Superstars that used to go around playing different teams for charity.


“It died a death – it just seemed to tail away. Bowls never took off on the TV other sports came in like snooker and they took over.”


Current club chairman Kirk Wright explained how the sport’s popularity has declined over time – with one particular event seeing the number of competitors drop by almost five sixths in the space of half-a-century.


Wright said: “Part of it was when the drink-drive laws came into play – the culture has changed not just in bowls but all sports.


“One of our members Norman Batchelor won the Warwick and Worcester Merits in 1963 when there was a field of 600 people – that’s how popular it was back then.


“When I entered the same competition a couple of years ago there was only around 125 entries.”


However, a decade prior to the sport’s boom period – White Hart’s future was in serious peril when the combination of several members reaching retirement age and the expansion of the existing leagues forced them to rely on pub goers to keep the club alive.


Kings is in no doubt as to who kept the club alive – crediting current Heart of England Bowling League treasurer and match secretary Brian Parkinson with saving White Hart from potential extinction.


Kings said: “In the late 70’s the club was on its knees. A guy called Brian Parkinson kept it going by dragging people out of the pub and saved the club.


“It was a period when the older members all retired at the same time just as they had expanded the leagues.


“We’ve had some internal problems as well – there was a time when the whole committee resigned.”


Even now, recruiting new members is one of the toughest challenges White Hart face on an annual basis – with bowls reputation for being a slow sport played by older people making it difficult to attract younger players.


Despite this, Kings is adamant that bowls is misconceived by those who have not tried the sport and admitted that – although the club has done everything in its power to attract new members – White Hart’s location is its biggest problem.


He blasts: “Our biggest problem is where we are located – we’re semi-rural. There’s a lot of clubs in Birmingham that are all within half a mile of each other.


“Recruitment is harder now – it’s very hard to attract younger bowlers those who have come to the end of their career in another sport.


“I can’t emphasise enough how competitive bowls is – I’ve seen some fights and arguments over the years – it’s not just a sport for old people.


“Over the years we’ve won a lot of trophies in different divisions. We’ve tried everything to attract new members from going into schools to putting adverts in the paper.


“We’re looking for people who have just finished an active sport to take up crown green bowling – at least come and have a look at it and have a go.”


Chairman Wright is more optimistic however and believes that his own experience of being introduced to the game alongside the relatively low cost required to play bowls makes it an attractive proposition for new players.


Wright added: “Attracting young people is difficult when you’ve got Xbox’s and PlayStation’s and you can play sports virtually on all different platforms.


“I remember thinking, before I’d played the sport, I don’t really fancy that, it’s a bit slow but if you’re competitive then you’ll enjoy it, it’s definitely worth playing. I can’t think of another sport where the age range is so broad.


“The first year I played team bowls – the opposing team had a 14-year old girl and a 90-year old man in their team. They nicknamed him ‘Joe 90’ after a popular TV puppet series that was on in the 1960’s which just demonstrates the wide span of ages that can play the game.


“It’s a cheap sport to play as well – compared to something like golf – a membership at £50 and new set of bowls at £80 would probably only get you a few rounds of golf at a decent course.


“At the county final there was a lot of young people – it was really heartening to see – there’s life in the sport.”


Steeped in history, White Hart also claim to have been the first club to have a female player bowl for them in the league – a far cry from times when women were not even admitted into pubs. In fact, even when allowed into pubs, women could be refused service based on their gender alone up until 1982.


Kings attests: “When I first joined, I remember going to pubs in Birmingham when women weren’t allowed in the pub – you wouldn’t believe it would you?


“The Warwick and Worcester wouldn’t let women in for years and one of the league’s bowlers at an AGM one year said: ‘If you allow women in the Warwick and Worcester clubs, I’ll never bowl again.’


“We had the first women to bowl in the Warwick and Worcester here at White Hart – I was captain then and Diane Pritchard bowled for us.


“I made sure we started five minutes earlier than the rest of the league because it was the first season women were allowed to bowl – so we could say we had the first woman to bowl in the league.”


Whilst bowls remains a male dominated sport – White Hart encourages both men and women to join and Wright, who started playing for the club in 2014, believes White Hart continue to punch above their weight with 11 teams competing in leagues across the West Midlands.


Wright adds: “The percentage of female members is low compared to men – the point is we encourage women to join and we would like to have more female members.


“Our over 60’s team finished third in Division One which is the top league in the South West Birmingham League out of about 84 teams in total.


“For a club of our size we punch above our weight – we have three teams in Division One across the different leagues.”


So what does the future hold for White Hart?


The pub at White Hart has been owned by Star Pubs and Bars for the last four years with plans in place to refurbish both the pub and car park – crucially there will be no alterations made to the historic bowling area. Wright feels this presents an opportunity for the pub and club to support each other.


Wright said: “We’re always under threat when the pub changes hands. If the pub takes off and the décor improves then hopefully the bowls club will improve as well and we can help each other.


“We’ve got a few new members coming in next March – one of them plays in the Warwick and Worcester Premier Division which is above what we play in.”


With more than 150 years of history – White Hart Bowling Club is one of Redditch’s oldest sporting entities – Kings is certain they will still be playing bowls at White Hart for decades to come.


He affirms: “I don’t care what anyone says – this club will survive – it’ll still be here.”


To apply for membership please contact Kirk Wright on 07707756641 or [email protected]


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