Bowls in Rhodesia
No people are more sport-minded than Rhodesians, thanks to a wonderful, temperate climate, and one of the most flourishing of sporting activities is bowls (known in America as “lawn bowls”, to differentiate from indoor bowling alleys).
Every weekend some 3 000 men and 2 000 women, with few exceptions immaculately dressed in white, tread the 160 greens of the 90 affiliated bowling clubs spread all over the country. They are polite, dignified and well-disciplined, in accordance with modern traditions and laws of the game.
There is not a town without a bowling club. Many small villages have a bowling club; the bigger mines have bowling clubs; the army and air force have bowling clubs; two commercial banks have their own bowling clubs; the Victoria Falls and Kariba, Rhodesia’s famous tourist attractions, have bowling clubs; and in certain districts farmers have come together and formed bowling clubs – all with their own dearly nursed, impeccably groomed rectangles of bright green grass that are the envy of visiting bowlers from less temperate climes.
And there are always visiting bowlers. Some have recently come in organised groups from New Zealand, Australia and America, for social and competitive bowling; others are individual devotees who at the very least have packed a pair of flat-soled shoes and a pair of white trousers.
There are no more hospitable bowlers anywhere than those to be found in Rhodesian bowling clubs. Their reputation for looking after a visiting fellow-bowler – even to finding him or her some bowls, also to “standing-down” to give a visitor a game should the green be full – frequently extends not only to the convivial hour or two in the “pub” after a game but to hospitality away from the club and to lasting friendships.
Rhodesia adheres to the South African laws of the game, but tourists from further afield need not worry much on this score as there is little material difference in the South African laws from those applying to the game outside Southern Africa.
One playing convention in Rhodesia – and a popular one – is that in pairs the lead and skip take it in turn to play two bowls: this makes for a more interesting and skilful game. In South Africa and in many other parts of the world each bowler plays off his four bowls in succession.
While there are many club and inter-club competitions, and mornings or afternoons are put aside for arranged games, there are invariably at the same time “tabs-in” games available for visitors to join in.
Unlike the bigger centres in South Africa and elsewhere, women bowlers can play during the entire weekend, and frequently mixed games are arranged for both social and competitive bowls.
In Salisbury and Bulawayo tourists can usually get a game on any day of the week, for bowls is extremely popular with those who have retired, apart from the fact that many Rhodesians take one afternoon off during the week to play their favourite sport.
Of the affiliated clubs, Salisbury boasts 59 greens and Bulawayo 39 greens. Some of these greens are in close vicinity to the city centre, others in the suburban areas a short distance away. Three clubs, the Bulawayo Bowling Club, Gwelo Bowling Club and Salisbury City Bowling Club, are situated in municipal parks that are themselves worth a visit and provide surroundings that have few equals in the bowling world.
But in Rhodesia bowling greens as a whole are sited in attractive surroundings, many with surprisingly modern club-houses. Some clubs are part and parcel of multi-sports clubs but with their own special autonomy. At some holiday resorts, hotels have their own greens and are open to visitors whether they are staying at the hotel or not.
The Salisbury Bowling Association maintains an administrative office which is open five mornings a week (phone 28224) and can advise visiting bowlers where they can best get a game on any particular day.
Because of Rhodesia’s sunny, equable climate, bowls is played 12 months in the year: there is no closed season, except in the case of one-green clubs, where the green is closed for a short period for renovation from late August to early October.
One of the oldest of games (played, it is said, in Egypt some 7 000 years ago), bowls in Rhodesia at club level had its beginnings in Bulawayo in 1899, only six years after the founding of a European settlement in what was then a collection of huts called Gubulawyo.
In that year the Bulawayo Bowling Club was formed, being the first club in Rhodesia and the fifth in Southern Africa. Owing to the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War and other difficulties in the completion of a suitable green, the first games were only played in 1901, with one W. Wightman becoming the first club singles champion.
While Salisbury, which had been founded three years earlier by the Pioneer Column, in 1890, lagged well behind in the matter of a bowling club, a bowling green was built in 1902 at Government House by Sir William Milton, Administrator of the Colony (sic) of Southern Rhodesia, and play started on it late in 1902 or early 1903.
Why at Government House? Because Mrs Milton (as she was then) had become famous for her afternoons “At Home” at Government House, where gusts could also indulge in tennis and croquet. It was to provide an additional amenity that prompted Milton to start the construction of a bowling green.
In 1902 the Salisbury Tennis Club also laid down a green. Says John Lyne:
“It seems credible that these two greens, at Government House and the Tennis Club, were of one rink. Also it would be reasonable to assume that they were used more in a social rather than competitive manner, but these points are relatively unimportant. From the aspect of bowling history it is evidence that the game was played in Salisbury considerably earlier than is generally supposed.”
The first bowling club in the capital, the Salisbury Gardens Bowling Club, was formed in 1922, but had a short life owing to acute water problems. In 1925 the game was revived with the establishment of the Salisbury Bowling Club now the Salisbury City Bowling Club which took over the defunct green of its predecessor.
An article of this nature should not omit a comment that the standard of bowling in Rhodesia is high. The country’s bowlers have achieved high honours in competition with South Africa (who number 60 000 among 700 clubs). This particularly applies to Rhodesia’s women bowlers, who frequently have emerged in competition as the top bowlers in Southern Africa. One of the most significant honours that have come to Rhodesia has been the singles title in a star-studded field at the Empire Games in Vancouver in 1954 – one by Ralf Hodges of Salisbury.
Much of the information in this article came from Mr. John Lyne of Salisbury who was well known for his library of books, documents and newspaper cuttings on the history of the game. Mr Lyne was both a past secretary and president of the Salisbury Bowling Association.