How to play lawn bowls

Lawn bowls is a game that is described as ‘taking a second to learn, but a lifetime to master.’ The aim of this precision sport is to roll slightly radially asymmetrical balls the closest to a smaller white or yellow ball called the ‘Jack’ or the ‘Kitty.’

Written by

Sheila Frampton

 Lawn bowls is played both indoors and outdoors on a grass or artificial surface known as a ’green’ which is divided into playing strips known as ‘rinks.’  

The following are some of the most frequent questions asked about lawn bowling.

What’s the history of lawn bowls?

The origin of lawn bowls dates to the time of the ancient Egyptians.

Archeological findings support the theory that a game with biased stone balls was played in Egypt 7,000 years ago. This version used sticks as targets and would be played on dirt rather than grass.  In ancient Rome another version of the game was played – and this was to become the modern game of bocce.  The Romans made the game popular throughout the empire with several countries creating their own version including boules in France and lawn bowls in Britain.

During medieval times, it was believed that playing lawn bowls was taking too much time and preventing men from practising archery.  A succession of monarchs passed laws restricting play including  Edward III (1261), Richard II (1388), Henry IV (1409) and Queen Mary (1555).  These generally prevented the lower classes from playing or restricted the times and duration of the game.  Henry VIII specifically forbade the play of bowls for labourers and ‘low-born’ people with the exception of Christmas Day (1541).  Anyone caught playing the game would be fined – and the cost would be beyond the means of the poorer members of society.  Queen Mary went further than Henry and banned bowls for the underclass completely, describing it as being used for ‘unlawful assemblies, conventiclers, seditions and conspiracies.’  It wasn’t until Queen Victoria’s reign (1845) that the laws were repealed.  Whilst the lower classes were banned from playing, the upper classes have always enjoyed the sport.  Shakespeare refers to bowls, Sir Francis Drake was anxious to finish his game when the Spanish Armada was attacking.

With the spread of the British Empire, lawn bowls spread across territories such as the USA, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.  The first game was played in Tasmania in 1844.  The popularity of bowls waned a little in the USA but several clubs were founded and a bowling green was built by George Washington’s father at Mount Vernon.

Lawn bowls really came into its own when, in 1830, Edwin Beard Budding invented the lawnmower.  This helped with the preparation of greens both in England and across the world.   Greens could be maintained to a much higher standard and this led to the development of a game much closer to the one we now know.  Without this invention, it would not have been possible to bring high-quality greens to the ‘masses’ and bowls would have remained an upper-class sport.

What is the object of a game of lawn bowls?

The aim is to roll your bowl as close to a smaller white ball (the jack) as possible and to get one or more of your bowls closer to the jack than your opponent.

Lawn bowling glossary

What are the rules of lawn bowls? 

The teams toss a coin to decide which bowls first.  The first bowler places the mat centrally and then rolls the jack to whatever distance they like.  The only restriction is that it must be at least 25 metres from the mat and must stay out of the ditch (there is usually a marker on the rink to show the minimum distance). 

Once the jack has come to rest, it’s placed centrally by the market with the help of the bowler.  The jack now becomes the target.

Teams take alternate shots. Each member of the team takes all their shots before the next takes over.  When playing any shot, the bowler must always have one foot on the mat.

Any bowls that are in play can be moved by another shot and they stay active where they finish.  This includes the jack. Any bowl that finishes in the ditch is out of play.

Once all players have finished their shots, the game is scored. The winning side gets one point for each bowl that is closer to the jack than their opponent’s nearest bowl.

The winning team will get to go first on the next ‘end’ and this will be played in the opposite direction to the previous end.

How long is a game of lawn bowls?

Depending on the format, a game will last between 90 minutes and three hours. Singles will take less time and fours much longer.

What are lawn bowls made of?

The balls used in lawn bowling are known as ‘bowls’ or ‘woods.’  The latter is a reference to a time when the bowls were indeed made of wood.  Today, they are made of composite plastic which means they not only last longer but can be made to the same specification each and every time. 

Lawn bowls also have a stamp to show when the bowl was last tested to ensure it meets international standards.  Bowls need testing every 10 years and the stamp shows who tested it, to which standard and the year it will require re-testing.

What type of bowls should I use & what do they cost?

The best lawn bowls brands are Aero, Drakes Pride, Thomas Taylor, and Henselite. These 4 brands produce nearly all of the lawn bowls sold Worldwide. Drakes Pride and Thomas Taylor are the best UK brands.

A brand-new set of 4 bowls can cost between £219-£350 and upwards. The price can go higher if you want extras, such as unique grips, or custom logos. Bowls are available second hand, and a set, in decent condition, can be found for under £50.

Bowls can last for 20 to 30 years but they need stamping every 10 years. Do be aware that not all lawn bowls are the same weight.  Depending on the size of bowl they can range from 1.1 kg to 1.5 kg.

What should I wear to play lawn bowls?

Each club will have their own guidelines depending on the type of game is being played, however, there are usually some common rules in lawn bowls that you will find in most clubs and leagues.  The most basic will be that players should wear trousers or shorts, a club shirt or plain white tee-shirt and a pair of flat-soled shoes.  Trousers should be white for friendlies and grey for competitions.

Items such as hats and waterproofs are essential, especially when playing in the UK where the weather can change quickly. The general rule with accessories is to ensure they are white. Apart from that you are free to choose whatever style you like.

What are the benefits of playing lawn bowls?

Health professionals recommend playing bowls, particularly for older people, as it provides a number of health benefits, including the fact that it allows you to:

  • Stay active- each session is only 30 minutes long but you'll be surprised by how many you complete during a game and how far you walk.
  • Build strength- as well as walking, you'll also be building strength in your arms and working muscles in your legs as you lunge.
  • Socialise -  you don't have to be competitive to play Lawn Bowls, many people enjoy the social side of the game and organise teams, leagues and regular events.
  • Play a game that’s for everyone: Lawn Bowls is for everybody as there is no contact and it's run at a leisurely pace so the whole family can get involved 
  • Engage in gentle exercise - you don't need to the fastest or the strongest to play Lawn Bowls, the key to success lies in the skills you develop. 

Where’s the nearest lawns bowls club to my Beechcroft development?

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