A Club History

Playing Dividends 

Gloucester & Severnside Co-op Bowling Club: A History

2012 marks the 65th anniversary of the Gloucester & Severnside Co-op Bowling Club. The first match was played in August 1947, although that was by a team from the Sports & Social Club rather than by a distinct bowls section. It was to be many years before a regular fixture list was in place, while the green at Sisson Road was not set out until 1964.

In writing this history I have made use of bowling club records from 1987 and those of the Sports & Social Club 1933-75. Lionel Davis, Club President, has contributed his memories. Unfortunately no club records prior to 1987 have survived, while those relating to matches played have only been kept systematically for very recent years. Bowls is an ancient sport and there are a number of references to it in Gloucestershire in Tudor times; so I have prefaced my account of Co-op club history with a look at the origins of the sport and its development in Gloucestershire.

Peter E. Bloomfield - Club Historian (March 2012)

An Ancient Sport: Bowling in Gloucestershire in times past

History has many legends. Generations of children grew up with the story of King Alfred burning the cakes, Canute trying to hold back the tide and one that takes us back many centuries to the game of bowls. In 1588, so the story goes, Sir Francis Drake was on Plymouth Hoe and about to deliver a wood when news was brought to him of the approach of the Spanish Armada. “Time”, Drake said, “to finish our game and then beat the Dons!” With which he continued his game and went on to send in the fire ships off Calais that destroyed the plans of King Phillip of Spain to invade England.

So, bowls was an established game in the reign of Queen Elizabeth 1st; indeed, it is much older than that. There is a drawing in the Royal Library at Windsor, of 13th century date, in which two players are shown aiming at a small cone. Prior to this, in his biography of Thomas Becket, written circa 1190, William Fitzherbert refers to “casting of stones”. The claim for being the oldest bowling green in the country, indeed in the world, is made by the Southampton [Old Green] Bowling Club. Here, it is said, bowls has been played continuously “since prior to A.D. 1299”, when a “Master of the Green” was appointed.  The green was on a site in an ancient part of the City known in Medieval times as “the Saltmarsh” and, it is claimed, the lawn on which bowls was played was laid in 1187. King Edward III (reigned 1272-1307) had his Parliament pass laws to prevent men from playing bowls when they should be practising archery to ensure they were fit and trained in the event of war.

In these medieval times the bowls that were used were wooden and without the bias that is such a notable feature of the later “woods”. The credit for introducing bias is given to Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk (c.1484-1545), a courtier and favourite of King Henry VIII, and his brother-in-law through his marriage to his sister, Mary Tudor. He had managed to shatter one of his bowls when it was “fired” down the green. So he replaced it with an ornamental bowl sawn off a convenient banister rail! This, because it had a “flat” side, took a different path to the straight woods in play, enabling him to take the green to run past them.

The oldest green in Gloucestershire where bowls is still played is Painswick Falcon, which celebrated its 450th anniversary in 2004 – although the modern club dates from the early 20th century – on the basis that the Inn was founded circa 1554, at which time bowling and cock-fighting took place adjacent to the building. 

Painswick Falcon Bowling Club – there is an old photograph in the clubhouse, dated 1870, showing the thatched shelter with players in front sporting straw boaters. The un-named green keeper, complete with broom, is to one side!

In Gloucester there is an early reference to it being played in Tudor times in the City Records. Early in the following century it is mentioned in the Gloucester Diocesan records when one Matheus Knight of Slimbridge was brought before the Diocesan Court in 1603 having been “detected for playinge at bowles upon the sabath dayes at servis tyme.” He confessed “that he & others did bowle upon sonday the xxviith of August laste after dynner, but whether it were at s(er)vis tyme or not he cannot tell”. 

In 1628, a green was opened at the Long Butts, outside the south side of the City wall, as an attraction for visitors. Another reference occurs in September 1636 when the Corporation Minutes record: “It is also agreed that Mr. William Kinge shall have leave to digge the bauke over against the bowleinge greene & to make the way there …” A green was destroyed during the Siege of Gloucester in 1643 and the “bowling greene” is amongst various properties listed in the Chamberlain’s Accounts in 1644 for which rents could not be collected, in this case because the area was “dig(ge)d up in p(ar)te for the fortifications”. Bowling was popular with Stuart Monarchs. The ill-fated King Charles 1 famously played bowls whilst held prisoner in Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight in 1648 and his son, the “Merrie Monarch” King Charles II, was also an aficionado of the sport and drew up the first set of bowls rules.

In Gloucester, a green in the grounds of Greyfriars was in use by 1714; the more recent club, which closed in September 2003, was established in 1921. James Kimber established a bowling green and tea garden in Barton Street in 1812, later known as Vauxhall Gardens. The green behind the Vauxhall Inn continued in use well into the 20th century and was at one time the home of Caer Glow Bowling Club, who shared the Co-op green from 1982. A Bowling Club was established at Gloucester Spa in 1866.

A notable step forwards for the development of the game of bowls in England came in 1903 with the establishment of the English Bowling Association [EBA]. Amongst its founding members was the famous Gloucestershire and England cricketer, W.G. Grace. Although better known for his prowess with bat and ball, Grace was also a very keen bowler. He was President of the EBA from 1903-05. 

Meanwhile, the Gloucester Bowling Club had been founded in 1897 as the Park End Bowling Club with its green behind the Park End Hotel. Renamed in 1901, it continued on that site, with a break during World War II, until 1967 when it had to make way for an extension to the Hotel. From 1969 to 1989 it shared the green in Hucclecote used by the Pineholt Bowling club, after which, without its own premises, numbers declined so that in 1997 it went into ‘suspended animation’ after celebrating its centenary. Its members had by this time joined other clubs, with a number signing on with the Gloucester & Severnside Co-op club.

Another old club is Gloucester Spa, which was formed in 1920. The Citizen [15 May] carries a report of their first game, against Kingsholm on a “public green”, which Spa won by eight shots. Winget Bowling Club can trace its origins even further back, to the Gloucester Wagon Works site in Tuffley Park in 1912. A very unusual feature of that club is the old railway carriage which is used as a changing room. There is a report in The Citizen [14 June 2011] which describes it as“the only original Argentinean railway carriage left from Gloucester’s famous Wagon Works Company”. It was recovered from a ship that was carrying rolling stock but sank.

Today the Gloucester & Severnside Co-op is one of several bowling clubs still active in the Gloucester area, the others being Caer Glow, Gloucester City, Gloucester Spa, Barnwood, EDF (previously British Energy), Pineholt, Sir Thomas Rich’s, Churchdown and Winget. Sadly, Greyfriars folded in 2003 and Woodlawns (Brockworth) in 2004, while Gloucester Civil Service had its last season in 2011, the latter a victim of cuts in Government expenditure.

Gloucester Co-op Bowls: Early Days

The origins of the ‘Co-op’ club can be traced to a match arranged against the British Workers Sports Association [BWSA] in August 1947. There had been an earlier attempt to set up a Bowls Section in 1939, as recorded in the Gloucester Co-operative Employees Sports and Social Club Minute Book: “May 1st. Mr. Webb drew attention to the possibility of forming a bowling section”. A circular letter was sent out to branches and departments for names of those interested, and fourteen positive replies were received. It was then proposed on 5th June that the matter “‘be held in abeyance until there is evidence of greater support”, but an amendment was carried, by the casting vote of the Chairman, “that a portion of the ground be laid out, not expensively, for use on nights other than Cricket nights”. A sub-committee was formed “to consider fully this matter and report progress”. This met three times and reported to the monthly meeting of 31st July, drawing attention to “ such snags as increased ground maintenance costs, wiring and costs of banking a green, removal of concrete cricket pitch (and the) possibility of retaining interest”. At this point it was “resolved to let this matter lie on the table for the time being.”

A few weeks later and the outbreak of the Second World War focused minds on other things. Not until January 1947 was the idea of playing bowls revived when a meeting of the Club held on the 7th was presented with a letter from the BWSA asking for a fixture. This was arranged for 14th August, to be played on the Spa Bowling Green. It was resolved that “Mr. A Jones be captain and make arrangements for 24 players together with Mr. E. Davis (vice-chairman) as helper” [28 April]. Progress was reported on 27th May, when it was “resolved that badges be purchased and presented to the BWSA team – as is customary in Bowls fixtures”. At a meeting on 16th June it was “unanimously resolved to present Mr. L. Y. Currall with a set of bowling woods, inscribed with his initials, in view of his past services.” The match was duly played and reported to the September meeting as “successful”, although the result, alas, is not, given. Mr. Hawker presented Mr. Currall with his set of woods on the bowling green. The meeting confirmed the action of the Secretary “in ordering a further 12 badges as mementoes and also in paying bills for the ‘greens’ and catering.”

Meanwhile, on 28th July, another match had been agreed against a team from the Coventry Co-op, when “it was resolved that Matson Bowling Club be approached to hire the green” in return for a donation of £2.2s.0d. By November the Gloucester Co-op was again looking at setting out its own green: “The Chairman drew attention to the question of a natural bowling green; after some discussion the Secretary was instructed to call in the advice of Mr. Restall (Glos. Wagon Co.) re the use of say two rinks only at Sisson Road.” [4th November]. However, nothing came of this because “the costs would be approx £300-£400 – needed constant attention etc. and it would not be a paying proposition”, and it was “decided to hold the question of a bowling green in abeyance.” [17th February 1948].

The next reference to a bowls match occurs in September 1949, when the Gloucester Co-op played, and defeated, the Cardiff Co-op Society on Gloucester Spa green [Minutes 6th & 20th]. The following year a match was played on 5th July against a touring side from Plymouth Co-op, again on the Spa green [Minutes 7th February]. After this, there is no mention of bowls, or fixtures are simply not recorded.


A Bowls Section is formed

 Fourteen years went by until the next significant event in the Club History came in 1964. At the Annual General Meeting of the Sports & Social Club, held at the Guildhall on Tuesday 28th July, it is recorded that “Mr. Galling thanked Mr. Ball for arranging several matches which everyone seemed to enjoy.” It was then agreed, 25 years after it has been first proposed, “that a Bowls Section be officially formed”. The resolution was put forward by George White, who was later to become President and Chairman of the Club. It would appear that some rinks were set out at Sisson Road at this point, Mr. Davis reporting to the Committee in April 1965 “that the ground was progressing quite well; he had had no complaints so far.” On 18th August the Committee agreed that a grant of £15 be made available to the new section. Evidently several matches were played the following year, as it was recorded, on 3rd August, that “The Bowls matches had been enjoyed by the players although to date they had not won a match, it was not for the lack of interest or enthusiasm.” By the autumn of 1967 things seem to have been going well, the season having been “the most successful as yet”. However, the increased cost of a bowling green meant that the section would have to raise extra funds, and the Committee duly approved a request for a Dance [13th October].

In 1968 the Club was looking to build a new pavilion and it was agreed to move the cricket and football pitches to give more scope for the development of the bowls green [Minutes, 11th November]. It was about this time that Lionel Davis, who was later to be Captain and then President of the Bowls Club, took up the sport. He recalled that most of the early games were played at Barnwood Bowling Club, the green at Sisson Road being a two-rinker used for roll-ups. The Section was proving a success and the Committee, on 28th September 1969, congratulated them on their “growing prestige” and the “tremendous job being done at Sisson Road”.  By 1969, the new hut was “beginning to take shape” [2nd March] and in May 1970 it was resolved that “Mr. Davis would have control of the Bowling Green”. [26th May]. It is recorded that Mr. Harris would “attend to surrounds and the weeding around the bowling green” while “Mr. Butler offered his services to Mr. Davis wherever possible.”  Bill Harris and Roy Butler were both to become Chairman of the Bowls Club and to be commemorated by 4-wood competitions played for trophies named after them. The same meeting agreed to purchase a sprinkler and spiker. Despite on-going problems with weeds the season was a successful one.

Weeds continued to be an issue in 1971, but by January 1972 they seem to have been brought under control, Mr. Davis reporting that “he was extremely pleased with the progress of the new grass” [24th January]. Work on the hut, though, was very slow. The “large room and kitchen” were nearing completion by the spring of 1973 [Minutes, 5th March] and the first stage was completed by August. Roy Butler [Chairman of the Sports & Social Club] said “that at long last he could achieve an ambition by having been able to pull a pint of beer at Sisson Road.” [11th August]. It is clear that proper fixtures were now taking place, although the absence of surviving records prior to the late 1980s does not admit of any specific references to them.

Old Clubhouse.jpg





The original clubhouse at Sisson Road – pictured in a sorry state in 2010. Following the construction of the new clubhouse it was used as a store

Lionel Davis recalled that these early games played at Sisson Road were on a rather bumpy 5-rink green, which had been created through a great deal of hard work over an 18 month period. Tennis courts and a concrete cricket pitch used to be on the site. Lionel would go up to Sisson Road at 10 o’clock in the morning and not return home until 4 or 5 o’clock in the afternoon. He was assisted by Arthur (Andy) Andrews [who was later Secretary, Captain and President of the Bowls Club], George Hudson [Fixtures Secretary for the County] and the Vining brothers [contracted labour]. They used a Ferguson Tractor over the weekends, shifting a massive amount of dirt, and had a great problem with gravel, which would be washed to the surface after a storm.