Kōrero: Bowls, pétanque and tenpin

Whārangi 1. Lawn bowls: game, history and organisation

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero

The game

Lawn bowls is played on a large rectangular grass or synthetic surface, called a bowling green, which is divided into parallel playing strips called rinks. The aim is to roll slightly asymmetric balls (bowls) closest to a smaller bowl called the ‘jack’ or ‘kitty’. The game can be played as singles (one player on each side) or in teams of two (pairs), three (triples) or four (fours). At the beginning of a game competitors flip a coin to see who wins the ‘mat’.

Pretty in pink?

Bowls were originally made from the dense wood lignum vitae – hence the term ‘woods’ for bowls. Most bowls are now made from hard plastic composite material, which has also expanded the colour range. It is not uncommon to see bowls in fluorescent hues mingling with traditional black and brown coloured bowls on greens.

The winning ‘skip’ (team captain) chooses the placement of the mat and it becomes the starting point from which all bowlers must bowl. The winner places the mat and rolls the jack to the other end of the green (the ‘end’). After it stops, it is centred on the rink and players take turns to roll their balls from the mat towards the jack. A bowl may curve outside the rink boundary, but must come to rest within it to remain in play. Bowls that fall into the ditch at the green’s end are taken from play, with the exception of those that ‘touch’ the jack beforehand.

After each competitor has delivered all their bowls – four bowls each in singles and pairs; three in triples; and two in fours – the distance of the closest bowls to the jack is measured. The winning team gets as many points or ‘shots’ as it has bowls closer to the jack than the best bowl of the losing team. A game normally lasts 21 ‘ends’ (segments of competition). In a singles game the winner is the first to score 21 shots. In pairs, triples and fours the winner is the team that has scored the most shots after 18 ends of play.

A brown green

With no access to water, the Christchurch club green turned the colour of straw each summer, damaging the playing surface. This was until the club began enlisting the local fire brigade to pump water from the neighbouring East Christchurch School pool to swamp the parched ground.


Bowls originated in ancient Egypt and has been played in England since the 13th century. It waxed and waned in popularity until the mid-19th century, when it experienced a revival, especially in Scotland. The Scots developed flat greens and drew up rules that remain largely unchanged.

Settlers brought the game to New Zealand in the early 1860s. Auckland Bowling Club was formed in 1861 and opened the country’s first green the following year in Grafton. Dunedin followed suit in 1871, Christchurch in 1875 and Wellington in 1886. As the sport became more popular new suburban bowling clubs were formed, especially during the 1890s. Most provincial towns also started bowling clubs. By the early 1900s Gisborne, with a population of just under 5,000 people, boasted three clubs: Gisborne, Kaiti and Whataupoko.

Women were precluded from playing with men and from 1906 began setting up their own clubs and competitions: Kelburn Ladies’ Bowling Club was the first. Generally women did not have their own greens but were allowed to use the men’s greens on weekday afternoons.

Dressing up

In the past bowls had a very strict dress code, especially for women. Carol Wing, president of Bowls New Zealand, recalled ‘Mum wanted me to play but the dress code put me off bowls completely’.1 The starched white dresses had to be a specific length. Some players rebelled against the code and wore brighter colours or floppy hats. The dress code became more relaxed over time, partly to attract more people to the sport.


In 1879 annual matches began between the Dunedin and Christchurch clubs, each taking turns to host. In 1886 the existing 12 clubs formed the New Zealand Bowling Association. A set of rules was agreed to and the first national tournament was held in Dunedin later that year. At a Wellington tournament in 1890 a decision was made to form the Northern Bowling Association of New Zealand, comprising North Island clubs and Nelson and Marlborough. In 1895 Auckland clubs split from the association and created the Auckland Provincial Bowling Association.

In 1913 growing calls for a new national body were heeded when the three separate groups merged to create the Dominion of New Zealand Bowling Association. The association consisted of 17 centres (regions), eight in the North Island and nine in the South, comprising 198 clubs and 10,912 members.

In 1930 the New Zealand Women’s Bowling Association was formed to manage the women’s game. In 1996 the two associations merged into Bowls New Zealand. In 2012 the country was split into three regions: Northern, Central and Southern, covering 27 centres and 610 clubs. It runs the annual national championship tournament.

Kupu tāpiri
  1. Alistair McMurran, ‘Bowls: president recalls days of starched white dresses.’ Otago Daily Times, http://www.odt.co.nz/sport/bowls/142761/bowls-president-recalls-days-starched-white-dresses (last accessed 7 June 2012). Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Lindsay Knight, 'Bowls, pétanque and tenpin - Lawn bowls: game, history and organisation', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/bowls-petanque-and-tenpin/page-1 (accessed 17 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Lindsay Knight, i tāngia i te 5 Sep 2013, updated 1 Jan 2015