This text was kindly provided by Tyne and Wear Museums and Archives (with particular thanks to Alex Boyd) where it provided the basis for their exhibition “Our Sporting Life” in June 2011 at Newcastle’s City Library

Although first codified in Scotland in the 1840s, evidence suggests that bowls was being played well before this time. Studies have shown that bowling greens were often the first purpose built sports grounds to appear in many towns and cities. The first bowling green in Newcastle upon Tyne appears on a 1723 map showing the Forth pleasure grounds located close to where Central Station is today.

Bowls is a popular sport in Tyne and Wear – in 2010 there were 112 bowling clubs, both public and private. The area covered by these greens amounts to around 44 acres – over 25 times the size of the pitch at St James’ Park!

This exhibition is a celebration of one of these clubs, its history, traditions and members.

Summerhill Bowling Club 1916-2011

Summerhill Bowling Club was officially opened on 17 July 1916 as a private members bowling club in the Summerhill area of Newcastle upon Tyne. The leading figure in the establishment of the club was the director of a local iron and steel company, Henry Alfred Lawson, who went on to become the club’s first president and the Chairman of the Board of Directors. In 1922 Henry Lawson also became the first president of the newly formed Northumberland County Bowling Association.

The club had many successful years and was renowned for its welcoming atmosphere along with the quality of its greens. Due to falling membership the club closed in March 2011 and its assets were passed to the Friends of Summerhill to be adapted for community use.

What is bowls?

‘Flat green’ or ‘lawn’ bowls is a highly tactical sport in which players roll balls as close as possible to a target ball, or jack. The game is usually played outdoors on a rectangular area of flat turf. The balls, called bowls or woods, are designed to travel a curved path. This effect was originally created by weights placed on one side of the bowls, but is now produced by the shape of the bowl itself. Formally made from lignum vitae, a very hard wood, bowls are now more often made from a hard plastic composite.

West End Bowling Club Ltd

The land on which Summerhill Bowling Club stands was restricted by deed to be used as a garden or pleasure grounds in the late 18th century and was originally used as allotments. This restriction was removed in 1904 to allow ‘bowls, quoits, lawn tennis and other quiet games’. Shortly after this, the land was bought by the West End Bowling Club Ltd and developed as an area for bowls and tennis. The club had a short yet prosperous life and many of the traditions of Summerhill Bowling Club can be traced back to these early years. In 1916 the club was forced into liquidation due to financial difficulties and the premises were transferred to the newly established Summerhill Bowling Club.

Dr WG Grace

In 1907 the club hosted part of the Home International Team competition and it was during this event that the club was visited by the well known cricketer and sportsman Dr W G Grace.

Grace was an important figure in the formation of the English Bowling Association in 1903 and was elected its first president. This photograph of the occasion has hung in the clubhouse ever since.

Clubhouse

Following a successful initial 20 years for Summerhill Bowling Club it was decided to replace the old wooden clubhouse that stood next to the greens. A new brick pavilion was built at a cost of £1940 and officially opened on 8 May 1937.

The land that is now occupied by the car park and the area behind the lower green once housed tennis courts. The tennis section of the club was successful until the late 1930s when support appears to have diminished and it was decided to focus on bowling only.

Success!

Summerhill Bowling Club won many prestigious competitions and trophies throughout its years.

Teams and individual players from the club were successful at county and national and eight members played at international level.

  • 1939 – JJ Laws won the English Bolwing Association (EBA) Singles
  • 1966 – FC Lumley, G Boag, A Bryson and W Charlton won the EBA Fours
  • 1967 – A Bryson, G Boag, FC Lumley won the EBA Triples
  • 1985 5 members of Summerhill Bowling Club played in the Northumberland County Team

Summerhill also won the Bell Cup 30 times between 1920 and 1998

Race Week

1906 saw the first open singles bowls tournament to be held in Newcastle take place at the West End Bowling Club. The event was held during Race Week. Race Week was the third week in June when many sporting events were staged, including the Northumberland Plate horse race. The Race Week bowls tournament was such a success that the following year the North East and Scottish Railway Company offered special cheap day tickets for the event. Summerhill Bowling Club continued the Race Week tournament and it became a highly popular fixture in the bowls calendar.

Traditions

Summerhill Bowling Club had many traditions specific to the club. At one time it was customary for the president of the club to pass round a silver snuff box at 9 o’clock in the evening.

It was also a tradition for the wife of the president to bowl a silver jack on the first day of the season to officially open the greens. This tradition is said to have started at the opening of the new clubhouse in 1937 and appears to be unique to Summerhill.

Social side

As well as being successful on the bowling green, Summerhill Bowling Club was also well known for its lively and popular social events. Tea would be served every Saturday afternoon and evening events would often draw crowds of more than 100 people. Many people joined the club for the social side as much as for the bowling.

Ladies section

Summerhill ladies section was established in 1970. In the minutes from the directors meeting at the time a certain amount of opposition can be seen from some club members. However, this was short lived and the ladies section went on to become successful at both county and national level.

NUFC

Summerhill Bowling Club was visited by some other famous sportsmen throughout its history. Between 1943 and 1957 many famous names from Newcastle United Football Club played bowls on the club’s greens, including Jackie Milburn, Len Shackleton and Roy Bentley.