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Object of the Week

A set of carpet bowls from the early 20th century

Every week we will be highlighting an object from our collection. This week’s object has been chosen by Kirsty, a volunteer.

Carpet bowls set, early 20th century

It’s half term this week, and, while we can go out and about much more, we might still like playing games at home. Carpet or lawn bowls would be perfect for this! The game of bowls, where competitors roll a small, heavy ball to try to get closest to a smaller ball, the jack, goes back a long way. Something similar was played in Ancient Greece and probably even earlier in Ancient Egypt. It’s has been played in England since before the 13th century. It must have become really popular, because it was banned! Medieval kings were worried that people were so keen on playing bowls that they wouldn’t practice their archery. Even servants weren’t allowed to play bowls except on Christmas Day – and this law wasn’t repealed until 1845! Perhaps the most famous bowls player was Sir Francis Drake in the 16th century, who insisted on finishing his game of bowls when the Spanish Armada was sighted.

It was in the mid-19th century that bowls began to get popular again, thanks to a Stroud invention – the lawnmower. Lawns could now be kept easily neat and short, and games like tennis, croquet and bowls became popular at home and in new clubs. But in Scotland another game developed, called ‘piggies’ – a kind of bowls made to be played inside. This parlour game was played on blankets, paper, canvas – even sawdusted floors – with ceramic balls. Wooden ones like the set in the museum were introduced in the 1890s. It wasn’t usually played at home, as you need space for a seven or eight metre carpet, but was played in community halls in Scotland and the North of England by the turn of the 20th century. Everyone can play – the sport is still considered a very inclusive one.

The balls are made of a special kind of wood, lignum vitae. The tree came originally from the West Indies and got its name, which means ‘wood of life’ in Latin, as it was considered to have many medicinal uses – from helping with high blood pressure to easing arthritis. It was introduced to Europe in the 16th century, and has long been the traditional wood bowls are made from – being one of the hardest and heaviest woods known.

Why do I like it?

I was just about to write that I’ve actually never played bowls, but then I realised it wasn’t true! As a kid I played beach bowls – we had a brightly coloured plastic set in a carry case and would, if possible, play on the beach. Impossible on pebbly beaches, you need a flat surface like lawns, carpets – or sand. I rather like the smart wooden box and balls of the museum’s set, though – much better than plastic! So, if you have a set, or can get one, and wherever you end up playing, at home, in the garden or on the beach – have fun!