William Dargue A History of BIRMINGHAM Places & Placenames from A to Y
B31 - Grid reference SP02578
First record 1863?
Bowlingalley as a placename is mentioned in the 1863 perambulation of Northfield. The route here took the party
‘onto Turves Green. Now cross the road, to about seventy yards into the pasture - where was formerly a ditch leaving George Withers's cottage on the right, then up the field, keeping the hedgerow on the right to the railway; thence across the same - taking to the hedge again, and crossing Bowling Alley Brook.'
(For more information on parish perambulations see the Glossary N-S.)
The 1851 Census lists a dozen cottages probably scattered along West Heath Road south of the River Rea; Bowling Alley Brook must have been its local name. The 1887 Ordnance Survey map appears to show fewer dwellings still. There is no indication of a bowling alley or of a public house on the map.
The modern game of bowls dates from the Middle Ages. Played on a length of short-cut grass, the aim of the game was and is to roll a ball closest to a smaller ball known as the jack. The earliest records of the game date from the 13th century and the earliest recorded reference to a bowling green is to that of the Southampton Old Green Bowling Club in 1299, a green that is still in use.
The first record of the word bowling ‘bowlyn' is found in 1440, ‘bowls' is found in 1535 and ‘bowling alley' in 1555. This could refer either to an indoor or an outdoor space. Generally it was what we now refer to as a green ie. a lawn outdoors, this latter term being first recorded in 1646.
The game was banned by a number of medieval kings who feared that its popularity might detract from the practice of archery, a sport necessary to the defence of the country. Furthermore, bowling alleys were often attached to pubs and the game fell into disrepute by association with the more dissolute premises. From the mid-15th century a large number of bowling alleys were set up particularly in London.
Henry VIII was a bowls player. Among the first alterations he made to Hampton Court Palace on his acquisition of it in 1529 was to have built a 'close tennys play' (an indoor tennis court) and a
‘close bowling alley'. However, he had previously enacted a statute in 1511 naming ‘Tenys, Closshe, Dise, Cardes, Bowles' as unlawful games. In 1541 labourers, apprentices and
servants were forbidden to play bowls except Christmas, and then only in their master's house with the master present. Any one playing bowls outside their own premises could be fined 6s. 8d.
However, people with property with a yearly value of more than £100 could buy a license to play on their own private green.
The Ordinances of the Guild of Spectacle Makers approved by the King's Justices in 1630, state that
‘if any Apprentice shall misbehave himself towards his Master or Mistress . . . Or be any Drunkard haunter of Taverns, Ale Houses Bowling Alleys or other lewd and suspected Places of evil Company . . . he shall be brought to the Hall of the said Company . . . and shall be stripped from the middle upwards and there be whipped.'
The game never suffered from royal interference in Scotland and it is from the mid-19th century that the modern game was developed there.
William Dargue 30.07.2010
For 19th-century Ordnance Survey maps of Birmingham go to British History Online.