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Bowling Green
New York's Medieval Sports Center

by Paul Halsall

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Bowling Green in Winter

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Bowling Green in Spring

The Bowling Green

Where Broadway begins, at the intersection of State and Whitehall Streets lies Manhattan's Bowling Green, the oldest green park in the city. The area began as a cattle market and a place for parades. In 1733 it was converted into a bowling green, hence today's name. Until 1776 there was a statue here of  George III surrounded by an iron fence. After the American declaration of independence had been published, New Yorkers pulled it down and usd the lead for ammunition.

halsall8-3.jpg (9995 bytes)The Bowling Green eventually  suffered the same fate as the statue. It 1914 it had to yield to a subway station and the playing greens were transferred to Central Park (pictured right). Today it is still an open space with a regular greenmarket.

History of the Sport


Some sort of bowling (there are many forms - boule, bocce, petanque, etc.) can be traced back to the  Egyptians. And other sports developed from it - for instance Curling (now and Olympic sport) which is basically a winter version played on ice. The oldest Crown Green still played on is in Southampton, England. It has been in operation since  since 1299 CE.

Every British child used to know at least one bowling story - when Elizabeth I's "sea-dog" Frances Drake was informed that the Spanish Armada was near - on July 18, 1588 - he was playing a game of Bowls on Plymouth Hoe. His reputed response was "We still have time to finish the game and to thrash the Spaniards, too."

Banning of  Bowls

Oddly enough for a game which is now seen as the epitome of placidity, bowling was banned for many centuries for most people. Henry VIII played the game, but banned it for the poor because "Bowyers, Fletchers, Stringers and Arrowhead makers" were spending more time at recreational events such as bowls instead of practising their trade. He ruled that anybody who wished to keep a green pay a fee of 100 pounds, and that   the green could only be used for private play and he forbade anyone to "play at any bowle or bowles in open space out of his own garden or orchard".

This ban was maintained for centuries. In 1618 King James I issued The Book of Sports and, while condemningfootball (soccer) and golf, encouraged the playing of bowls. His son, Charles I issued his own Declaration of Sports in which he ordained that:

"our good people be not disturbed, letted, or discouraged from any lawful recreation, such as dancing, either men or women; archery for men, leaping, vaulting, or any other such harmless recreation, nor from having of May-games, Whitsun-ales, and Morris-dances, and the setting up of Maypoles and other sports therewith used."

But he also maintained:

"we do here account still as prohibited all unlawful games to be used upon Sundays only, as bear and bull baitings, interludes, and at all times in the meaner sort of people by law prohibited, bowling."! 

It was only in 1845 that the ban was lifted, and people were again allowed to play bowls as they wanted.

In America

Despite the laws, bowls continued to be played, and was played in the America from early 1600's.  The game spread to other parts of the British Empire also: Canada,   Australia, and  New Zealand.  Crown Green and/or Lawn Bowling (there are slight variations between the two sports)  was the leading sport in America before the Revolutionary War and part of the historic fabric of New York City. Bowling Green Park at the tip of Broadway was established on March 12, 1733 and believed to be the first public park in North America. Although considered the "Sport of Kings",   bowling was played in America by such notables as George Washington, George Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller and Walt Disney (who used to lay planeloads of bowlers to his Palm Springs home for bowling weekends).

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Location of Bowling Green

The Game

Richard Suren Keoseian, Founder and president of Metropolitan Lawn Bowling Club of New York explained the flat green game in an email as follows:

The aristocratic elements of the game have been preserved for centuries and, although considered a "sport of kings", does not bar players for age, race, religion, politics, size, sex or celebrity. Anyone can play.  All they need to do is walk, bend over and swing their arm.

Up close, it is a one-on-one struggle, a duel, a contest where every bowl is a competitive thrust and parry. Quite simply, a small white ball, the "jack" is rolled down a close cropped grass lawn 120 feet long by 15 feet wide, called the "rink". The jack comes to rest about 75 feet down the rink and is centered. Players then take turns "delivering" three pound bowls in the direction of the jack. Once all have rolled their bowls (generally four per person), points are awarded to those closest to the jack.

The game is interesting because the bowls are not round but elliptical - cut on the bias - causing them to curve anywhere from two-thirds to three-quarters of the way along their run. In effect, you have to aim to one side of the jack, not straight on.

Proper dress  - whites and flat shoes (without heels).

The difference between the lawn bowling (or flat bowling) described here and crown green bowling is that in crown green bowling the green has a slight "crown"   and the jack is biased.  Moreover, flat green bowls is confined to play on rinks, while crown green bowls can be played in any direction on a green.

New York Bowling Greens

  • Central Park (picture and info): The greens are located  a few hundred yards from the West 69th St. entrance just north of Sheep Meadow.



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© Site Concept and Design: Paul Halsall created 26 Jan 1996: latest revision 5 June 2023 [CV]