When bowling was sport of champions in Leigh

Jim Cunliffe heads for another win at the Red Lion in a 1950s panel match
Jim Cunliffe heads for another win at the Red Lion in a 1950s panel match
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Local historian Alf Ridyard looks back at the sport of bowels in his column, Tash Tales...

Once again our time machine rolls back into the 19th century and the birth of what was to be a major sporting pastime for the working class of our town.

READ MORE: Leigh players who appeared just once for the club... https://www.leighobserver.co.uk/lifestyle/rl-players-who-played-for-leigh-just-once-but-left-their-mark-1-9064589

There are no records of when it all started other than that our area of Lancashire played a major part in the development around the 1860s. Common land around the inns and beer houses of our towns were the first places that the game of bowls took place.

It was not on the pristine manicured squares we see today but the rules have changed little since those long since days.

The first player to be nearest the jack wins – the target bowl scores the point or points if both bowls are nearer – and the first to reach 21 is the overall winner.

The game’s popularity soon gained momentum and was played at first by an older generation whose sporting days of football rugby etc. had by then passed them by.

It did not take long for pub landlords along with the breweries who supplied their beer to cotton on that this was a money spinner.

There are no definite numbers of public house greens in Leigh in the early to mid-20th century but to hazard a guess, 80 per cent seems a reasonable figure, including town centre pubs such as the Brown Cow and the Walmsley Arms on the Market Square,

The Walmsley Arms hosted many handicaps in aid of the Leigh hospital.

Qualifiers for the finals were held at many of the other pubs in the district, and finals days always drew large crowds, much to the delight of the incumbent licensee.

It did not take long for the local councils to install greens in the local parks.

In some cases, like Dootsons Park, Lilford Park and Pennington Hall, two greens were installed.

The political and working men’s clubs also saw the need to attract members. The greens were now becoming enclosed spaces within the boundaries of the pubs, no specific sizes to the area of the green was required. I would suppose that all space was utilised to maximum effect, the crown in the centre of the green could be as much as a foot higher than the edges with little hollows and ridges making every green unique and favourable to the regular clientele.

By 1878, we see this gentle pastime grow some teeth when the Blackpool sweepstake was played for a cash prize to the winner, attracting players from all over Lancashire, putting their skills to the test.

No formal dress was apparent in those early days, bowlers would turn up in normal workday clothes with a bowl in either pocket of an overcoat or mac.

It is said that one wife so fed up of the bulging pockets fashioned a bag made from sleeves of an old overcoat.

With her name being Dorothy, the name “Dorothy bag” stuck and was a popular item throughout the 20th century. Of course, there is no proof that Dorothy bags came from this ladies bowls carrier but the bowling fraternity are sticking to their tale.

It was in 1907 when we saw major advances in the game – the Waterloo Handicap in Blackpool was first played and large sums of money were available to the winner.

The inaugural winner was a Westleigh man, Jas Rothwell, who won £25 first prize out of 320 entries who started the competition.

Two years later, another Westleyther, Tom Meadows of 400 Westleigh Lane, four doors from the Railway Tavern, also won first prize.

The tournament was by now becoming the Wembley of the bowling world and in 1914 John Rothwell, from Atherton, won the tournament, the prize money now a massive £50.

Other local winners over the years were

J Featherstone in 1961, Len Higginbottom, Atherton, in 1979 and Jack Grimes, landlord of the Royal Oak on King Street, in 1985.

Of course, a list of winners must include adopted Leyther Brian Duncan, landlord of the Sportsman, who did the spring and autumn double in 1992.Prize money these days is £3,000.

Alongside the Waterloo, was the Talbot contest. This was played at the Raikes Hall Hotel, Blackpool.

Another local won this, Norman Fletcher. In 1908 the game took another step forward when the professional panel was established. This still runs today and is based at the Red Lion

Green at Westhoughton. Over the years, the Over Hulton British Legion green and the Silverside greens were used.

The “panel” is so named after the list of players from which the matches are drawn. Pre-war and the 50s and 60s were the panels heyday but matches are still played Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday at the Red Lion Green and still attract a hard core of fans.

Jimmy (Nat) Cunliffe of Blackrod was a former professional Everton footballer who played alongside Dixie Dean and Tommy Lawton and on retirement from football, he gave up his trade at Horwich Loco works to become a pro bowler on the panel.

Through the late 30s and 40s, Jim could earn £1,000 per year on the panel, £5 for a win and £4 for a loss and if so inclined could back himself to win with the local bookmakers on the course.

Not to cast aspersions on this gentle giant of a man, he could also back himself to lose should the handicap not favour him.

Many footballers of the 50s and 60s were aficionados of the panel, none more than Alan Ball and his father, also Alan, who would be in regular attendance.

Many of our town pubs have themselves closed and with them the greens that could tell a tale or two of epic matches and surprise results.

Alas, the pubs that have survived have turned their greens into car parks or beer gardens, such is the changing face of society.

I find it sad that we see not just children but adults playing football on the park bowling greens that are left.

Local leagues still survive and during the summer months, it is nice to stop and watch a few woods roll across Leigh Miners Green along with the regular spectators.