BOWLS looks such a genteel game but in Darlington it had an explosive start. Part of the town centre blew up, killing a lad and reducing a yard to rubble and dust, but out of those ashes, exactly 125 years ago this week, the first bowls club was formed.

And today that club is exploding again, only this time in a pleasant way with scores of new members raring for a roll up when the green reopens next month.

The Northern Echo:  Looking down Blackwellgate towards High Row with Smythe's gun shop in the middle, surrounded by boarded-up windows broken by the explosion

The South Park Bowling Club was formed on March 11, 1896, at a meeting in the Mechanics Institute which may still have been surrounded by the rubble caused by the explosion on October 9, 1894, in the yard behind it.

The source of the explosion was Joseph Forestall Smythe’s sports shop at No 13 Blackwellgate – where Binns is today and opposite the well known Guru boutique. Mr Smythe sold lawn tennis, croquet and bowls equipment. He also had a fishing department, although most of his sales were in his shooting dept: guns, rifles, pistols.

The Northern Echo: This picture from the Darlington Centre for Local Studies just says "Darlington's first bowlers" on it. It is believed to be taken in South Park in 1895 with JF Smythe's woods

He was the only gunmaker between Newcastle and York, and he made first class weapons for nobility, even royalty, at home and abroad. In the cartridge loading room behind his premises, in Mechanics Yard, he made 370,000 cartridges a year (that’s 7,200 a week) to go in the guns.

But at 11.40am on October 9, the loading room went bang.

Big bang.

"Houses in Skinnergate, High Row and Blackwellgate rocked as if about to fall, while glass clattered and burst from almost every window, " reported the Darlington and Stockton Times, and The Northern Echo produced a special evening edition for its readers to explain the earthquake they had felt.

The Northern Echo: Photographer Frank Cooper captured the complete destruction of Reed's grocery warehouse following the explosion on the afternoon of Otober 9, 1894

"Immediately the air was filled with a cloud of smoke, from which descended a veritable hail of mortar, glass, wood, iron and pulverised brickwork. All around in the streets and lanes this fell, injuring some people and frightening many more. Horses bolted, and men and women ran terrified into shelter."

Two men – Hornby and Ramsdale – were trapped in the wreckage of WJ Reed’s grocery warehouse in the yard, while in the workshop of plumber Emmerson Smith, the famed architect GG Hoskins lay stricken and bleeding on the floor.

The Northern Echo: The remains of Emmerson Smith's plumbers office after the explosion on the afternoon of October 9, 1894. Picture courtesy of Darlington Centre for Local Studies

He was okay but the poor plumber had been "struck in the left eye by a flying piece of glass which had penetrated far into the head", said the D&S Times. Surgeons had to "abstract the eye and probe some three inches into the tissue behind for splinters of glass".

Smythe's staff, though, bore the brunt of the blast. His children, Francis and Catherine, were dug out of the debris, bloodied but alive, along with an apprentice, Thomas Hine.

But another apprentice, Thomas Howe, 14, had been in the loading room when the blast happened.

The Northern Echo:  Smythe's workshop has been completely destroyed as volunteers and firemen comb the wreckage on the afternoon of October 9, 1894. Picture courtesy of Darlington Centre for Local Studies

"The poor youth was discovered lying with a heavy bench vice jammed hard against his disfigured face and with his arms crushed under him, " reported the D&S. It said "his mangled form" was stretchered through the streets to Russell Street Hospital.

"A glimpse of his face caused more than one woman to faint."

Almost immediately, he was chloroformed and his left arm was amputated but he died without regaining consciousness.

Police cordoned off the blast zone, but at 2.30pm photographer Frank Cooper managed to sneak through, and when he exhibited his pictures in his shop window in Bondgate at 7.30pm, they caused quite a stir.

The Government Inspector of Explosives, Captain JH Thompson, arrived from London the following morning to investigate how 65lbs of powder had ignited.

The Northern Echo:

On poor Thomas’ body were found "a portion of a toy pistol, an empty cigarette case and an obsolete military nipple key". The inspector concluded that the explosion had been caused by "some boyish experiment" by the apprentice involving these curious items, or by his hobnail boots sparking against a nail protruding from the wooden floorboards.

However, firearms historians have since looked at Mr Cooper’s pictures and seen the wooden frames of the ruined buildings. Their modern knowledge says that untreated wood soaks up fine gunpowder like a sponge soaks up water. When it reaches a certain density, even a spark from static electricity would cause it to go up.

About six months after the blast, Mr Smythe donated the first bowls to South Park where an uneven patch of “ridge and furrow” grass had been set aside by the council for the increasingly fashionable sport – the rules of the game were codified in Scotland in 1893.

Perhaps with his gift, Mr Smythe was showing his kind side; perhaps he wanted to promote his shop which had re-opened in Horsemarket. Or perhaps the gift was his way of apologising for blowing up a sizeable chunk of the town centre.

On March 11, 1896 – 125 years ago on Thursday – Mr J Deas chaired a meeting in the Mechanics to form a club to play on the “New Green” in the park with Mr Smythe’s bowls. “There was a large number of lovers of the game present,” said The Northern Echo.

The Northern Echo: The South Park league winning bowlers of 1900: behind them is the Park Lodge with an observation platform at the top of its tower. In July 1901, the tower was heightened and the Potts Memorial Clock was placed in it

Among them, and elected to the first committee, was James Morrison, the Park Superintendent who lived in Park Lodge. He planted many of the park’s trees and introduced the carpet bedding – the elaborate floral schemes that once graced its slopes. He was a keen bowler and must have laid out the New Green, at a cost of £80, on top of a lawn tennis court near the park entrance, where the green is today.

The club immediately joined the South Durham and Cleveland League, formed in 1895, which consisted of teams from Middlesbrough, Thornaby, Stockton, Grove Hill, Ropner Park and Redcar. The first match, against Grove Hill in Middlesbrough, on May 6 ended in a 101-62 victory.

The Northern Echo: From The Northern Echo of October 10, 1894

The years before the First World War were a heyday of Darlington bowls. South Park won the Cleveland league for the first time in 1899, but soon left to join the Darlington & District League, formed in 1903, to cater for all the clubs exploding onto life in the town.

Further council greens were laid in North Park (1903), North Lodge Park (1906), East Park (1908) and at Hundens and Brinkburn Dene (1920s). The Darlington Railway Athletic Bowls Club opened in 1913 and was probably the first of many workplace teams – the Post Office, Rise Carr rolling mills, Whessoe, Rothmans and Cummins were all regulars on the fixture list during the 20th Century.

The Northern Echo:

Some of the workplace teams could boast private rinks which were not dependent on council maintenance, and so in 1938 South Park signed a deal to migrate to Greylands, a mansion on Coniscliffe Road. An emergency meeting thwarted the move, but in 1947 a group did breakaway to form the Woodland Bowling Club, in a mansion (with a bar) opposite the hospital.

Deciding to stay in the public park, has helped create the club’s modern identity. It regards itself as “the people’s club in the people’s park”, open to all – you can even hire some woods from the café (when it is open) and have a roll-up.

The Northern Echo: Bowling in South Park

The virus has obviously hit the club hard, but bowls ticks many of the post-pandemic boxes of outdoor exercise on the local doorstep. Ahead of the green opening on April 12, at least 30 new members have joined up, and there are seven new men’s teams and three new women’s teams ready to go.

The club celebrated its 125th anniversary on Thursday with a Zoom presentation evening and a hope that the new season will soon explode into joyful bowling action.

For more information, call 07984-603455, email or find southparkbowls on Facebook.