FOR much of the 20th Century, bowling greens were a central feature of our municipal parks, although changing sporting habits in the 21st Century coupled with the age of austerity saw many greens go to waste – although volunteers in Darlington are still keeping their sport bowling along.

Bowls is as old as the hills – the ancient Egyptians rolled the first woods 7,000 years ago – and greens became associated with pubs. In Darlington, there was a green behind the town’s leading coaching house, the Talbot, on the corner of Post House Wynd and High Row.

It began taking off as a working class sport in the late 19th Century in northern England, with the Lancashire and Cheshire Bowling Association the first to be formed, in 1888 which was four years before their rivals in Yorkshire.

In Darlington, the council minutes record that on July 6, 1894, Joseph Forestall Smythe generously offered croquet and bowls sets to South Park, following on from his gift the year before of “a full set of tennis apparatus”.


Mr Smythe had an ulterior motive for encouraging people to play as he had a sports shop in Blackwellgate. Just three months after his gift of the first bowls, the gun-making department of his shop blew up, wrecking neighbouring buildings, injuring several people and killing one of his young workers.

The Northern Echo: Blackwellgate, with all the windows blown out after Mr Smythe's explosion

He’d also lit a fuse in terms of bowling. Darlington library has a picture dated 1895 of “the town’s first bowlers” (below), probably in South Park where they played on an uneven patch of ridge-and-furrow grass.

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

On March 11, 1896, Mr J Deas chaired a meeting in the Mechanics Institute at which the first bowls club was formed, and then Mr Deas persuaded the council to spend £80 (nearly £9,000 in today’s values) laying out a proper green on top of the tennis court in South Park.

The club played its first game on May 6, 1896, beating Grove Hill of Middlesbrough by 101 shots to 62, and joined the newly formed Cleveland and South Durham League which, as well as Grove Hill, featured teams from Middlesbrough, Thornaby, Stockton, Ropner Park and Redcar.

The Northern Echo: Echo memories - The first bowls green in Darlington's South Park was laid on top of the first tennis court in 1896The first bowls green in Darlington's South Park was laid on top of the first tennis court in 1896

Interest quickly grew, as the Darlington Bowling League began in 1903, and the council laid out more greens at North Park (1903), North Lodge Park (1906), East Park (1908), Hundens and Brinkburn Dene (1920s).

Plus there were pub and club sides – the Central working men’s club had a green, there was an ironworkers’ green at Rise Carr, and in 1913, the Railway Athletic on Brinkburn Road opened its bowls club.

The Northern Echo: JOHN PURSEY SECRETARY AT WOODLAND BOWLS CLUB, DARLINGTON 1997John Pursey, secretary at Woodland Bowls Club in Bransom House, Darlington, in 1997

There was an appetite for more, and in 1947, 100 bowlers put in £25 each to buy Bransom House, on the corner of Hollyhurst Road and Woodland Road, and it is still the home of the Woodland Bowling Club.

The Northern Echo: HISTORY: This undated photograph featured in The Northern Echo, with the caption; Mrs F Turner, of Darlington East Park Ladies Bowling Club, bowls the first wood at the Darlington and District Ladies Bowling League champion of champions tournament, whichAn undated Echo photograph showing Mrs F Turner, of Darlington East Park Ladies Bowling Club, bowls the first wood at the Darlington and District Ladies Bowling League champion of champions tournament, but when and where?

Several of these bowls venues featured in our super-size springtime parks special (Memories 672), and now Malcolm Cundick, of the Darlington Parks Bowling Association (DPBA), brings the story up to date.


“Up to 2010, there were seven bowling greens in our public parks: two at South Park and one each at Hundens, Brinkburn Dene, East Park, North and North Lodge.

In 2010, Darlington council announced that they planned to close at least three greens purely for budgetary reduction reasons. This would have removed homes for some 14 local teams and completely undermined the various Darlington & District Bowling Associations involving clubs from towns within a 20 mile radius.

The DPBA was formed to rescue the greens. We entered negotiations with the council and agreed 25 year leaseholds for the greens at Brinkburn Dene, East Park, North Park and North Lodge Park.

The Hundens green had been transferred from its Hundens Lane site and had become an integral part of the Eastbourne Sports Complex and the future of the main green at South Park was protected under the conditions of the substantial Heritage Restoration Grant which enabled the park’s restoration around 2004.

However, the number two green at South Park was no longer fit for purpose.

The Northern Echo: DARLINGTON CENTRAL BOWLING CLUB 1953  AND THE C U PEAT  CUPDarlington Central Bowling Club in 1953 with their trophies. Where was this picture taken?


The Northern Echo: East Park's men's team in the 1970s, with the pretty Bowl House, from 1908, in the background. It was burnt down in 1980East Park's men's team in the 1970s, with the pretty Bowl House, from 1908, in the background. It was burnt down in 1980

Sadly, the green at East Park suffered from tree roots penetrating the playing surface, and in 2013, as you reported, its clubs decided to fold after 106 years. The clubhouse is now occupied by a local beekeepers association, and the old green is now an extension of the parkland.

DPBA retains responsibility for North Lodge and North Park greens and is reliant on membership fees and outside funding together with significant volunteer input from members to maintain and enhance our greens.

In 2016, we successfully gained a grant of £64,750 from Sport England/Durham Community Fund to rescue both greens which were about to become not fit for purpose.

The Northern Echo: MP Jenny Chapman, bowling at North Lodge Park, Darlington.....Picture by Paul Norris.

You included a photograph (above) of the town’s MP, Jenny Chapman, performing the celebratory reopening of the green at North Park in 2017. She had performed a similar first bowl ceremony at North Lodge in the morning.

There are now only three remaining public park bowling greens in Darlington – at North, North Lodge and South parks – plus the council supports the club-maintained green at Hundens. Other private clubs in the town are at Woodland and Railway Athletic.

There are other clubs at Middleton St George, Barnard Castle, Richmond, Bishop Auckland, Spennymoor, Shildon and Bedale.”


The Northern Echo: Derek Redfern,president of the Darlington South Park Bowling Club (left) shakes hands with the national president Scott Tomlinson before the start of the centenary match in 1996Derek Redfern, president of the Darlington South Park Bowling Club, shakes hands with Scott Tomlinson of the national bowls association before the start of the centenary match in 1996