Sport and Health

Lawn bowling in Gisborne for 135 years

Unbeknown to many, Gisborne is an unequalled centre of lawn bowls participation in New Zealand.

Even without counting the outlying clubs, Gisborne still has three clubs within its city boundaries : Gisborne, Kahutia and Poverty Bay. That’s a ratio of one club to every 12,000 Gisbornites.

If Auckland had a similar ratio, it would have something like 140 clubs.

Gisborne is also home to one of New Zealand’s oldest clubs … the Gisborne Bowling Club, which has been on the same site since 1884.

President Rod McCulloch rolling up to the sounds of Celine Dion

It’s breathtaking to think that there were people in New Zealand way back then eager enough to not only play bowls, but to set up a club and bowling green adjacent to the ‘city’ centre and wharf. Mt Tarawera hadn’t even erupted (1886), women hadn’t voted (1893), and there was no need for a carpark at the bowling green – cars didn’t arrive in New Zealand until 1898. Founding club members may well have even had recent forebears who saw the Endeavour pull into Poverty Bay.

But pop down to the Gisborne Bowling Club any day of the week today, and you can still see locals doing what they were doing 135 years ago – playing bowls and having a great time.

And why wouldn’t they be? The greens at Gisborne are some of the best grass greens in the country, rivalling those of the South Island where weeds, grubs, insects, diseases and more don’t make a greenkeeper’s life so challenging. But then Gisborne has greens aficionado Jamie Ferris keeping an eye on things.


“We like to think that we have some of the best greens around,” says club President Rod McCulloch, “Jamie is the best. We are very lucky.”

Ferris has two-and-a-half greens to look after. Yes, you read it right. Two full-sized grass greens, as well as another ‘half’ green with 4 rinks. They are all in superb condition.

“We also have willing volunteers,” says McCulloch, “So two different club members are rostered every week to roll the greens and mow the surrounding lawns. It works well. The load gets shared around and members can pick and choose when they are available.”

Gisborne was one of those bowling clubs that used to be surrounded by the ubiquitous 6-foot corrugated iron fence. The fences positioned clubs as secret societies practising the mysterious art of lawn bowls behind closed doors.

“We took the fence down so the public could see in … and see that we are just a bunch of locals enjoying a great pastime.”

On weekday roll-ups, the public will see 30 or 40 members enjoying their bowls, complete with background music adding energising atmosphere to the occasion. It’s more likely to be Celine Dion exhorting enduring passion than doof-doof or house music rocking the greens. And once you’re used to it, it’s a little weird to play bowls in traditional silence – just like international rugby and cricket organisers found not so long ago.

The result has been that the Gisborne Bowling Club and its two-storey pavilion with views out over the harbour and the bay to Young Nick’s Head has become a favoured venue for corporate Christmas functions, milestone birthdays and even funeral wakes.

“They provide a great income stream for us,” says McCulloch, “but most importantly we have a large pool of volunteers which enable the club to facilitate such functions without all the work falling back on a few.”

Next time you’re in Gisborne, bring your bowls and pop along for a roll-up. Or don’t bring your bowls and pop along for a roll-up anyway. “We have plenty of bowls for visitors,” says McCulloch, “and most days you’ll find someone here enjoying the greens to share a roll-up with.”

Published with permission from Bowls NZ

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