Thursday, 20 August 2015

From English Skittles to Ten Pin Bowling in the Archives.

As part of my on-going investigation into unusual subject matter found in The National Archives (TNA), my husband challenged me to discover references to his hobby of ten pin bowling. After some preliminary investigations into the game, I found that its origins lie in the traditional game of skittles. Searching under that term proved the most productive and demonstrates the importance of opening one’s mind to different terminology when searching any archive.

Skittles or nine pins is a traditional game played in English pubs and involves players taking turns to throw wooden balls down a lane in an attempt to knock over nine wooden skittles at the end of the lane. It is the fore-runner of the relatively modern game of ten pin bowling. The game differs from lawn bowls, in which the aim is to bring the ball to rest near a stationary ball called a jack.
                       Early sixteenth century woodcut

3200 BC, Egypt - In the 1930’s British anthropologist, Sir Flinders Petrie, discovered a collection of objects in a child's grave that appeared to him to be used for a crude form of bowling.

3rd or 4th century AD, Germany - Church parishioners played a game with a club or Kegel (said to represent the Heide ‘heathen’). A stone was rolled at the Heide, and those successfully toppling it were believed to have cleansed themselves of sin.

1366 - Edward III banned his troops from playing the game so that they would not be distracted from their archery practice.

1455 - The roofing over of lanes in London for lawn bowls was the beginning of bowling as an all-weather game.

1477 - Edward IV issued an edict against "bowles, closh, kayles, hand-in and hand-out" for similar reasons given in 1366. The game of kayles involved knocking down pins with a stick instead of a ball.

Playing Kayles (British Library, Ms. 22494, f. 42) 


July 18, 1588Sir Francis Drake was playing a game of skittles as the Spanish Armada approached in the English Channel. When informed, Drake continued to play saying, "We still have time to finish the game and to thrash the Spaniards, too." He lost the game, but won the war.

Early 1600's The illustration shows pilgrims in America throwing a small ball at small pins.

1824 - The extent of the popularity of bowls and bowling can be demonstrated by the number of street names in London in the early nineteenth century with a bowling reference.
James Pigot & Co.'s, Metropolitan Guide & Book of Reference to Every Street ... and Public Building in the Cities of London & Westminster:
Bowl Yard, Brownlow Street, Drury Lane
Bowling Alley, Thames Street
Bowling Alley, Tooley Street
Bowling Green, 49 King Street, Boro
Bowling Green, Lisson Green
Bowling Green Lane, 44 Coppice Row, Clerkenwell
Bowling Green Lane, 27 High Street, Marylebone
Bowling Green Row, Haberdasher’s Walk, Hoxton
Bowling Pin Alley, Bream’s Buildings [Chancery Lane]
Bowling Street, Dean’s Yard, Westminster
Bowling Street, 10 Turnmill Street, Clerkenwell

Playing skittles was often associated with anti-social behaviour, perhaps because of its connection with inns and public houses.

1828John Griffiths, aged 18, a carpenter, convicted at the Old Bailey in May 1828 of larceny against his parents. Sentence: 7 years transportation.

TNA HO 17/45/61 -
“[John Griffiths] who always conducted himself
properly, and attended his employment, until
about the month of April 1827, when he became
in the habit of visiting skittle grounds, and other
similar places, and whence he became acquainted with persons of bad character…”

1841 Connecticut, USA -  Nine pin bowling was banned in that State due to its association in gambling and crime. It is said that at this point that another pin was added so that the game could continue, creating the game of ten-pin bowling.
Gambling on games of skittles was not confined to the USA as records found in The National Archives demonstrates.

30 April 1846, Manchester - MH 12/9361/278, Folios 440-443. Letter from Robert Weale, Assistant Poor Law Commissioner, to the Poor Law Commission, including the deposition of John Tomlinson, regarding the unsuitability of Jeremiah Burrows, Publican, to be Collector of rates for Sutton on Ashfield.
“On the several occasions that I visited the Peacock Inn kept by Mr Burrows I observed persons playing in the ground adjoining the house at the games of shoes [a form of quoits] and nine-pins. I heard the person who were playing betting on the games and the stakes they placed for was ale.”

20 September 1852 – TNA PCOM 3/40/4299, Samuel Ridgeley was convicted of unlawfully obtaining a large sum of money by fraud and unlawful device and ill-practice in wagering on the event of a certain game called skittles at the Central Criminal Court at London, Middlesex.
Sentence: 7 years' transportation.

1853 - TNA ADM 101/87/8/4, the medical and surgical journal of David Lyall, Surgeon on HMS Assistance, records while the ship was employed in the Arctic Region during the winter of 1853, a skittle alley was built next to the ship for the entertainment of the crew.

1890 – TNA BT 31/4753/31406 and BT 34/692/31406, Company No: 31406; Turners' Lawn Skittles Company Ltd. Incorporated in 1890 (dissolved before 1916).

1894 – TNA BT 31/5988/42253 and BT 34/1004/42253, Company No: 42253; Patent Automatic Parlour Skittle Syndicate Ltd. Incorporated in 1894 (dissolved before 1916).

1938 – TNA BT 31/35735/343726, No. of Company: 343726; The Southbourne Skittle Club Ltd. Incorporated in 1938 (dissolved in 1950).

The notion of skittle allies being an unsuitable place for young people continued into the 20th century when American airbases began to employ young men as attendants.

1948-1956 – TNA LAB 19/498, Undesirable vacancies: employment of juveniles in amusement parks, fun fairs, etc and "pin-boys" and "skittle alley" attendants in United States Army Air Base at 
Bentwater, East Anglia.

2. Wages and Hours
 (para 2)
The normal working hours are from 1.30 p.m. to 10.30 p.m. on six days per week. The day off is not allowed on Saturday or Sunday....

7. Conclusions
(a) This is an unskilled and unprogessive job.

1960 – TNA COAL 80/2015/3 - Photograph depicting: ten-pin bowling. Groups of young people play in a three lane alley.


Nothing to do with the game of bowling but I found this entry from 1708 quite amusing:
TNA PROB 18/30/53 Probate lawsuit Bowling v Ball, concerning the deceased Jane Bowling, spinster of St Bride, London.

Other Sources:
The Bowling Museum --
Online Guide to Traditional Games --

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