Article published in the Natal Witness on the eve of the Clubs Centenary

An article published in the NATAL WITNESS Wednesday March 12, 2002

A century around the Greens

By Margaret von Klemperer

Maritzburg Bowling Club, the City’s oldest, celebrates its centenary this year.

 It all began 100 years ago, with a piano crate tied to a gum tree in Alexandra Park. That was the first clubhouse the Maritzburg Bowling Club – although whether the members were particularly small, or just used the crate as a way of staking their claim, is not recorded.

This year sees the club, the oldest bowling club in the province and the fifth oldest in the country, celebrating its centenary.

The actual date of the first meeting has been lost, along with the earliest minute book, but the first green (there are now three) was ready for play in 1903, and the crate was replaced by a more permanent building in 1904.

With 120 registered bowlers club president Angus Flockhart describes MBC as, “quite successful.” They regularly have members performing well in competition and making their way into representative teams at various levels – the current Inland Bowling Association president, Bob Radcliffe is a member.

But despite this, and despite the plans going ahead for the centenary year – competitions, a banquet and a cocktail party – Flockhart admits that bowls generally is not flourishing.

“It’s a Cinderella sport,” he says. “It doesn’t have a high profile; it doesn’t get air time on television and there is so much other international sport to watch that it keeps people away”

Flockhart also admits that bowls still carries the stigma of being an, “old man’s sport”  – partly because no one ever sees it among the glamour games on television. But in reality, there are plenty of younger bowlers. The club has a membership stretching in age from 15 to 90. And the old days of long trousers and skirts that had to touch the ground if a player knelt on the green, uniforms and hats and blazers have changed. Shorts are allowed – though not for competitions – baseball caps and peaks are fine and blazers have gone, replaced by zip up wind cheaters in club colours.

Inevitably, in a century of existence there have been ups and downs. Long-time member Brian Arnold has been researching the club’s history dredging through old newspaper cuttings and minute books and picking the brains of those whose membership stretch a long way into MBC’s past.

What he has found makes for entertaining reading. In 1921, the club formed The Maritzburg Croquet Club – still going but now separate. The croquet was for women, because the wives of the male members of the bowls club were not allowed to bowl. Eventually in 1824, the women were given permission to play on Wednesdays and Thursday, but by 1935 the subject of debate was mixed bowls. The club minutes reveal this was to be allowed on Thursday afternoon and Sunday morning, “with the view of coaching the ladies.” What the women thought is not recorded, but they all had to be wives and daughters of club members – “outsiders” were allowed. Current committee member Wendy Radcliffe is firmly of the view that men and women take different approaches to the game. “men tend to be aggressive,” she says. “Ladies think about what they are doing.”

Another issue which crops up more than once in the record is Sunday bowling. MBC leases its premises from the City Council and while bowlers were keen play on Sundays, their landlords felt they should have their minds on higher things.

In 1924 the club raised the question of Sunday bowls at the AGM, in an effort to increase revenue. After a ballot, it was decided to go ahead – the first Sunday to be December the 7, 1924. But on December 22, the club received a nasty Christmas present from the corporation demanding the they stop playing on Sundays.

It was 1938 before the town clerk graciously informed the club that the city council had no objection to Sunday bowls – but only in the morning.

It was not just Sunday activity that inflamed the wrath of the council. In 1925, they demanded an explanation for the fact that MBC were growing vegetables in the grounds. The club committee gave in on this one an issued an instruction for the end of vegetable growing. Which vegetables were flourishing in the vicinity of the greens is not stated.

Arnold’s history is filled with names of long serving club members who feature regularly over the years. They include Joe Garnett, who received the Queen’s Coronation Medal for services to bowls. Tom Gibson; first president. AJ McGibbon; and Ronnie McDonald whose name is commemorated on an arch at the club. Some appear year after year, serving on committees and obviously putting a lot of effort back into the club that gave them their sport.

And not just sport. Flockhart, Arnold and Radcliffe all agree that bowls is about camaraderie. “It’s a very social game,” says Flockhart. “A game takes about two and a half hours, and you have time to talk to your opponent and then afterwards, you sit down and chat. “

All agree that, over the years, they have built many friendships on the greens.

Arnold has the last word as we walk away from the club. “It’s the one game where a man of 70 and a man of 20 can meet compete and talk on equal terms.”

It sounds like a good reason to hope for another century.

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