Southampton (Old) Bowling Green
Southampton (Old) Bowling Green (S.O.B.G) is thought be the oldest bowling green in the world. Established in 1299, on a site where the game of bowls had already been played for a number of years. The Green is located adjacent to the old Southampton City Walls.
The beautifully preserved S.O.B.G archives are packed full of artefacts and documents charting the extraordinary story of S.O.B.G. According to S.O.B.G’s official book on its history, The First 700 Years: Southampton (Old) Bowling Green, written by Baker, B., Fisher, L., Rixon, T. et al:
This Old Green was in existence when Edward I was on the throne…..The Green is situated in the oldest part of the ancient town, on a site which was originally a part of what was termed in mediaeval times the Saltmarsh. This comprised the land bounded on the South and East by the sea, on the North by Marsh Lane, and on the West by some gardens, which were known as “Three Fields”, and belonged to the Warden of the Hospital…The Green itself has been cared for since 1187, in the reign of Richard I, when the lawns were laid as a close for the Warden of God’s House Hospital. The “Domus Dei” infirmary was founded in that year by Gervaise Le Riche, a wealthy Anglo-Norman Merchant. It is doubtful whether the game of bowls itself was played during the early years but it is thought that by 1220 a game using large wooden balls was occasionally played by Hospital officials and their guests…..Edward II, 1343, granted custody of God’s House with all its possessions to the newly founded Queen’s College, Oxford in whose care it has been ever since.
In 1541, “inferior people” were prohibited from playing of bowls at this time. The Act under which the townsman was brought to book was passed in 1541, and under it “no manner of Artificer or Craftsman of any Handicraft or occupation, Husbandman, Apprentice, Labourer, Servant at Husbandry, Journeyman or Servant of Artificer, Mariners, Fishermen, Watermen or any Servingman” were allowed to play bowls out of Christmas under the pain of 20 shillings to be forfeit for every time; and in Christmas to play at any of the said games (others were prohibited) in their Master’s Houses or in their Masters Presence….It was recorded in 1550, in which year a townsman, the lessee of the King’s Orchard, was presented for Keeping ‘common playinge with bowles, tabylles and other unlawfull games agaynst the Kings statute.’
On the walls of the Clubhouse there is a selection of memorabilia and images depicting some of the colourful characters who have helped shape The Green’s long history. One item in particular caught my eye, a mid-Victorian portrait of former gardener John Dymot. The inscription underneath the painting reads: ‘This oil painting of John Dymot was presented by Members’ Subscriptions to the Old Southampton Bowling Green in 1857 as a memento of his 50 years faithful service as gardener and attendant of The green.’
S.O.B.G suffered damage as a result of Nazi German Luftwaffe bombing during World War II. On August 13th, 1940, The Green received a direct hit in the top left-hand corner. The crater was two metres deep and five and a half metres across. (ibid. p. 6) Despite hostilities and numerous air-raids, the famous Annual Knighthood Competition still managed to carry on regardless.
The inaugurator of The Knighthood Competition was local man and past Master of The Green, Samuel Miller. The first competition took place on 1st August, 1776 and has continued each year ever since. All Club members who have not previously won the competition are eligible to take part and the Knights of The Green are the official organisers of the event. The competition is a mix of ancient and modern traditions some of which include: Knights of The Green having to wear top hats, frock coats and a medal on their chest denoting their current rank; all Knights are entitled to be addressed as “sir” when on The Green and their partner as “Lady”; the competition winner is awarded a silver medal which has the inscription ‘Win it and Wear it’ and on the reverse there is an engraving of a key national or international event that has happened during the previous year. S.O.B.G’s archives include a magnificent collection of these silver medals dating as far back as 1784. Tradition states that at the end of the Knight’s life, his medal is handed back to the Club by friends or relatives and retained as part of the archive collection.
S.O.B.G is open to the public when a function or match is not taking place and you will be welcome to have a look around the Clubhouse and view The Green. When visiting, if you find the side door open then you are welcome to enter, if the door is shut then you will have to come back another time. If in doubt best to first make contact with the Club and check whether they are open on the day you are hoping to visit.