The Alexandra Park Bowling Green, opened in 1871, was the site of a great deal of healthy competition throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Yet, despite it seemingly gentile appearance it was also a location which gave rise to tension. Whether this was about the people who attended, the times the Greens were opened, or the conditions of the facilities, the history of the bowling greens gives an insight into the everyday irritations and concerns of local users and the wider debates about the role of parks and recreation in British society. While on the greens, the number of people participating around the turn of century, demonstrated that bowls had become one of Manchester’s most popular leisure activities.
When the Alexandra Park opened in 1870, space for a bowling green was part of its 8-acre grounds dedicated to play and more active leisure pursuits. However, it would take a further year for the Bowling Green to be formally opened by the mayor of Manchester to the public during the annual inspection of local parks in June 1871. It did not take long for park visitors to find problems with the new space. In August 1871, correspondent WW wrote a letter to The Manchester Guardian complaining about the lack of organisation meaning finding space to play a game was difficult. In response, WW urged the Parks Committee to install a rule ensuring that players bowled closer to the edge. This appeal to rules and regulation was a common factor in the nineteenth century existence of the bowling green in the park, so, too, were public grievances against practices and conditions.
Regulations were important in Victorian parks. While parks were intended to provide recreation for those without access to urban greenery, they were also intended to shape and mould workers into respectable, intelligent and productive members of society. As such, all areas of park life were considered and regulated. On 15 June 1871, the day before the official opening of the green, the parks committee adopted new regulations for the bowling green. These rules included the cost of hiring bowls by the public (3d for 2 bowls per person), the opening hours of the green (from 11 until the closing park bell, except for Sunday), and suggested that private bowls could be used, but those wishing to do so would have to pay a greens fee of 3d. Such rules demonstrated the paradox that existed in Alexandra Park’s mission of providing popular recreation; being closed on Sundays would prohibit many of Manchester’s industrious citizens from being able to play, whether they desired to pay or not. For those that did, the Parks Committee was keen to provide new materials. In 1870, the committee had granted tenders for steps to the bowling green costing £83, 17s and 0p, and a shelter at the cost of £339. A week after opening, in 1871, 12 more bowls and 5 more jacks were bought for those wishing to play, with the green, perhaps, proving more popular than had been anticipated. By 1875, the annual Whitsuntide reports noted that substantial improvements had been made to the facilities and in 1876, the green was re-laid. Those who wanted to bowl and to enjoy what the Manchester Evening News described as the gentle yet ‘invigorating exercise of the bowling green’ were seemingly well catered for. As with all activities in the park, the bowling green cost money to upkeep.
But there were problems. Opening times seemed to be a constant irritation to many bowlers irrespective of their background. As reports highlight, the bowling green was a seasonal recreation, it opened and closed based on the consent of the Parks Committee. The bowling greens often opened after the Whitsuntide holidays and as other greens opened in different parks around the city towards the end of the decade, Alexandra Park was seemingly left behind. Stating his case plainly, in May 1878, J. Elliot of Stockton Street, Moss Side, called the bowling greens in the park ‘useless’ as it opened too close to the end of the season. Likewise, ‘Jack’ wrote to the Manchester Evening News to express his dismay at the suggestion of a June 17 opening date, suggesting that a fixed May 1 opening each year would be more beneficial. But the letter also showed the, sometimes paradoxical, nature of Alexandra Park’s recreational space in the Victorian period. While it was a space intended to construct new social behaviour by inviting all to take part, it was also a space where those who took part wanted to be shielded from behaviour which was not becoming. Thus Jack noted that if the corporation was concerned that ‘rough usage’ of the greens would occur as a result of those ‘do not know how to conduct themselves on a bowling green’ being able to use them during Whit-week, the answer was simple; close them for a week. Yet, at the same time, the correspondent added that the ‘park and its attractions are professedly maintained for the purpose of providing recreation of healthy and rational kind and as a counter attraction to the wiles of the public-house; and therefore, I cannot understand why the park bowling green should be closed while those attached to the public-houses are open.’ This letter suggests that the bowling green, like the park itself, was viewed as having both an agenda of social inclusivity to combat moral vices, while also practicing a policy of selective exclusion should these vices appear.
‘Jack’ was not the only correspondent to declare his allegiances with a bowling-themed alias. In the early 1880s, ‘Thumb Bias’, ‘Straight Wood’ and ‘Finger Bias’ all complained about the conditions of the greens, with some also noting that the opening was too late in the summer. Providing a thorough structural critique, ‘Straight Wood’ highlighted that the greens had been built too deep below the rest of the park into the soft, soggy, clay and needed to be raised, as had happened in Salford. Such letters were at odds with local newspaper reports which claimed the surface was ‘ the best in England’. While somewhat defending the quality of the surface, ‘An Old Ratepayer’ reinforced that as the greens were ‘the ratepayer’s property’ they should remain open for longer. Such letters reminded the Corporation, if it was needed, that public parks came with certain expectations from the public; if nothing more, the spaces provided a very visible representation of how public money was spent and, therefore, a very visible way for the public to enter political debate about what ‘ratepayers’ could expect. In 1883, to stem the critiques, minutes note that the park attendant, Mr Mandelson, was instructed to use the horse-roller and that they should be raised as much as possible. Each recreational service provided in the park had to be financed and therefore could be a political issue. In the 1880s, Alexandra Park would face repeated criticism from those in the public and Corporation who opposed ratepayer’s money being utilised beyond the city boundaries for a space of recreation.
The early 1890s saw a growth in organised matches between bowling clubs in Manchester and its surroundings. In 1891, Alexandra Park hosted a return match between Alexandra Park and Cheetham Park under the auspices of the Manchester and Salford Bowling Association (MSBA), losing 374 to 341. Throughout the 1890s, reports on matches between bowling clubs found in Manchester parks tournaments within the parks, and other matches can be found in the newspaper, indicating that bowls had become one of the city’s primary sporting activities. Conditions at the Alexandra Park green once again came in for criticism in 1891 from the MSBA, who, in a 7-point letter to the Parks Committee, noted a number of factors which needed immediate addressing. Regular complaints such as the poor condition of the ground and the closure of the greens in the season were added to by the number of worms, the lack of rolling, the unavailability of bowls, the closure of the bowls house which the attendant was at tea, and a toilet which was too open to be considered respectable. Later in the season, things seemed to have improved slightly. In a letter to The Manchester Guardian, ‘WK’ attempted to defend the poor performance of the team based in the park. It was, he noted, down to the unfit nature of the training ground. As a consequence, many of the better bowlers had become disheartened and left. However, sounding a note of optimism the correspondent added that the arrival of a new roller had made conditions much better and that the only improvement needed was the removal of the worms.
Exactly how popular the bowling green had become was displayed in the minute books of the Park Committee, as every aspect of social life became the subject for intricate reports, statistics and new regulations. In 1894, reports suggest that the Alexandra Park green had seen 7,519 visitors and brought in £62, 13, 2. In 1895, a report looking to make the use of space more efficient noted that Alexandra Park had the largest bowling green of all Manchester municipal parks, with 2,961 square yards – under new regulations this would enable the green to hold up to a maximum of 44 players at one time. In 1896, minutes show that during the 6 weeks open before the end of July, Alexandra Park had the most bowls users in the park system; 2,796 bowlers brought receipts of £26, 6, 2. and by the end of the century, the park bowling greens had over 2,000 more bowlers more than the next most popular greens at Birchfields. For a corporation keen to look at balance sheet, bowling in Alexandra Park in the late 1890s began to repay all the money, effort and complaints it had received since its establishment. In 1897/98/99 the bowling green provided a healthy profit, twice generating the highest profit of bowling greens in Manchester, falling second to Cheetham Hill green in 1898. The bowling green also seemed to generate social profits too, as noted by the new auditor elect, J Taylor Kay in 1898. ‘Bowling’ he stated to the Parks Committee ‘is a most healthful recreation after a hard day’s work, and is productive of good social intercourse and friendships’. Such kind words did little to alter the minds of the committee on the matter of season tickets for bowling greens brought forward by Taylor Kay on behalf of 3 ratepayers of the city, who, it seemed, would have to continue to pay each time they wished to bowl.
The 20th century
The popularity of bowls continued into the early twentieth century. In 1908, a June report painted an idyllic scene of park life, with scores of visitors enjoying their time in the open spaces provided for games and, while children rushed to and fro, ‘in a snug little hollow a score of men were playing bowls, while a score more waited patiently their turn for a game. Half a dozen green would be necessary to supply the needs of the district if the statements of some of the spectators were to be relied upon.’ Such statements could be backed up by the records kept by the corporation, which demonstrated that 12,000 people had paid to use Alexandra Park greens in 1908, now only the fourth most populous in Manchester, which saw 153,000 enter the corporations greens. By the middle of the decade, Alexandra Parks accounted for only 2 of the city’s nearly 50 bowling greens.
As the years went on and the Park went into decline, the bowling green was still used for sports activities. To make use of the area, Five-aside football teams became a feature in the sunken area, though as stated earlier, the bowling green was subject to flooding.
This continued during the restoration, until the Bowling Green’s turn for a ‘spruce-up’. Unfortunately some of the original York stone steps went ‘missing’ one day, when the contractors arrived to continue working on the green they found them gone, so new steps had to be made to replace the old originals.
Today this area is used as an open air performance space featuring impromptu circus skills, a yearly five-aside football tournament over the Eid celebration period, one of the many sound stages at Caribbean Carnival and an ideal area for sports training to encourage the local children to get involved in sports.
There is still an interest in the bowling green going back to its original use by some members of the local community, as bowling is becoming once again popular, but the cost of maintenance and upkeep would be very high for a single group to afford.
Bowling developed into one of Manchester’s most popular pastimes by the outbreak of World War One. Although little is mentioned after this period, the bowling greens remained in Alexandra Park in the 1920s. The Alexandra Park bowling green had become a valuable location for popular recreation despite its difficult beginning and the complaints it received in its early years. The shift towards mass participation at the bowling green mirrors a wider change in the role of the park within the community moving from a space of Victorian restraint and moral rectitude, to a location for more energetic activities and a site for the generation of income within the Manchester leisure landscape.