Friday, 30 January 2015

Tell Tales

After the success and excitement of the curling event at the last Olympics, many people have been enthused to take up the sport but a general lack of ice rink facilities means this ancient activity is simply not available to all. But for those unfortunates there is a happy alternative; for while curling dates back some five hundred years, bowls can trace its lineage to the late Twelfth Century, appearing anecdotally in William Fitzstephen’s biography of Thomas Beckett.

Bowls has retained its popularity throughout history and the world's oldest surviving bowling green is the Southampton Old Bowling Green, first used in 1299. Many historical figures are known to have played the great game, indeed Sir Francis Drake’s many heroic achievements are all but forgotten in comparison to the tale of him calmly playing on at Plymouth Hoe while the Spanish Armada approached.

All over the world you can find bowls and bowls history and recently evidence was uncovered which links the Swiss national hero William Tell to the pastime. By a strange quirk of fate this only came to light when a bowls historian based in Interlaken purchased a job lot of sporting trophies on eBay. Were it not for his particular interest in bowling he may not have scrutinised the hoard as closely as he did, but carefully buffing up the tarnished nameplates he discovered the family name not once, but many times.

William Tell himself had his name engraved on more than a dozen of the small silver cups but there was more; it seemed the whole family were stars of the bowling circuit in the early 1500s. The historian became excited – who wouldn’t? – and set out on a journey to scour the archives and uncover the detail of this hitherto unknown facet of the Family Tell. If he could trace the Tells back to the club they competed for it would do wonders to promote the sport. So he travelled to local town hall record offices and city archives countrywide and visited every existing bowling club he could find but, alas, none had records which went back that far.

Dismayed he set out to write up the story as best he could piecing together a sequence from the odd inscribed date and place and after a while, despite the lack of secure documented provenance, produced a nevertheless creditable work which now rests in the William Tell collection at the Swiss National Museum. In a forward the author notes that although we do know that the Tells were avid bowlers, history does not record… wait for it… for whom the Tells bowled.

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