Although the exact origin of the Blackburn Subscription Bowling Green Club may be 'lost in antiquity', much of its history can be traced for nearly 100 years; and this, the Coronation year of 1937, is considered fitting to place on record a concise history of what is by far the oldest institution of its kind, not only in Blackburn but in East Lancashire. While there is no evidence extant of the year of its formation, Abram, in his history of Blackburn compiled in 1877 discloses that the club existed ‘so long ago as 1734 and most of the Blackburn gentry from that date onward have been members’. If that is true, and there is no reason to doubt the historian, the club has already passed its bicentenary. What is irrefutable thanks to some well-preserved minute books in the club’s possession is that it was well established in 1753.
Picture Blackburn at that period. A small town, with a compact portion covering not more than ten acres, and a population of five to six thousand people, included landed gentry, and men of industry, who were, among other things, laying the foundation of Blackburn’s future as a famous cotton centre.
There was no railway or canal, much of what is now the town’s centre was truly rural, and the notable institutions were limited to the age-old parish church, now the Cathedral, and the old Grammar School. Near where the station now stands, was ‘Cicely Hole’ farm, and here the club green, surrounded by a thorn hedge, was situated. Its exact location, probably, was on the site of the present wholesale fish market, for there is a reference to a bowling green being there in the early nineteenth century. That it was a popular rendezvous of most of the gentry of that time is evident from the prominent families represented in its membership of not more than a score. Among them were such well-known names as Joseph Feilden, John Feilden, John Sudell, Henry Sudell (Woodfold Park), and John Hemkinson Cardwell. Others which followed belonged to the families of Hindle, Birley, Hornby, Walmsley, Thwaites, Chippindale, Freckleton, Heaton, Alston, Livesey, Osbaldeston, Hopwood, Dodgson, Hutchinson, Stanley, Thompson, Rodgett, Pilkington, Ainsworth and Turner. Some of these men helped to make Blackburn history, and, the while, disported themselves amid pleasant surroundings at the ancient game of bowls.
The privilege was enjoyed without disturbance for over a century but the advance of industry and the growth of the town brought its inexorable demands and the club had to leave its original home in 1846, to make way for the new railway station on the site of which the green stood.
For that reason the East Lancashire Railway Company paid £150 in compensation and a new site for the green was found on a plot of land near what was the old Free Grammar School, adjacent St. Peter’s Church. The entrance to the green was in a street now known as St. Peter Street.
There was a grand opening on May 13th 1847, and this was celebrated by what was described by the club’s chronicle as a ‘Cold Collation’ at the St. Ledger Inn, King William Street, a sum not exceeding £5 being appropriated from the club funds for the purpose. That was the commencement of a period of 20 years in which the club added to its prestige and membership.
Apart from the erection of a fence wall on the northerly side, fronting St. Peter’s Street, there was little change in the amenities of the green during the time it remained there but Blackburn’s progress once again led to a third home having to be found. The green had become hemmed in by buildings, the district had lost its rural atmosphere, and so to Shear Bank Road in 1867, on what was then the only piece of suitable ground obtainable near the centre of town. This entailed an exceptionally heavy outlay in the erection of strong boundary walls, levelling and draining the land, forming the green and increasing the size of the Green House. The central portion of what is now a commodious and comfortable pavilion, was built in 1869 by Mr Duckworth (grandfather of a present member and ex-president Mr Walter Duckworth) and subsequent alteration have been made, both externally and internally from time to time.
Despite grateful concessions from the land owner – for the third time a member of the Feilden family – a debt of upwards of £1000 was incurred, on the clubs advent to Shear Bank Road. That however did not dismay the committee, for they set to work to rid the Club of the heavy liability. Although efforts to raise the amount among the members did not succeed the incubus was reduced with the help of friends and other means to £600. It was practically wiped out by the proceeds of a bazaar held in the Exchange Hall in December 1866 and opened by Mr (later Sir) William Coddington M.P. one of the Club’s members. From this it will be appreciated that the club had experienced its vicissitudes, and tribute can be paid to the stalwarts of that period for having sucessfully overcome what was the most serious financial trouble in the clubs history. In this respect special mention should be made of the late Mr Henry Backhouse, not only for the prominent part he played in helping to free the club from debt, but for the constant and whole-hearted interest he took in its affairs during the 14 years he occupied the position of President, between 1881 and 1893.
Other names and presidents could be specially mentioned as great men and workers for the club but in honouring them all, the late Alderman W. H. Grimshaw is deserving of special recognition for, during his association of over 40 years with the club up to his death this year. He became a member in 1895 – he was both a president and a captain who worthily upheld the fine traditions of his predecessors. There is one member, Sir James Meadowcroft, a trustee, who joined that year, 1895 – who is still with us, and other living members with long associations are: W. Wilson (1896), W. W. Wilkinson (1896), F. Forbes (1898), H. Ferguson (1899), a past president and for many years the club Secretary (in succession to the late Mark Margerison who served for a long period), and now treasurer, C. Baines (1899) past president, J. Farrow (1902) past president and secretary), J. McVitie (1903), and F. W. Metcalfe. There others, including the present President, Mr. G. Burke, and Secretary Mr. W. Evans, are equally as earnest to carry on the Club with the same zealous intentions of maintaining unsullied that grand and glorious history of a club which should continue to flourish and find rich recreation and enjoyment for many years to come.
While many men rendered yeoman service to the club in various ways, the part played in its rise and progress by members of the Feilden family are worthy of particular mention. Mr Joseph Feilden was the owner of the land on which the original green was situated and doubtless one of the reasons why the subscription was the modest sum of 2/- per annum was because for many years he permitted the use of the ground free. Contrast the present income of the club of over £400 a year with the revenue of £6 12s. 11d., recorded for 1753 and 1754. As time went on the subscription varied from 2/- to 4/- and the members gave additional help, as in 1793, when each of them subscribed a guinea towards the cost of erecting a room over the then existing Green House. In 1807 the subscription was increased to 7/-, and the first record of any rent being paid for the green was two years later the figure being £5. This was advanced to £10 in 1816. Whether there was a big demand for membership or a growing need for funds, the chronicles do not reveal, but an entrance fee of a guinea was introduced, reduced to 10/6 in 1832 – when the membership was over 60 and reintroduced in 1846. For the second green another Mr Joseph Feilden was still paid £10 a year rent, which became £13 in 1860, with a payment for the cost of the surrounding fence wall.
At this stage of the club’s history there were more frequent changes in the fees. In 1864 the subscription was 19/6 and the entrance fee two guineas, with the significant mark, on record, ‘no footings’. The following year the sums were 7/- and £1 10s. 0d ‘with the usual footings’ this time, and in 1886 the subscription reverted to 10/6. The club was further encouraged on its removal to Shear Bank Road by the same Mr Joseph Feilden who not only leased the land for twenty years at the same rent as had been previously paid, but found the money for the establishment of the green at a 5% charge on the outlay which brought the annual rent to £30 a year, a figure which exists today, as a ground rent, the land and buildings being freehold and held by the club in perpetuity.
This all too sketchy history would not be complete without reference to some of the outstanding incidents which are reflective, not only of the strict fashion in which the club was administered, but the steps which had to be taken to meet varying circumstances, and the latitude permitted when the occasion warranted it. The steward of the early days was an important person. He appears not only to have acted as a President but in a managerial capacity for he was primarily responsible for most things, even though he was elected annually.
The name of the steward first mentioned is that of John Sudell of Woodfold Park, in 1754.
In that year the Chronicles made the first entry in the oldest of the books in existence, the rules of the green, dated May 17. Men of those bygone years did take their pleasures sadly, but then, as now, they had rules definitely laid down to deal with conduct on the green. The framers of the rules were undoubtedly men of judicial mind, for they provided the necessary penalties for any transgressions in regard to swearing, gambling, and general misconduct. A wager on the game was permissible, but it was wisely restricted to not more than sixpence, and anyone found breaking this rule was required to forfeit the difference between the nimble sixpence and the amount involved. I cannot find any record of forfeitures being paid so it must be assumed that members conducted themselves with due decorum and preserved the true sporting instinct with very very few exceptions. Minor lapses such as a member failing to leave the keys at the proper place, or damaging fences by going over them instead of round them were only dealt with, with the same metriculous completeness as the keeping of the accounts, some of which are distinctly illuminating. At each meeting the members of the committee signed their own names in the book, so that there was no question about their presence and when this custom was gradually disappearing, one particular member wrote at the side of his name ‘this is not my signature’, all of them being in the same handwriting. Meetings were held at times in different inns and in 1793 two venues mentioned are the ‘Dun Horse’ and the ‘Bird in Hand’, while there is a record that year: 'Paid for liquor at the meeting, 5/-'. The non-payment of subscriptions was not a new problem and it brought forth a resolution that – ‘any member refusing or neglecting to pay his subscription of 2/6 on or before June 24 after being demanded by the steward, he shall forfeit for every month so neglecting, the sum of one penny per month, on pain of expulsion’. As the administrative costs were comparatively light, there was no need to accumulate big balances, and those keen on bringing a soupcan of good cheer to the annual meeting succeeded in 1797, in securing the expenditure of two guineas when the funds amounted to £10 or upwards. That resolution was duly carried into effect the very next year. The convivial spirit is again indicated in 1821, this time for the opening of the green, the spending of two guineas among the members present at the opening being agreed to, providing the club’s funds were not less than £15.
This idea was developed in that a similar cleaning event in October was voted in 1843, and both customs were continued for a long time. A field-day on June 18, 1844, was notable not only because John Alston, the Treasurer, was presented with a snuff box in recognition of his efficient services as steward, but because John Leyland Feilden, youngest son of William Feilden M.P. was proposed a member of the green and ‘on that occasion volunteered three dozen of champagne, which, in part was drunk', in the centre of the green, with ‘three times three and musical honours’. Another well-known Blackburn name is recalled by the election in 1850 of the Mr James Hamer as an honorary life member, ‘he being the eldest member of the club, first elected in 1780 and served as a steward in 1786’. From time to time, the club has honoured other members with a similar distinction and to-day we have still with Mr Jim Livesey, of Blackpool, as the only honorary life member.
So far as can be traced, the first match with any other club was at Whalley in July 1883, and it is significant to note, as an instance of the ever-changing times, that the committee decided that ‘a horse and trap be provided to convey the woods there’.
So much for a few glimpses of club life in bygone days. What will the successors say of we, its 150 members, when another century has passed, and the Blackburn Subscription Bowling Green Club, still stands, we all hope, as an ancient landmark of the time-honoured game of bowls in Blackburn.