ON EASTER SATURDAY which this year fell on the 27 March, I visited the NSW township of Leura with my daughter Alex and her mum, Angie. It was a brisk drive from Ryde City up to the Blue Mountains. Perfect weather, light traffic. We arrived at brunch time. The main shopping strip, Megalong Street, was crowded with international tourists and day trippers, like ourselves. One of the shop keepers told me it was their busiest trading day of the year.
It certainly felt like it. Moving at a pace no faster than wading through treacle, we weaved in and out of inviting life-style stores, lingering here and there, with a special visit to The Candy Store in Leura Mall. We had lunch at Leura Gourmet, whose panoramic views of the valley consistently delights regulars and newbies alike (generally a smart-looking bunch with button down shirts and light knits), drawn to its tasty menu, attentive service and homestead ambience. Delightful take-away treats at the cashier’s register never fail to win over punters as they settle the bill.
Having graciously put up with being dragged from one shop to the next, when we finished lunch it was Alex’s turn to direct proceedings. She was keen to visit Leura Markets, which incidentally is held every third Saturday of the month in the CWA Hall.1 While Angie made a beeline for the hall, Alex and I paused at the stand nearest the gates, drawn to hundreds of beautifully crafted bowling club badges, each one proudly telling a story about the pass-time of a particular Anglo-Australian post-war suburban community. The badges, though pretty, were coated with a thin film of dust and grime giving their intricate designs a lacklustre patina. Cradling one in my hand, I repressed the impulse to polish it with my sleeve.
The former owner of the badge collection, I was told, resides in a nursing facility somewhere in the valley. For a split second, I tried to fathom his life before being forced to surrender house and home: A grumpy parochial recluse, quietly passing his retired days dissolving the cement bond between badge and manufacturer’s back-pin with the aid of acetone, and then carefully super-gluing a flat tack onto the rear so that he could pin it onto a large cork board alongside his myriad other trophies.
Did he hoard these objects made of brass and enamel, enjoying them only with a small coterie of friends over tea? Was he methodical? Systematic? Did he arrange each badge by state and postcode? I’m not sure why, but I didn’t want to countenance the possibility that he was anything but meticulous and exacting in the cultivation of his hobby. I checked my field notes, crammed with immediate impressions and information gleaned from the seller. As it happens, the badges were once arranged in alphabetical order. Perhaps I did have my man after all.
As Alex and I examined the badges, carelessly heaped one on top of the other into two wooden trays, I felt a tinge of melancholy borne out of the impression that something that may have once been intensely personal, was being broken up and sold off at a dollar a piece in a flea market to complete strangers. But this wistful impulse was tempered by the fact that I also saw in them value as historical artefacts, time capsules of a forgotten past that in the right hands could be rescued and put into meaningful service.
I can only imagine that the secret world of lawn bowls provided succour and sanctuary to older Australians, the genteel pace of the game and the all-white bowling uniform 2 powerful symbols of order and unity in the face of rapid urbanisation, automation and the threat of newly arrived immigrants with their strange mores and customs. I wanted to know more.
What Alex Found
Although not a Balmain boy (by definition, someone who grew up and attended school in the local area) I have lived on the peninsula since 2011.3 In that time, I have made many wonderful friends and acquaintances from Balmain East to Rozelle. And I have observed close-up scenes of the local community rallying to protect its urban village character from unsympathetic commercial developments, 4 and coming together in the weeks and months after the Rozelle fire in 2014. However, my connection to place goes back further than this. My parents 5 and godparents 6 had lived and worked in the Rozelle-Balmain area. A high street personality, the Good Weekend Magazine published a one-page profile on my godfather Con Hatzis in the late 1980s.7 Hatzis had operated a barber shop and mixed business at 296 Darling Street for decades.8 For these and other personal reasons, I feel a sense of investment in Balmain’s local history.
Returning to the present scene, it’s understandable that I would be somewhat curious to know if the collection contained a badge from Gladstone Park Bowling Club or Balmain Bowling Club. I enlisted Alex’s help in the search, turning what had started out as a leisurely activity under the warm glow of an autumnal sun into a pressing mission. Every Sydney bowling club badge one could think of was represented in the collection, except for Balmain! An hour had passed without any results. I was about to give up the search when Alex’s keen eye fell upon a dusty object bearing the inscription ‘Balmain Blind Bowling Combination’.
‘Look dad!’ Alex said excitedly ‘Look! It says Balmain on it! Balmain!’ I gave her the biggest hug. ‘That’s amazing Alex! I exclaimed earnestly. ‘Excellent observation! You’re on your way to becoming a great researcher!’ We were both elated with her discovery. I paid our one dollar, quietly slipped the badge into the back pocket of my denim pants and walked back up Megalong Street, hand in hand with my daughter, before reuniting with Angie.
I was back in my Rozelle apartment that evening, getting ready for a barbecue at Larry and Trish Wyner’s tastefully decorated house in Balmain. Larry, whose winning smile brims with youthful ebullience, is the son of Issy Wyner, a local Labor hero with a playground named in his honour at the corner of Mort and Curtis. The dinner was a jovial affair attended by a lovely group of erudite and convivial left leaning folks who ritually congregate at the Dry Dock Hotel on a Thursday night. I returned home later that evening, sated and lubricated. Perforce, I didn’t have the opportunity to carefully examine the badge until the following morning.
I have to admit that I’ve yet to step onto a bowling green.9 Nor have I held a bowl, let alone rolled one.10 And yet here I was on a fine Sunday morning, sitting at my desk closely scrutinising the bowling club badge Alex and I rescued from Leura Markets. I polished the badge till the brass gave off a brilliant shine and the colours and tones, revivified.
Around two-thirds of the circumference of the badge from 8 o’clock to 4 o’clock in a clockwise direction is composed of black enamel, with the words ‘Balmain Blind Bowling Combination’ inscribed upon it in brass. The inscription at 6 o’clock ‘NSW 1954’ is bordered by a boomerang shape of black enamel, off-set by an intricate laurel wreath relief.11
Many of the bowling bowl club badges we looked at in the collection, while miniature works of art, didn’t leave much to the imagination. They featured crests, coats of arms, the initials of the club name, or the image of an animal, object or thing of local significance. This badge is unusual in that it depicts an iconic scene on the bowling green, a male bowler crouching on his mat poised to deliver the bowl. The yellow sun is peeking out from behind a gilded white cloud, its golden rays streaming down upon both player and green. There is an undeniably sublime and transcendental quality to it.
Having attempted to carefully write down my impressions of the badge’s appearance I still had no idea what the meaning and significance of ‘Balmain Blind Bowling Combination’ was, other than it obviously having something to do with bowls and Balmain. Was it a type of handicap game played in pairs that required extraordinary skill? That sounded interesting. I glanced at my desk clock and it was nearly 10am. I was shortly due to meet a friend for coffee on Darling Street. I took a few quick photographs of the badge, put it away in my top drawer and forgot about it until the following weekend.
On the morning of Sunday 3 April, I prepared a simple breakfast, consisting of coffee and toast and consumed it while watching Insiders on ABC iView. Afterwards, I gave the apartment a quick once-over and ventured out for the day. A ten minute spin cross-town, I rode my British racing-green bike to Ciao Thyme, a gourmet cafe with rustic charm and great coffee, on the corner of Darling and Ann Streets, Balmain. I took a seat by the window jumped on the iPad and googled the words ‘Balmain Blind Bowling Combination.’
I retrieved a cache of articles from contemporary sources and online archives with bits and bobs of tantalising information. One gem in particular was a regular column on lawn balls published in The Sydney Morning Herald in 1979 with the captivating title ‘The Sixth Sense.’12 The article makes reference to the silver jubilee of the Balmain Bowling Club’s blind bowlers combination. That fixes the inaugural year of the blind bowlers combination at 1954, which indeed matches up with the year inscribed on the badge. It also confirms the badge is attached to the Balmain Bowling Club at 156 Darling Street, and not the Gladstone Park Bowling Club on Darvall Street.
But what is the meaning of the phrase ‘blind bowlers combination’? It is, literally, lawn bowls played by the blind. Because a blind or vision impaired bowler cannot see the jack 13 he or she is accompanied by an able-sighted bowler called the ‘director.’ The director directs the blind bowler using the clock position (for example, ‘deliver the bowl at 3 o’clock!’) 14 to strategically guide the trajectory of the bowl toward the jack. Together the blind or vision impaired bowler and the able-sighted director/helper comprise a ‘combination.’
The original inspiration behind blind bowling was 10-pin bowling for the blind. In 1952 the Balmain Blind Bowlers club was formed, 15 with Bert Hussey its inaugural club president, a position he held for 22 years. Though it wasn’t until 1954 that the Royal New South Wales Bowling Association accepted blind bowlers as a combination. The article attributes president and vice president of the Balmain Bowling Club, Frank Yeats and Piers Holmes, respectively, as the driving force behind the institutional acceptance of blind bowling combination in NSW.
However, a much earlier article published in 1952 16 stated that Jim Jack, a blind Sydney bowler and ex serviceman invented blind bowls:
Mr Jim Jack…has at last originated a sport at which blind players can compete with sighted players under same rules. It is a variation of bowling, and is played by the team with the aid of a skipper, who directs each shot by a whistle.
The article goes on to say that ‘A club has been formed at Balmain, Sydney, and has now 23 members and is rapidly expanding.’17 I should point out that no mention of Jim Jack is made in The Sydney Morning Herald piece published 27 years later.
The blind bowlers enjoyed success and recognition for their efforts on and off the green. Yeats was awarded and MBE in 1971 for services to the blind, and a Frank Yeats memorial day was inaugurated at the club in tribute to this legacy.18 In 1977 a five-man team won gold and bronze medals at the first world blind bowling tournament in Johannesburg.19 And the national singles champion in 1979 for the partially sighted was won by Ken Curtis, then in his fourth term as president of the club. Undeniably, Balmain Bowling Club was a socially inclusive hub of the community which actively encouraged blind people to take up lawn bowls.
Until recently 20 competition bowls were traditionally segregated by gender. However, an exception to this rule was the blind bowling combination. Evelyn Hitchenson joined the Balmain Bowling Club in 1976 after marrying her deaf and blind husband who was a member there. As his guide, over the period of a decade they went on to win 16 gold medals in local and international blind bowls competitions.21
On the History Trail
Today blind bowls is an established international game played under the auspices of para-sport lawn bowls.22 The question is, did blind bowls really have its humble beginnings in the Balmain Bowling Club? Various newspaper sources I uncovered point in that particular direction. To be sure, on the morning of Friday 8 April I decided to visit the archives of Leichhardt Municipal Library to see if local historians had documented this aspect of Balmain’s history. I came upon an essay by Peter Reynolds published in a local history pamphlet commemorating the centenary of the Balmain Bowling Club.23 The focus of the article was on whether or not the Balmain Bowling Club, established in 1880, was the oldest continuously operating club in NSW. It wasn’t at the time that Reynolds was conducting his research, but the club incidentally took on that mantle after Parramatta Bowling club, formerly Rose Hill Bowling Club, folded in 1986.24
Even though Reynold’s article commemorates 100 years of bowling in Balmain, there is no mention of blind bowls or blind bowling combination. It would be unfair to characterise this as an oversight since the article narrowly focuses on the club’s establishment in the 1880s. Notwithstanding that, any history of the club which glosses over or ignores it’s pivotal role in establishing blind bowls in NSW and beyond, is a grave omission, especially if blind lawn bowls was conceived in Balmain, as history suggests. To that end, if the Balmain community has anything to be proud of, it is the whelm of humanity its men and women displayed through the magisterial sport of lawn bowls, leading the way through social inclusion of the blind and the vision impaired, and the wonderful women who were their ears and eyes on the green.
For Whom the Bell Tolls
It’s late evening on Sunday 22 May 2016. As I write this concluding paragraph, the bell in the post office tower where Montague meets Darling tolls eight times, echoing across the peninsula down into Rozelle valley.25 Coincidentally, it also happens to be eight weeks since Alex found the badge. If it wasn’t for her desire to visit the markets we wouldn’t have stumbled upon it, and I probably wouldn’t have put pen to paper (Actually, part of me wishes Alex hadn’t found it!). However, as integral as they are to the story, it’s not really about bowls, nor is it about the badge. It’s about chance. It’s about place. It’s about local history. It’s about people and community values. More precisely, it’s about the strange and unlikely ways we sometimes stumble upon the past, and the unexpected discoveries this yields.✏️
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- Country Woman’s Association Hall. ↩
- According to a close source who is an experienced bowler, in the world of bowls the white uniforms are referred to as ‘creams.’ ↩
- I was raised in the north-western suburb of Dundas on the boundary of The City of Parramatta and The City of Ryde. A friend of mine who grew up in Balmain remembers families moving out to the new housing developments there in the 1960s. He wryly characterised Dundas as a ‘nothing place.’ An uncharitable reference, but maybe not untrue. It’s a featureless garden suburb premised on car-dependence. ↩
- I’m referring to the controversial retail and residential development application at the former Balmain Leagues Club on Victoria Road. Locals and business owners fear it will have an adverse impact on main street shopping and the village feel of the neighbourhood. Employing doublespeak, the developer has dubbed its proposed high-rise shopping centre ‘Rozelle Village.’ ↩
- In 1969 my parents, George and Pipina Elles, were renting a house at 1 Terry Street Balmain with their first newborn, Peter, my eldest brother. My father opened an account at the Rozelle branch of the Bank of New South Wales on 24 December 1969, giving his occupation as a ‘painting contractor.’ Cited in the Rozelle Branch Accounts Ledger, Westpac Historical Archives. ↩
- My godparents, Con and Eleni Hatzis lived in Turner Street Balmain with their three children, Olga and twins Sam and Spiro. ↩
- The State Library of New South Wales holds microfiche records of the Good Weekend Magazine published by John Fairfax and Sons. Reference details of the edition featuring Hatzis, forthcoming. ↩
- Hatzis started trading from this location in the early 1970s. I have a living memory of the shop operating at the time. My parents used to take me there as a little boy. Locals I have spoken to recall vivid details: A barber’s pole out the front and a small kiosk window through which cigarettes and confectionary were sold. The family still owns the building, which the patissier Adriano Zumbo has been trading from since 2007. ↩
- I count an experienced bowler as a friend. He has promised to take me to the Balmain Bowling Club for my first game of bowls in the near future. ↩
- The legacy of being a first generation Australian perhaps? A good friend of mine recently told me, in all seriousness, that ‘you probably wouldn’t get Dorothea MacKellar.’ Be that as it may, most Anglo-Australians (including him) are unaware that the popular vernacular version of ‘My Country’ omits the first verse ‘A land of field and coppice…’ which expresses McKellar’s estrangement from the English penchant for ‘ordered woods and gardens.’ For example, Christine Robert’s popular version adopted to music and broadcast on the ABC on the 02 Nov 1967 commences at the iconic second verse ‘I love a sunburnt country, A land of sweeping planes…’ Cited at http://splash.abc.net.au/home#!/media/104826/dorothea-mackellar-s-my-country-as-a-song ↩
- On the rear of the badge the manufacturer’s name, clearly visible with the aid of a magnifying glass, is ‘Denham Neal and Treloar’. The text is wrapped around the image of a coronet, the company trademark. ↩
- Rheuben, P. ‘Sixth Sense,’ The Sydney Morning Herald, Sat October 7, 1979 p.43 cited in Google News, URL: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1301&dat=19791007&id=tzNWAAAAIBAJ&sjid=geYDAAAAIBAJ&pg=5170,2022242&hl=en ↩
- The jack is the small white ball that is the target or mark. ↩
- A bit of conjecture on my part here. More informed sources about how the director and blind bowler interact as a combination or team can be found on the Internet or public library. ↩
- ‘Blind Sportsman Invents Game’ Benalla Ensign Thu 30 Oct 1952 p.1 cited in Trove http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/65504469 ↩
- ibid ↩
- ibid ↩
- Date of inauguration unknown. I contacted the Balmain Bowling Club by phone and spoke to a female member of staff who told me she has been employed there for 10 years and has never heard of the memorial day in Yeat’s honour. So, it seems, his legacy has been forgotten by the club. ↩
- Op. cit. Rheuben ↩
- See for example, Bolger, R. ‘Male lawn bowls players quit over move to mixed competitions’ Fri 5 Dec 2014 cited at http://mobile.abc.net.au/news/2014-12-04/male-lawn-bowls-players-quit-over-move-to-mixed-competitions/5942078 ↩
- Tarbert, K. ‘Kingswood Bowls club rolls out special celebration for ton-of-fun Evelyn Hitchenson’ Jun 11 2015 Daily Telegraph cited at http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/newslocal/west/kingswood-bowls-club-rolls-out-special-celebration-for-tonoffun-evelyn-hitchenson/news-story/c55158d63112c849bcbaa8971a152959 ↩
- For example, see the Disability Sports Australia website: http://www.sports.org.au/lawn-bowls/ ↩
- Reynolds, P. ‘Uncovering Our Past: 100 Years of Bowling In Balmain 1880-1980,’ in The Balmain Association issue 101 (March 1980) pp 4-6. Thank you to Services Librarian Benjamin Carter at Balmain Library and Amie Zar, Local History Librarian at Leichhardt Library for their kind help in locating the original article in Leichhardt Municipal Council’s local history collection. A scanned copy is available here: http://www.balmainassociation.org.au/newsletters/contents/102%20198006.pdf ↩
- See the history page of Bowls Australia at http://www.bowlsaustralia.com.au/About-BA/History ↩
- The last toll for the evening, probably due to noise restrictions. ↩