Life & Style

Does the humble bowlo have a future in Newcastle?

On a Friday night at Adamstown Bowling Club, a delicate balancing act takes place. You wouldn’t notice if you’re simply enjoying a schooner in the beer garden, or playing a game of barefoot bowls. But, for a couple of hours, two of the bowling club’s most disparate cohorts cross over – the bowling members get the meat raffle underway while the bands come in to start their sound check.

The club’s Venue Manager Matt Field jokes that it’s a sensitive matter to manage. But in all seriousness, this two-hour period on a Friday at the bowlo is symbolic of how these struggling clubs are adapting and catering to a more diverse crowd as they face dire financial straits and, in many cases, closure.

How did we get here? And what’s in store for the future of bowlos?

The golden years

The bowlo, as it’s fondly known, has a long and varied history in Newcastle. The first lawn bowls club in the city was the now-closed Newcastle City Bowling Club, while 1892-founded Lowlands Bowling Club in Cooks Hill lays claim to the title of oldest active bowling club in the greater Newcastle region.

the revival of the bowlo newcastle

The bowling club was once a thriving centrepiece of suburban life in the city. Chris Brain, General Manager at Alder Park Sports Club, grew up down the road from the club and has watched it dwindle over the decades.

“The bowling club itself used to be rivers of gold, like most bowling clubs. They had a strong board, strong governance, and the game itself was really popular… This place was heaving with people. Bowling green full, club full. A huge amount of poker machine entitlements. This was back in the 70s and 80s.

“By the 90s, you could start to see some steady decline of all clubs. In the 2000s, you really started to feel the pinch,” Chris said.

Lowlands’ Vice President and Bowls Coordinator Brett Gemmell says that the club has had a history of having to just get over the line financially, referencing the annual tournament for the Seed Simpson Trophy.

“I found out that Mr Seed, who the trophy is named after, back in the 50s, actually loaned the club £20,000 to stay viable. Which back then, was a significant contribution,” Brett said.

the revival of the bowlo newcastle

Over the years, despite monetary struggles threatening the closure of many clubs across Newcastle, an attitude became entrenched: the bowlo was for bowls only. When the new guard who saw the potential to save these clubs came along, there was plenty of initial resistance by longstanding bowling members. Why should a bowling club let non-bowlers run around barefoot on their well-kept green, or put craft beer in the taps?

The renaissance begins

Carrington Bowling Club was one of the first bowling clubs in the city to change tack. When CEO Jaci Lappin took over the club in 2008, she was led to believe the bowlo was $60,000 in debt – in reality, it was more than $300,000 in the red.

It’s hard to believe considering the state of Carro Bowlo now. The club is host to meet-ups for an array of community groups, does a roaring functions trade, and is even home to a popular diner.

The “bullheaded” (Jaci’s words) hospitality veteran says it took six years and plenty of persistence to get the club to where it is now: 7000 members strong, up from just 212 members in 2008 (plus 250 dog members, whose membership fees go to Newcastle Dog Rescue).

“One of the other things I realised was that we weren’t going to make enough money out of bowls and we wanted to create more income streams. I went to the board and said that I wanted to put a coffee machine in and they were like ‘Who’s going to drink this?’” Jaci said.

Now, the club makes a tidy sum from coffee and cake sales each year, just one of its many revenue sources. Not long after Jaci began changing the fortunes of Carrington Bowling Club, Brett started at Lowlands Bowling Club, where the tide was already turning.

“When Lowlands decided before I’d arrived that they were going to dabble with social bowls, a lot of clubs initially looked and went ‘Why would you let young people run around barefoot on your bowling greens?’... But I think as it went along, other clubs asked how we did it,” he said.

the revival of the bowlo newcastle

From simple changes like adjusting the layout of the bar to allow more punters through and letting young blokes wear caps in the club, to upgrading the all-weather outdoor area and expanding the restaurant space, Lowlands has been at the forefront of the revival of the bowlo in Newcastle.

Adamstown was one club that looked to Lowlands for inspiration on how to save itself from imminent closure. Ultimately though, what skyrocketed Adamstown Bowling Club’s success was, unusually, the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Gladys Berejiklian had a one person per four square metre ratio that applied, and because we have three bowling greens, we actually have 10,000 square metres here. When all the other little pubs around Newcastle couldn’t have many people, we could have a lot of people in here,” Matt said.

The club hosted live music because no one else could at the time, and the progressive board recognised the boon that the younger demographic coming through the doors represented. A few years later, Adamstown seems unstoppable in its growth. 

Not far down the road at Alder Park, efforts to revitalise the nearly 70-year-old club are always ongoing, as in Chris’ words, “bowling clubs have to diversify or die.”

the revival of the bowlo newcastle

Alder Park’s focus is sport, with New Lambton Football Club (whose home ground is adjacent to Alder Park) coming on board to help run the bowlo in 2019. It now offers synthetic futsal courts for hire, with competitions kicking off in September this year.

But the bowlo’s comeback hasn’t been smooth sailing for every club in Newcastle. 

An uncertain future

Bar Beach Bowling Club, like many clubs in the city, is on Crown land, and is facing drastic rent hikes following a recent rent redetermination under the Crown Lands Management Act 2016.

“Trying to make up that deficit is becoming more and more difficult. We’re really lucky where we are just based on location; being by the beach we are very lucky with the amount of functions and foot trade we get over summer. I think we’ll start to feel it this winter, for sure,” said Venue Manager Bec Alder.

Lowlands is also set to confront a rent increase, which Brett says would “cripple” the club. Meanwhile, Club Kotara has only just been saved from closure thanks to local brewery Good Folk Brewing, who is providing the bowlo with financial and in-kind support. It’s a turbulent time for these important community spaces – the bowlo is one of the few places left where multiple generations can socialise and find a sense of belonging.

“I love seeing three generations out in the beer garden together. We don’t have it in very many places in New South Wales – this mix of age demographics. We have 18-year-olds alongside 50-year-olds alongside 80-year-olds, all enjoying the space together,” Matt said.

It’s one of Jaci’s favourite things about Carrington Bowling Club too – the buzz of a Saturday morning at the bowlo, when the local ukulele group, rowers and paddle boarders, and family groups are all using the club.

the revival of the bowlo newcastle

“It’s a mixture of all these people who don’t even know one another, but they’re all smiling at one another and loving that community vibe – I’ve never gotten sick of that,” she said.

Not only are bowling clubs multi-generational, but they are there to serve the community.

“The one big message I always have is that any money we make here doesn’t go into my pocket, it doesn’t go into anyone else’s pocket, it goes back into the club, because we’re a cooperative,” Chris said.

This sentiment is echoed by Phil Elsley, owner of Good Folk Brewing and now board member of Club Kotara, who is excited to attract new people to the suburban club.

“You want everyone there – it should be a community club for everybody,” he said.

the revival of the bowlo newcastle

The future is uncertain for Newcastle’s bowlos. So many competing pressures – the decline of lawn bowls as a sport, the cost of living, rent increases – are placing these much-loved community places under immense strain. 

Perhaps it’s time to go on a crawl of your local bowlos. They each have something unique to offer, but at their heart, the bowlo is a place to “feel at home”, as Bec puts it.

“There’s something so nostalgic about a bowling club – any time you go to one, you feel at home. I’ve never walked into a bowling club and thought ‘I don’t like the vibe here.’ It makes you feel good… It’s one of those last family-feel, family-run, community-run places to be.”