It was in September 1911 that the first formal Hastings Bowls Tournament was contested. It was then known as the Hastings and St Leonards Bowls and Quoits Tournament and took place at the Central Cricket Ground in Queens Road over three days. Expanding in later years to a two week festival (without the quoits), though reduced back to a single week since 2009, it has run annually since, apart from two years during the First World War and five in the Second. Which on my calculation makes this year’s event, held on the White Rock lawns from Monday 14 August, its hundredth contest.

The organising committee for what is now styled the Hastings Annual Mixed Open Bowls Tournament have not made anything of this distinctive milestone. To be fair, the centenary in 2011 was marked with some local fanfare including the publication of a well-researched booklet documenting the 100-year history. But the current committee are hard-pressed these days merely to keep the event going from year to year and don’t seem to have noticed.

Their problem is not principally one of dwindling numbers of competitors. The total number of players entering one or more of the five competitions this year – mens singles and pairs, ladies singles and pairs, and open (mixed) triples – is way down on the heyday of the competition in the late 1940s and early 1950s when the event attracted visiting bowlers from all over Britain taking their annual holidays on the Sussex coast (then all men – the ladies had a separate competition), and ten greens spread over the town were needed. But there are still entries from Northumberland, Suffolk and Dorset, and numbers seem to have stabilised over the past four years, indeed are marginally up overall on 2016. Interestingly, although entries for both mens singles and ladies singles remain in steady decline, there is a marked increase in ladies pairs this year, an indication perhaps of women preferring the more sociable aspects of the game.

credit Bob Bogie
credit Bob Bogie

What concerns the committee more, like so many other local voluntary sporting bodies, is the perennial administrative burden, and the reluctance of younger players to share it. Gordon Leggatt, now aged 80, has devoted some 25 years, as Treasurer, then Secretary, now President, to running the show. He is still responsible for completion and dispatch of the excellently produced official programme. Meanwhile current Treasurer and acting Secretary Mike Grigg, aged 79, and competition secretary Simon Moore, rather younger, shoulder most of the other responsibilities.

Under the Tournament’s constitution Hastings Council also provides a minimum of two members, including present chairman Councillor Nigel Sinden. However this seems a historical anomaly since, as with similar sports events in the town which at one time enjoyed local municipal grants or other financial favours, the benefits the bowlers get from the Council are largely rhetorical. The Council do own the greens and pavilion, but they charge rent, directly or indirectly, to the White Rock and Rosemount clubs for use and upkeep of them, which they have raised in recent years; they also own the car parking space around, and there is a frequent and not always wholly amicable negotiation between the bowlers and Council parking services on what discounts, if any, may be offered.

There seem to be happier bowling conditions, on the other hand, in surrounding villages. Mike Grigg is a member of Fairlight Bowls Club. He says that this small club is thriving, with an increasing and very sociable membership. They own their own clubhouse and greens; parking is plentiful and free. There are matches and other competitive events most days of the week in summer plus non-sporting social outings. Cynics may note that there are few alternative entertainment opportunities in Fairlight – but Mike is in fact a resident of Hastings and has a choice. Winchelsea, Pett and other local village clubs are also, he thinks, doing fine.

Still, the Hastings Tournament maintains its historical prestige, and there’s really nowhere lovelier in town than the White Rock greens on a sunny summer afternoon with smartly spruced bowlers displaying their meticulous sporting skills. The event is fully open to the public gaze. Many happy returns!

credit Bob Bogie
credit Bob Bogie