New Zealand Women's Bowling Association

1948 – 1996

New Zealand Women's Bowling Association

1948 – 1996

Theme: Sport and recreation

This essay written by Fiona Hall was first published in Women Together: a History of Women's Organisations in New Zealand in 1993. It was updated by Jeanette Sinclair in 2018.

1948 – 1993

The New Zealand Women's Bowling Association (NZWBA) became the governing body for women's bowling in New Zealand in 1948. It set the uniform code, rules and procedures for play, and organised national and international teams and tournaments.

Although bowling was a popular sporting pastime in the nineteenth century, it did not develop as an organised sport for women until after 1900. The first women's bowling club in New Zealand was probably the Kelburn Bowling Club, formed in 1906. All other bowling clubs and associations at that time were run by and for men, and, more importantly, they owned and controlled the greens on which they played. Women took part in club activities by providing afternoon teas, and some clubs allowed them to play, but only unofficially and at very restricted times. Women had to overcome considerable resistance before they could take up the sport.

The formation of the Meadowbank Ladies' Bowling Club in North Otago was a good example of the difficulties some women bowlers experienced. The early records of the Meadowbank Bowling Club praised the assistance 'given by the ladies in dispensing tea and biscuits', but there was no record of the women playing bowls. [1] In 1907 Bessie Miller, on behalf of the women from the Meadowbank Tennis Club, wrote to the bowling club and asked for permission to form a 'ladies' bowling rink' and to control their own membership. [2] This request was declined, but the women were given permission to play bowls on the green during the year—although not, presumably, when the men wished to play. Twenty years later, another group of women asked to be allowed to form a ladies' club. This request, and another in 1932, were also refused, but the opposition was weakening.

Finally, in 1934, the men's club agreed that the women could form the Meadowbank Ladies' Bowling Club. They could elect their own officials and committee, arrange matches with other women's clubs, and 'transact business which was deemed necessary in the interests of play of the ladies' section'. [3] But the women still came under the jurisdiction of a general committee from the men's club on all matters relating to the use of the green and the club premises, and were limited to playing on certain days of the week and at certain times.

Two days later, some members of the men's club tried to reverse the decision. When their bid was rejected by the club committee, several of them promptly resigned. The men's club made several attempts to limit the membership of the women's club; many male bowlers felt it should be restricted to their own members' wives, daughters or sisters. Not until 1978 were women permitted to use the greens whenever they wanted, including Saturdays and public holidays, 'except that in the evenings and at weekends the men retain preference on any green available'. [4]

The women's bowling clubs which formed throughout New Zealand during the early decades of this century organised themselves into provincial centres. In 1947, representatives from eight centres—Otago, Auckland, Wellington, Manawatu, Buller and West Coast, South Canterbury, Otago Central and Southland—gathered at the Otago Ladies' Bowling Association Pavilion and decided to form the New Zealand Women's Bowling Association (NZWBA). The inaugural meeting was held in Dunedin in 1948, with E. Adess (Otago) as president and Lavinia Boles (Auckland) as vice-president. By 1950 twelve centres were affiliated, with approximately 3584 members.

That first meeting of the NZWBA proposed that it adopt the rules of the men's association—the New Zealand Bowling Association—'with alterations and additions to suit the Women's Council'. [5] These were mainly concerned with uniforms and tournament rules. From that time, each club set its own rules, and there were some slight differences in uniforms and procedures. The NZWBA adopted cream and gold as its colours, and at the 1949 annual meeting defined the uniform: 'White dresses, white bowling hats, bowling shoes (No Wedgies) [and] stockings must be worn'. [6] In 1952 the association decided that cream uniforms were also acceptable.

There were several challenges to this dress code over the years, particularly concerning the length of dresses, the wearing of stockings and the wearing of white or cream trousers. The proposal in 1950 that the length of dresses be optional and that stockings or sockettes be allowed was not passed by the annual meeting; the rule remained that dresses must be twelve inches from the ground and stockings only be worn. Necklaces and other jewellery were not permitted, and smoking was not allowed on the green at national tournaments.

From 1948 the NZWBA built a strong administrative structure, which became the basis for many of the advances made by the sport, and in the 1950s began to organise national competitions. The Dominion Fours competition, played for the Watson Rose Bowl, began in 1951, the pairs in 1952 and the singles in 1957. These competitions took place at the annual Dominion Tournament, renamed the National Tournament in 1988.

Women play bowls at their own club in Gisborne, 1950s

Alexander Turnbull Library, New Zealand Free Lance, 1/2-016142.

Women play bowls at their own club in Gisborne in the 1950s. The Riverside Women's Bowling Club was established in 1941 with 20 members. In 1996 the women's and men's clubs amalgamated.

The Women's International Bowls Championships were held in New Zealand in 1973 and 1988, and women's bowling became a Commonwealth Games sport in 1982. New Zealand produced several outstanding women bowlers, including Millie Khan, Judy Howat, Elsie Wilkie and Cissie Winstanley. Khan, winner of 12 national titles, was the first of a family dynasty of champion women bowlers. She was also a strong advocate of women’s composite teams being able to play at the national championships, as men had been able to do.

By 1991, the association had over 30,000 members in 614 clubs and 26 provincial centres. In the early 1990s women's bowling, long a very popular sport in New Zealand, continued to grow in popularity and in national and international significance. In 1993 the NZWBA began negotiating to amalgamate with the New Zealand Bowling Association within the next few years. The two associations shared the same basic rules and organisational structure; their established tournament calendars would remain, and be administered from a central office. A task force comprising both NZBA and NZWBA personnel was formed, under the chairmanship of Terry O’Connor, to formulate a structure that would be acceptable to the existing national associations and meet the challenges facing the sport as it moved into the twenty-first century.

Fiona Hall

1994 – 2018

The task force working on amalgamation of the men’s and women’s national bowling associations received over 1400 written submissions, engaged professional legal and financial help to work through the technical issues, and held 31 meetings round the country. In 1995 a prospectus was released detailing the advantages of amalgamation at a national level, in order to give all members, clubs and centres an opportunity to contribute to the process. In arriving at the structure for Bowls New Zealand Incorporated, the first priority was to ensure fair and equitable representation of both men and women. In May both associations voted to amalgamate from 1 May 1996, with only one women’s centre voting against the proposal.

The New Zealand Women’s Bowling Association held its last half yearly general meeting on 18 March 1996. The inaugural council meeting of Bowls New Zealand, on 1 May 1996 in Wellington, was attended by 52 councillors representing the 26 centres, and they noted that the Gisborne East Coast Centre was already operating as an amalgamated centre. At the time of amalgamation there were 68,210 members in total—42,413 men and 25,797 women. A tour to South Africa took place that year, the first time a combined men’s and women’s team had traveled overseas.

After the amalgamation, women were treated equally at all levels of bowling, in accordance with the stress placed on equality during the pre-amalgamation forums. There was to be no differentiation with regard to gender among national coaches, selectors and all personnel involved at national level. The positions of President and Vice-President of Bowls New Zealand were to be held by a woman and a man, with each position alternating between men and women. In 2012–2013, Cushla McGillivray became the first woman to chair the board.

From 2000 to 2018, New Zealand’s women bowlers achieved the highest accolades on the world stage, with Jo Edwards winning two world titles and three Commonwealth Games gold medals. Women had also received life membership and honours for their services to the game, and were playing a very important role in the successful administration of Bowls New Zealand at all levels.

Jo Edwards receives the insignia of a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to lawn bowls, 2014

Governor-General/Government House

Jo Edwards receives the insignia of a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to lawn bowls from Governor-General Lieutenant General The Right Honourable Sir Jerry Mateparae in 2014.

Of the almost 123,000 players, 43,245 of them women, who came under Bowls NZ’s purview in 2017–18, two-thirds were casual members; while full club members rose by almost 4 percent on the previous year, social players rose by close to 6 percent. The organisation recognised that it now played a significant part as a community hub, valuable in combating rising rates of adult loneliness and depression, as well as a sporting venue. [7] It had also worked hard to change its profile, continually challenging the stereotype of bowls being a game for old people by introducing innovative formats, appealing to younger competitors, and providing support to its international athletes. These efforts enabled Bowls NZ to continue delivering a sport that was enjoyable, entertaining and accessible to all, based on its core values: Enjoy, Grow, Share, Honour, Succeed.

Jeanette Sinclair [8]


[1] Tonkin, 1982, p. 41.

[2] Tonkin, 1982, p. 41.

[3] Tonkin, 1982, pp. 42–43.

[4] Tonkin, 1982, p. 46.

[5] Minutes of 1948 annual meeting.

[6] Minutes of 1949 annual meeting.

[7] Annual Report, Bowls New Zealand, 2017-18, 2018. Retrieved from

[8] President, Bowls NZ, 2018.

Unpublished sources

New Zealand Women's Bowling Association records, 1947–1992, TSB Bank Bowls New Zealand Museum, New Plymouth

Published sources

Carter, John, Bowls Through The Decades: The Proud History Of Over 100 Years Of Bowls In New Zealand, Bowls NZ, 2013

Jones, Ken, The Bowlers From Clutha, Balclutha Bowling Club, Balclutha, 1980

Tonkin, Maurie, A Century of Bowls: North Otago Bowling Centre, Meadowbank. 1881–1981, Meadowbank Bowling Club, Oamaru, 1982

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