The year was 1907. The place was the Waterloo Hotel, Blackpool, and on a 45-yard square of the highest quality lawn turf, the most prestigious event in crown green bowling was born.
There were 320 entries, the total prize money was £25 and the winner was Jas Rothwell from West Leigh, who beat the local hero from South Shore, Blackpool, T. Richardson.
This was to be James Rothwell’s only appearance in a Waterloo final, whilst the runner-up in the first Waterloo Handicap was to be losing finalist twice more, in 1919 and 1944.
In 1986 there were 2048 entries, the winner receiving £2000 out of £13,600 total prize monkey and this was Brian Duncan, the crown green king of the Seventies and Eighties and one of only three bowlers to have won the trophy twice, the first being in 1979. The other two are Arthur Murray in 1973 and 1978, and Bernard Kelly in 1953 and 1954, the only bowler to have won the Waterloo two years in succession.
Over the 100+ years this competition has been held, it has developed into the top event in the crown green bowling calendar and is now completely known as the Cup Final of bowling played at the Wembley of crown green, the Waterloo Hotel, Blackpool.
The bowling club itself has changed dramatically since that day in 1907 and throughout the years stands have developed round the green to make it the only crown green bowling stadium in Britain.
However, by far the more dramatic changes have been on the green itself since Jas Rothwell took that first title. Dress and equipment have changed considerably. In the early days dress was considered unimportant, with the bowlers arriving straight from their jobs with their bowls in their overcoat pockets, or the luckier ones in their ‘dorothy’ bags.
Nowadays, with television and sponsorship, there is a smart uniform of sweater, flannels and shoes with the bowls in smart leather cases. A word about ‘dorothy’ bags. It is rumoured that a bowler’s wife named Dorothy was fed up with her husband’s bulging overcoat pockets. She decided “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” and made a special bag out of coat sleeves to keep his bowls in!
Another aspect of the crown green game at the Waterloo which has changed dramatically is the form of measuring a disputed end. Until 1981, when Jack Leigh took over as the bowling manager of the Waterloo Hotel, players were allowed to opt for ‘cutting the straw’ measuring. A player was allowed five minutes maximum to measure, the jack leader having the decision to the form of measuring. A straw was taken from a bunch and cut to the distance from the bowl to jack. Obviously, as the bowls are spherical, the straw had to be cut at an angle to get tight on to the bowls, the more experienced players developing an art in the angle and the length.
Unfortunately this was prone to gamesmanship as some players bent the straw ‘accidentally’ in removing it from the measure. This happened to Noel Burrows in 1974 when playing veteran Billy Dawber. Billy opted for a straw measure and the straw was ‘bent’ when handed to Noel, who swears he lost an eighth of an inch in trying to straighten it out. The method is no longer used in major competitions and in the last year a new electronic device has been invented and is being used now in both flat and crown codes.
Notable winners of the Waterloo include a former greyhound trainer, Bill Lacy of Wigan – one of the original cloth cap brigade, who in 1957 had a storming win over Tommy Bimson of St Anne’s 21-7. The score doesn’t do justice to the quality of that final, which was reckoned to be one of the best ever. Over 3500 enthusiasts who watched that match will never forget Bill Lacy playing with his trouser bottoms tucked into his socks, which he said was ‘the most memorable moment in my life’.
He nearly claimed the elusive Blackpool double three days later, narrowly losing in the Talbot Final. And that was at the ripe ‘young’ age of 76!
Another stalwart of the green was George Barnes of Westhoughton, who used to start favourite whenever he went out. He thought nothing of playing for £25-£50 a side, with thousands being waged on his name elsewhere. Yet, despite reaching the finals twice, he never won the Waterloo.
There were three Yorkshire winners: John Peace (1911), Tedber Tinker (1944) and Albert Ringrose (1948) who won £60 first prize and a further £600 in bets on himself from the first round to the final. All three were members of the Huddersfield brigade who regularly try for the Waterloo each autumn.
One Huddersfield bowler is quoted as saying, ‘I used to dream of taking Jane Russell to the Savoy and doing things that are unprintable, but now I’m older and wiser, my ambition is for a fairy godmother to grant me a couple of wishes. One to win the Waterloo and two to celebrate with halibut and chips at the Lobster Pot.’
It takes something pretty drastic to prevent the Waterloo taking place. Since 1907 the competition has only missed two years, 1910 and 1939, when the tournament was abandoned due to war being declared two weeks before finals day. Only once since then has the finals day been in jeopardy. In 1976 the heavens opened on the day of the semi-finals and final.
By the time Keith Illingworth and Stuart Buckley stepped on the sacred turf to start battle for the first prize the green was covered in large pools of water. There was much concern as to whether the match would proceed, but the decision was made without hesitation. Game on. It became a throwing final rather than a bowling final and commentator Harry Rigby’s description “they’re cobbing their bowls” became a national bowling phrase overnight. The 1976 final is now affectionately known as the Watersplash Final.
Since BBC-TV started covering crown green bowling’s major event, there have been some great characters on show, performing in unforgettable finals. The unique Watersplash Final of 1976 was followed, in 1980, by the tussle between the ‘Dancing Major’ Vernon Lee from Blackpool, a local hero, and Glynn Vernon from Winsford in Cheshire. Lee, famous for his antics during bowling, gave a star performance, delighted the packed stadium, and won his first and only final 21-20 to become a most popular champion.
In post-war years, perhaps the most popular winner came from arguably the best final, the Streaker Final of 1982. The late Dennis Mercer from Stockport, a champion bowler in his own right, had a very difficult match against Ken Strutt from Oldham. It was close all the way, and at 19-20 in favour of Mercer, millions of TV viewers were to see a grandstand finish.
Ken put two close to the block and looked a certain winner. But, forever optimistic, Dennis held on to the mat as they approached the gathering of bowls. Suddenly, the second of Ken Strutt’s bowls fell over away from the jack and Dennis immediately called for a measure. Ken was left with only one: 20-20. By now both spectators and viewers were on the edge of their seats. Dennis Mercer deftly took the next end and fulfilled his life’s ambition, Waterloo champion 1982 in his first and only final. You couldn’t have scripted a better finish for such an emotional occasion.