When you take the Grafton Gully exit off the Southern Motorway on your way into Auckland City, you’ll catch a glimpse of the Auckland Bowling Club on the right, just before the motorway peters out into the busy wharf access route of Stanley Street.
The 1952 vintage clubhouse acts as home to New Zealand’s oldest bowling club, founded 158 years ago in 1861. Most bowlers probably know that. But what they probably don’t know is that the Auckland Bowling Club is the oldest bowling club in the world outside the United Kingdom.
Auckland is still a youngster by United Kingdom standards, where the oldest club – the Southampton Old Bowling Green in England – was believed to have been formed way back in the 17th century. And bowls may have even been played on their green as far back as 1299!
In 1903, Southampton Old Bowling Green gifted the Auckland Bowling Club a wooden ceremonial case containing two bowls, “Every year,” observes Club President Naned Rajic, “a VIP opens the season by rolling these bowls down the green. Last year, the Member of Parliament for Epsom, David Seymour, even collected the jack!”
Like many bowling clubs around the country, the Auckland Bowling Club was a powerhouse in the 1960s. The club had over 300 members, and kids were enrolled when they were born, so they had a chance of topping the waiting list by the time they were ready to play bowls. “We had 4 greens then, says Rajic, “but the Grafton Gully motorway off-ramp put paid to two. They’re 6 foot under the motorway now.”
These days the club has a more modest 46 members. But there is new blood running the Auckland Bowling Club, and they’re determined to turn things around.
The Auckland Bowling Club’s land is protected by an Act of Parliament, the Auckland Domain Act 1987. The Act leased sections of the Domain to a variety of sports : the Stanley Street tennis courts to be enjoyed by Auckland Tennis; Carlaw Park to be enjoyed by Auckland Rugby League; the Maunsell Street tennis courts to be enjoyed by the Parnell Lawn Tennis Club; and the Grafton Mews greens to be enjoyed by the Auckland Bowling Club.
Over the years, commercial pressures have repetitively eyed these jewels in the Domain crown. Carlaw Park was closed in 2002. The Grafton Gully off-ramp was finished in 2003. And the car parking at the Auckland Bowling Club is now sticking out like a beacon to Council developers.
Rajic and his Board aren’t planning to have a bar of any leaking of their current estate. Quite the opposite.
“With the development of inner-city living, there is now a huge latent demand for inner city sports and leisure facilities,” says Rajic. “We are already looking at plans to make the Auckland Bowling Club a centre of excellence for bowls – with a covered green complete with technology infrastructure, so we can run international bowls events here all year round.”
The former Serb (he came here with his family in 1996 after the war), former machinist, and former owner of La Boca Restaurant in Parnell are ready for a fight. “I’ll be in Council’s ear,” laughs Rajic. “What they don’t know about us Serbs is that we’d rather kill ourselves than live without talking!” Rajic isn’t short of a word or two.
“This club has a great future ahead of it,” chips in Secretary and Board Member, Rohan Bignell. “We’re financially sound, and we’re doing more and more corporate and bowls events every year – this season we’ll easily exceed 100.”
“The Auckland Bowling Club is a great venue for social bowls or for team-building events. Bowls tourists love the opportunity to have a roll-up at the oldest club in New Zealand – we even had an Aussie rep playing here over the holiday break.”
“Our corporate Grafton Road neighbours love the fact they can use the club for planning sessions and the like. Let’s face it, nothing clears the mind better than looking out on the solitude and tranquillity of a green!”
And there’s nothing better than enjoying the wonderful legacy that the Auckland Bowling Club offers inner-city Auckland.