THE ROMANCE OF BOWL MANUFACTURE
The Late J. P. MUNRO
(Noted Bowls Historian and former Hon. Secretary of the
Royal Victorian Bowls Association)
Are you wondering why we used the word "Romance"? Do you think that kind of word seems out of place associated with something prosaic like "Manufacture"? It's the right word! This is a story along classical lines-a story of triumph, of initiative, persistence and skill, of devotion to a cause. This is a story with no ending, but one that without an ending has brought happiness, enjoyment and relaxation to hundreds of thousands of people throughout the world. Unless this story could be written, the magnificent game of bowls, despite its rich tradition in history, would without doubt still be outside the grasp of the greater proportion of those to whom it has come to mean so much. This is a "Romance" right enough, a story of a success that has earned the gratitude of the whole international bowling fraternity.
Nobody knows when the era of wooden (lignum-vitae) bowls began in England, but it goes back many centuries. The island of San Domingo in the West Indies (where lignum-vitae comes from) was discovered by Columbus on December 3rd, 1492, so it is definite that the timber was unknown in England at that time. Lignum-vitae was introduced to Europe by the Spaniards in 1508, and it was probably brought to England by Sir Francis Drake either from the West Indies direct, or after being taken from the cargo of Spanish ships captured by him. Drake had equipped his ship, "The Pasha", with bowls and quoits for the recreation of his crew whilst resting on an island in the Gulf of Darien. Most probably the bowls were of lignum-vitae, and made by his ship's carpenters whilst waiting in the harbour at Plymouth during preparation for the voyage.
However, lignum-vitae became the popular timber for bowls manufacture in England and Scotland, by such makers as John Jacques & Son (established 1795), Thomas Taylor (1796), Peter Boardman & Sons (1850), William Lindop (1855), R. G. Lawrie Ltd., F. H. Ayres Ltd., Bussey &
Co. Ltd., the Taylor-Rolph Co., Slazengers Ltd., and others. Several of these firms still produce wooden bowls, although in recent years there has been a change in manufacture to composition bowls. The conversion of players in the British Isles from wooden bowls to composition bowls is a gradual but inevitable process. It has been recently estimated by a leading authority in England that the majority of wooden bowls will disappear from the greens in the next decade.
Bowling was first introduced in Australia when the early colonists, who had learn the art of bowling in England brought bowls with them. They played on a green built alongside the Beach Tavern at Sandy Bay, Hobart, in 1844. Perhaps there was something wrong with the concept of making a bowling green an adjunct to a bar, rather than a bar an adjunct to a green, because hotel greens which were equipped with imported wooden bowls appeared and disappeared in some numbers between 1844 and 1864. It might be said that bowling as an established sport really commenced in Australia when, in 1864, Alcock & Co., Russell Street, Melbourne, turned several sets of lawn bowls from lignum-vitae skittle bowls for the newly formed Melbourne Bowling Club.
In 1867, at Parramatta, New South Wales, Thomas Eddes turned for Alexander Johnstone the first set of bowls used in New South Wales. In 1869 David Johnston was in business as a bowls manufacturer at 29 Latrobe Street, Melbourne, and on the opposite side, at 34 Latrobe Street, E. C. Johnston, a billiard table maker, included bowl manufacturing as one of his activities.
English and Scottish makes of lignum-vitae bowls continued to be used in Australia until the first decade of this century, when a few sets of composition bowls, imported from England, appeared on the greens. The material and shape of the bowl was unsatisfactory, and consequently they were not popular on the Australian greens. About this time the sport began to feel the impact of a man destined to radically revolutionise the game of bowls-the man who, without doubt, Sir Francis Drake would select from everybody associated with the game as his First Mate- William David Hensell. He was to be associated with the development work in bowls manufacture for a brilliant 61 yeal -the period during which bowls became a fully matured internationally accepted sport.
William David Hensell was born in Richmond, Victoria, on January 2nd, 1882, and was educated at the Albert Park Stat School. At the age of 16 he was apprenticed to the wood-turning trade, but two years later (in 1900 to be exact) he transferred to Alcock & Co., billiard table manufacturers, then located in Russell Street, Melbourne. There he was taught the art
turning billiard balls, his tutor being Mr. W. J. Wood, who was a bowler and later on, the official bowls tester under Alcock & Co., who had been appointed by the Victorian Bowling Association on August 21st, 1901. Young Hensell was diligent and eager to learn, and his skill in turning the billiard ball was to help him later on when the turning and re-shaping of wooden bowls came into his hands. The game of bowls was making headway in Australia, but the wooden bowls then used were not stable, and they frequently required re-testing and re-biasing, particularly as a minimum bias bowl had been adopted by the Victorian Bowling Association.
Alcock & Co., of Melbourne, were appointed official testers to the Western Australian Bowling Association in 1902, and young Hensell was sent to Perth to do the testing, and there he remained for nearly seven years. It was during this formative period, without doubt, that his plans, later to revolutionise bowls production and the game itself, took their embryonic form.
Testing in those days was very primitive when the methods and equipment used today are considered. The equipment consisted of an ordinary billiard table, twelve feet long, with a wooden chute about two feet in length, with sufficient elevation to propel the bowl nine feet along the testing table, the slate bed of which was covered with billiard cloth only. The table gave only a crude indication of the bias of the bowl; and this caused quite a lot of concern because some bowls drew well on the green, but failed to pass the test for bias on the table, and vice versa.
In 1908 Alcock & Co., who were also the official testers for the New South Wales Bowling Association, lost the services of their tester, and the company transferred W. D. Hensell from Perth to Sydney. There he developed the first 36-foot testing-table, which was a big improvement on the 12-foot table, but it was still not perfect. Because of climatic conditions the wooden bowls shrunk out of their round shape, causing them to wobble, and to run very inconsistently when played on the green and when tested on the table. Realising that the obvious way to correct these bowls was to re-shape them, W. D. Hensell designed and perfected the first Australian machine to successfully re-shape shrunken and badly shaped bowls.
With this achievement, table testing became more of a success, but the technique of biasing and defective bowl correcting had still not been mastered, although considerable progress had been made in that direction. Bowlers could not appreciate the difficulties that at that time militated against good bowling. There, certainly, was the incentive and the opportunity for William Hensell to do something positive and constructive.
The battle against inaccuracy hadn't yet been won, but W.D. Hensell had started the long struggle destined to ultimately produce today's modern accurate, precision-built Henselite bowl.
At this time many new composition materials were being tried; they were relatively stable and free from many of the disadvantages of lignum-vitae. W. D. Hensell spent most of his spare time studying literature in connection with compositions. Eventually he came to the conclusion that vulcanite (hard rubber) was the most suitable composition available at that time for bowl manufacture.
Returning to Melbourne in 1918, W. D. Hensell was fortunate to meet Mr. Roberts, Works Manager of Dunlop Rubber Co., a keen bowler, who had brought his wooden bowls along for re-testing. This was a grand opportunity to exploit the ideas he had conceived, and after he explained the many advantages a hard rubber bowl would have over wood, and the potential demand for such a bowl, Mr. Roberts became impressed and responsive to Mr. Hensell's enthusiasm. As a result, after many experiments a round Ebonite ball approximately 5" diameter was produced, turned and made into a bowl.
When tested on the table, however, it was found to have an eccentric action, being heavier on one side, which caused it to be out of balance. Further experiments and more care produced twelve consistent rubber balls. They were turned into bowls - the twelve tested perfectly - AND RUBBER, BOWLS, THE FIRST IN THE WORLD, WERE BORN. It was obvious that the concept of a hard rubber bowl had become a reality and that sufficient progress had been made to justify the making of moulds and equipment for the manufacture of these new bowls.
In June, 1918, Mr. Hensell terminated employment with Alcock & Co., to start a business of his own at 386 Little Bourke Street, Melbourne, where he had fitted up the latest and most reliable testing-table and turning plant. Little did he imagine when he was so busy building his testing-table and acquiring plant, that he was on the threshold of a business career during which he would achieve his ultimate ambition -that of making the best bowl in the world, "Henselite", and being the largest manufacturer of lawn bowls.
The Dunlop Rubber Co. made arrangements with Mr. W. D. Hensell to turn, bias, and finish all their rubber bowls, after the company had moulded them. Before the end of 1918 the first vulcanite or ebonite bowls in the world were being used -and with success-on Victorian greens. Their advent created considerable interest and started a controversy as to the merits of the two types of bowl-the wooden and the composition. However, bowlers soon realised the many advantages of the composition bowl, and a change-over took place almost immediately, many leading players seeing fit to discard their old woods for the new rubbers. During the period from 1918 to 1924 the rubber bowl became so popular that the importation into Australia of lignum-vitae (wooden) bowls completely ceased, and Australia became an exporter of bowls.
In the early days of rubber bowls many problems had to be solved. Causing major concern was internal variation in the specific gravity of the rubber compound. This made it difficult to obtain the exact required weight for each size of bowl. The solution to the problem was to "load" the core of each bowl to the required weight and then cover it with a high quality ebonite.
As the game grew in popularity so did W. D. Hensell's business, and larger premises were necessary. Moves were made first to 347 Elizabeth Street, Melbourne, then to 9 Cobden Street, North Melbourne, and in 1937 to the present location at 16-22 Wreckyn Street, North Melbourne. These premises have since been enlarged, more adjacent properties bought, and in 1960 an additional storey was built on to the original building to provide a large modern suite of offices as well as to expand production area.
Further properties were bought and new showrooms, offices and warehouses built in 1979 which allowed for further expansion of the production area and the Australian distribution of other sporting goods.
To achieve greater accuracy in the biasing of rubber bowls, it became necessary to revise many of the table-testing ideas. Improvements were made to the testing chutes, and the bed of the table was covered with a special billiard rubber, and a canvas, to give the same speed as that of a good running bowling green. With these improvements bowls could now be tested for both bias and balance (a new development which proved to be the most revolutionary innovation ever adopted for table testing). For the first time bowls could be accurately tested on the table under conditions similar to playing conditions on a green, whether fast or slow.
Contrary to the belief of many bowlers-and particularly those of the younger generation-the bias of a bowl is not brought about by extra weight on one side of the bowl, but by the shape of the crown or running surface, which is slightly higher on the non-bias side.
The faster a bowl is delivered the straighter it will run. As a bowl loses momentum, because of the shape of its crown, the bowl gradually changes its running surface, and the bias takes effect. Eventually it reaches its maximum draw as the bowl slows down and comes to rest.
Many modifications to the shape and crown of the bowl were made until it was improved to such an extent that it was more comfortable to hold than the old-fashioned wooden bowl. With these improvements the death knell of the old wooden bowl was sounded in Australia, as the performance of the new bowl was far superior.
The Australian Bowling Council's Laws of the Game then in force, permitted a maximum weight of (3 Ibs. 8 ozs.) (1.6kg) irrespective of the size of the bowl. Bowlers were quick to take advantage of the improvement in bowls and soon realised they could successfully use a much smaller bowl of heavier weight. With the old wooden bowl, if a reasonable weight were required, bowlers had to procure a large "pudding shape" set, which were too big for comfortable delivery or for reasonable control.
The Australian Bowling Council acted quickly and in 1922 appointed a bowls testing committee of four (Messrs. E. W. Walker, J. B. Grut, W. Barr of Victoria, and A. Moore, of Queensland), with Mr. W. D. Hensell as Technical Adviser, to thoroughly investigate this matter along with other problems. After months of experiments and tests carried out under various conditions on both tables and greens of all speeds, the committee made recommendations to the Council specifying bowls of standard shape, and a scale of maximum weights for each size. They also determined the minimum bias suitable for Australian conditions.
The Council approved, and the new scale of weights and measures came into operation on January 3rd,1926. Although the reforms seemed very drastic, a standard had been set, which was adopted by the New Zealand Bowling Association in 1938, and by the International Bowling Board in 1946 in a modified form to suit climatic conditions. It is obvious now that these reforms were based on broad understanding and vision; they were exactly what were required to stabilise the situation.
(In 1962, the International Bowling Board specified that the maximum weight of a bowl shall be 31b. 8OZ. (1.6kg.) and the A.B.C. amended its laws accordingly-reverting to the original weight specified in force before 1926. The "maximum weight -per size" laws were eventually dispensed with in all countries, thus permitting the maximum weight of any size bowl to be 31b. 8OZ. (1.6kg.).)
By 1930 very few wooden bowls were seen on the greens in Australia, as rubber bowls, which were being constantly improved, had superseded them. They were being extensively used overseas, too, particularly in New Zealand and South Africa. At this time the Dunlop Rubber Co. made a decision that was indirectly and unintentionally designed to usher in a new era of bowls development. They decided to turn and finish, as well as mould, these rubber bowls in their own factory at Montague, Victoria. In all W. D. Hensell had turned and finished for them 13,750 sets of Dunlop bowls, and in addition many thousands of sets of all makes had been re-tested, re-conditioned, etc.
Consequently his arrangements with the Dunlop Co. were terminated. His reaction was to conceive the idea of developing and making an entirely new bowl, ultimately to be named "HENSELITE" .
For ten years, W. D. Hensell had been training his son, Ray, in the skilled art of bowl manufacturing, and it says a great deal for the courage and determination of father and son that the name of Hensell didn't become bowls history at this time.
They immediately became a two-man research team, working with the objective of producing a new bowl, incorporating improvements in design and performance, made of a composition superior to rubber, less affected by heat and climatic conditions. Ever foremost in their minds was the ambition that the new bowl must be solid throughout, without any core, wear-resistant, tough and durable. This was quite an objective- but the Hensells, it transpires, were capable of the task.
About this time the "Plastics Age" was gathering momentum, and the Hensells quickly learnt of a Sydney firm that had just started to manufacture a plastic material with the frightening name of Phenol formaldehyde moulding compound. Its properties were outstanding, and it promised to be the ideal material for which they were searching.
Initial inquiries were disappointing, as this material could only be moulded to a thickness of l/2'', whereas a solid moulding at least 5" in diameter and weighing 31/21bs (1.56kg) was required. Surely, they said, there must be some way to mould this material into bowls. Nobody could stop them that way! Someone had said much the same thing about rubber once.
Undaunted by early failures, they decided to continue experiments with the technical assistance of Dr. Lang, an authority on this type of plastic. New formulae and sample batches of material were made, different techniques tried and discarded. Eventually Dr. Lang perfected a special moulding compound, and from it the first solid one-piece plastic bowl was made-THE "HENSELITE" BOWL.
A new bowling era had commenced. History was made, not only in bowls manufacturing, but in the plastics industry, as manufacturers all over the world were astounded when the "Henselite" achievement became known. Even today it is believed that the plastic bowl is the largest solid mass of phenol formaldehyde compound moulded.
Plans were then prepared for the making of the intricate moulds and the installation of the necessary moulding plant to make the new bowls. Many difficulties and problems were encountered before it was possible to start manufacturing on a production basis. Perfection was eventually achieved, and in April, 1931, the first set of Henselite bowls was produced. When used on the green, they were acclaimed by everyone who tried them. It was obvious from this moment that the new bowl was outstanding in appearance and performance, and was superior in every respect to any other make of bowl.
At this time Australia was in the throes of a depression, and the name "Henselite" was new and almost unknown. Despite this, there was an immediate demand for these new bowls. They were available in black, mahogany and chocolate, with discs of several colours, making them most attractive.
The fame of "Henselite" rapidly grew. Top-line bowlers changed to "Henselite", and demonstrated their superiority by winning most of the important championships. Sales increased to such an extent that plant and production had to be enlarged to supply the demand.
Trial orders were sent to South Africa and the immediate reaction was astounding. Repeat orders soon followed. The demand for "Henselite" soon spread to the British Isles, New Zealand, Canada, U.S.A. and other countries. Regular shipments are now exported to the British Isles, South Africa, New Zealand, Canada, United States, Zimbabwe, Hong Kong, Japan, Fiji, Malaya, Kenya, New Guinea, Norfolk Island, South America, Israel and Holland. HENSELITE BOWLS PREDOMINATE IN EVERY COUNTRY WHERE BOWLS IS PLAYED.
More developments followed. Previously all bowls had inserted discs; these were liable to become loose, crack and fall out. In 1937 the "Henselite" Uni-Disc Bowl was introduced. This incorporated the discs as an integral part of the bowl. Engravings of initials or distinctive designs are engraved on the bowl and filled with lacquer of various colours. It was not long before this innovation was copied by other manufacturers.
In the same year the first "Henselite" all-white plastic jack was produced. Centreless ground to high precision, these jacks are perfectly round and have superseded the old china jack, which was irregular in shape, chipped easily and was generally unsatisfactory. The moulding of these jacks from Urea Formaldehyde moulding powder was in itself an outstanding achievement.
After having spent 45 years perfecting the art of bowl testing, and pioneering the manufacture of bowls, W. D. Hensell retired from active business in 1944. The responsibility of management and the designing of new plant and equipment of sufficient capacity to cope with the postwar demand for bowls fell heavily on the shoulders of R. W. Hensell. He had made and installed an entirely new moulding plant to be used in conjunction with a new process of electronic pre-heating requiring elaborate and complex equipment- and capable of high production.
A series of automatic high precision turning and biasing machines were also designed. When they were completed and installed, the production of bowls was resumed after the war years, on the 6th February, 1946. This new plant proved so successful that for the first time in the world it enabled the mass production of bowls more accurate than was ever before thought possible.
Mr. W. D. Hensell passed away at the age of 77 in August, 1959. The bowling world thus lost the services of a man responsible to a great degree for its growth and development. Prior to this R. W. Hensell's two sons became associated in the business, and the company of R. W. Hensell & Sons Pty. Ltd., was established.
In 1959 Ray Hensell again surprised the bowling fraternity by announcing a new "Henselite" Super Grip model. This was re-designed for improved performance, and as the result of new formulas, developed after extensive research, the moulding compound was impregnated with special additives to greatly improve the "grip", giving it a velvety "feel", particularly under wet and cold conditions. It also removes the necessity of frequent polishing. Now proved, this new model has been acclaimed as a further step forward in bowl perfection.
Constantly it has been a continuing story of more research, more plant, more production and more world-wide acclaim for a bowl that has given the game and its players such pleasure and satisfaction. Climatic conditions, types of grass and green surfaces vary considerably in different countries. Consequently, special models of bowls are made to suit these conditions. In New Zealand, for instance, the greens are undoubtedly the fastest in the world, and windy conditions are common. As a result, the New Zealand model bowls have a flatter crown, with slightly less bias than Australian bowls. South African greens were usually hard and bumpy, and a special heavyweight bowl is used to suit these conditions. In the British Isles, greens are invariably wet, soft and heavy. To get the best results a lightweight model bowl is used. All models comply with the respective regulations of each bowling country.
This study of overseas bowling conditions is a constant one, and many overseas trips have been made to study bowling conditions in different countries and to ensure maximum performances of every "Henselite" model.
Most bowlers will be staggered to learn that, in order to supply bowls suitable for the different conditions existing in various countries, a total of 678 models of "Henselites" are made in numerous sizes, bias, shapes, weights and colours- excluding the several thousand different engravings covering a multitude of categories and colourings.
Over recent years the game of Indoor Bowls, in various forms, has met with increasing popularity, and "Henselite" Indoor Bowls are again foremost in demand for playing this rapidly growing game. The range of bowls manufactured has been extended to provide miniature carpet bowls, round indoor bowls, biased indoor bowls, as well as the bowl jacks to suit each type of game.
The sales story has been a spectacular one. When World WarII started in 1939, annual sales had topped 4,000 sets. From 1942 to 1945 the whole plant was devoted to the war effort, and there was no production of bowls. After the war, new staff had to be completely trained, new modern plant was installed to allow potential production of 10,000 sets per annum. In 1946, 9,500 sets were produced. This production figure was well behind demand. With steady increase of plant and factory space, 15,000 sets were produced in 1947, and 20,000 in 1948. The story continues, with constant growth of the game itself, and expansion by R. W. Hensell & Sons Pty. Ltd. At the end of 1960, the production for the year exceeded 33,000 sets per annum. This, of course, is in lawn bowls only, and excluded the many thousands of sets of indoor types and jacks. More than 1,000,000 sets of "Henselite" bowls have now been produced using more than 6,500 tons of moulding compound, specially processed for the requirements of the various models of bowls.
The production figures are much higher than the output of all other bowl manufacturers in the world put together. To R. W. Hensell & Sons Pty. Ltd., must go the undisputed honour of being not only the largest manufacturer of bowls but of achieving the distinction of producing the world's best bowl.
Mr. R. W. Hensell retired from active business in 1976 and passed away at the age of 72 on 6th March, 1979.
A milestone in the history of "Henselite" bowls was celebrated on 13th March, 1980, when the 4,000,000th "Henselite" bowl (1 million sets) came through production. Now suitably mounted and proudly displayed, it perpetuates the hopes and fears, the toil and worry, the brilliance and the determination of the two men. William and Ray Hensell. It symbolises a game started by Sir Francis Drake or his contemporaries-something that has grown to be more than a game, more than a means of relaxation and pleasure. It represents a pursuit that has become a cement in the mixture of man and man-an influence towards peaceful co-existence between nations.
Australian industry regards "Henselite" with pride . . . they are setting a valuable example in exporting more than 50% of their production to 24 overseas countries-truly an excellent contribution to Australia's export trade for which the company received Australian Government "Awards for Outstanding Export Achievement" in 1963, 1972 and 1982.
An era was ushered in by William David Hensell and developed in the true Hensell fashion by Raymond William Hensell who brought precision into bowl manufacture to the ultimate of perfection.
There are two more Hensells, Bruce Raymond (Managing Director) and Graeme Westcott (Director) actively engaged in the business, now operating as Henselite (Australia) Pty. Ltd., and already in this "computer age", have brought automation and computerisation to bowls production and time will, no doubt, show us further new ideas they will develop. The Company expanded into the distribution of sporting goods in 1977 being exclusive Australian distributors for a wide range of products.
In November 1983 the Company purchased a b manufacturing complex in Cumbernauld, Scotland, where it produces the range of Almark Lawn Bowls and Henselite Crown Green Bowls for the U.K. market.
What further contributions the fourth generation of Hensells Alastair and Mark who are now working in the company make to our wonderful traditional old game will be watched interest.