Most of this page was researched and written back in 2011 by our former member Brian Barron, a sports journalist for the Northampton Chronicle & Echo newspaper. With considerable help from long-time groundsman Martin Trasler, Brian unearthed many old documents, including photos, minute books and meeting agendas. The years since then have been covered by our current website editor, Adam Brown.
More recently, club president Jonathan Brown and his wife, ladies president Diana, have uncovered more details and artefacts for an 'Abington BC Museum' display that will be on show throughout our centenary season of 2022. If anyone has anything in their possession that they would like to add to this, donations would be gratefully received.
SURPRISE SUCCESS in the Manfield Cup of 1920 was probably the trigger for Abington Bowling Club to come into being two years later.
A team called Abington Park Rangers played only in the Abington Park League but were good enough to win the prestigious cup named after the Mayor of Northampton James Manfield and his brother Harry, MP for Mid-Northamptonshire (Liberal).
Since its first year in 1906 the cup had been dominated by clubs like County Ground and West End but between the Great War years of 1915 and 1918 the competition was suspended.
At a committee meeting in 1919 the Rangers resolved to enter a team if the cup was resumed. It was and they showed they were a force to be reckoned with! Soon after a ‘special private-ground meeting’ was held. The Rangers had only been formed in 1917 but five years later they took out a £1,000 loan and players bought £1 shares to get Abington Park Bowling Club Limited off the ground.
The land for the bowling club, which in those days was on the outskirts of Northampton, was bought for £808. The green, laid with expensive Cumberland turf, was built for £875.
Early Years (II)
It was bought from the great Victorian philanthropist Alfred Cockerill, who arrived penniless in Northampton from the Leicestershire village of Shawell and made a fortune, first through farming and market gardening before acquiring hundreds of acres in the Abington area.
His men built the County Ground, which opened with a two-day cricket match against Surrey in 1886. The bowling green there was already in use.
Cockerill lived and farmed in what is now Abington Park, donated to the town by his landlady, Lady Wantage, in 1897. Cockerill then moved to a large house in Billing Road opposite the Grammar School (now Northampton School for Boys), which became the headmaster’s residence and is now an apartment block for the elderly.
Cockerill was a County Ground bowler along with his friends, and hopefully did Abington’s founder members a good deal on the land purchase. In his will, money still owed to him by Abington BC was written off.
Before Cockerill's death he bequeathed the County Ground to the cricket club after obtaining all the shares - with provision for football, tennis and bowls for 1,000 years under the terms of the Cockerill Trust. Strange then that only cricket is now played there...
Early Years (III)
Apart from the land and development of the green, the original pavilion cost £165 17s 9d. President Fred Tyler was applauded for his efforts in raising £70 towards paying for it. Tyler was yet another connection with the County Ground as he was the 1892 captain of Northamptonshire County Cricket Club.
A renowned slip fielder, Tyler accepted the invitation to be president on condition that a new one was voted in every year. He did it for two years. In 1924 he succeeded James Manfield and Sir James Crockett as president of the Northamptonshire Bowling Association, Manfield had been president for the NBA's first 16 years from 1906 to 1921 and Crockett had the title in 1922 and 1923.
The new club was incredibly well connected and among the first vice presidents was Sir Henry Randall, shoemaker to royalty, whose son Herbert was a leading jockey. Another vice president was the Rev. CC Aldred, who was presented with a pair of bowls for his work in marking out the Abington Park greens.
Eighteen rules for the new club were drawn up. Rule 3 contained the sentence "To provide all necessary refreshments, food, beverages and tobacco and cigars..." and a ladies committee was set up among players’ wives to provide tea for the opposition at 1/6 a head.
Early Years (IV)
The official opening of the green and pavilion was at 7pm on Tuesday 18th July, 1922, at which the Mayor, Alderman George Smith Whiting, presented an inscribed silver jack to President Tyler.
Again the club showed it had friends in high places as the guest list included the aforementioned Sir James Crockett, founder of shoe manufacturers, Crockett & Jones, in 1879, twice mayor of Northampton, a former president of the Northamptonshire Natural History Society and a substantial financial supporter of Northampton General Hospital. He also gave his name to the Parks Bowls League competition, the Crockett Cup.
No wonder Abington BC got a reputation for snobbery. The members probably revelled in it. But they did not forget their roots as every club from the Abington Park League was invited to send two representatives to the opening.
Furniture and fittings for the clubhouse came to just over £46 and another £41 was spent on tools. Wages accounted for £76 8s 4d, which suggests the club had a full time greenkeeper from day one. The main source of revenue came from a 1,500 £1 share issue.
Early Years (V)
Less than two years after the club opened, the clock tower and function room were added. A further £750 was borrowed from benefactor Alfred Cockerill.
The club also rented land for tennis courts on a seven-year lease with an option to buy. That option was taken up in 1927 and most of it then sold off to builders Glenn & Son, who put up at least some of the houses that run down to the Billing Road-Rushmere Road traffic lights. This action was taken instead of purchasing the cottage behind the current function room that had been agreed on Cockerill's death.
It looks likely that there may have been a falling-out between the tennis club and the Limited company as there were originally six courts, three being sacrificed in the land sale. That would account for the dramatic drop in tennis club membership.
By 1927 the club had 26 life members, and 58 playing members (only seven of whom were non-shareholders), who between them paid out £78 9s in subscriptions.
The original eight directors lived fairly close to Park Avenue South in an age when few if any of the members had a car. Indeed there was no 'Park Avenue South' in 1922. In 1927 the club initially refused to pay their share of making up the road - but it was a fight they lost.
Early Years (VI)
Chairman Frank Trasler, a ‘certificated teacher’, lived at 36 King Edward Road, Frank Knight and William Toms both lived in Allen Road, Ernest Abell (the first club champion) in Stimpson Avenue, Harry Davis in Lea Road, William Stimpson in Connaught Street, James Sykes in Wellingborough Road and Edward Tebbutt in Ardington Road.
Trasler was clearly the guiding force in the club’s early years. He had a sporting pedigree, having played four times in the pack for Northampton Saints (scoring one try) in the 1895/96 season and was a cricketer with St. James.
His teaching career spanned 42 years at Kettering Road School and Campbell Square School. He was in the Foresters Friendly Society for more than 40 years and was also president of the local branch of the National Union of Teachers. His death in 1947 at the age of 75 warranted an obituary in The Northampton Independent.
He was one of the first trustees of ABC, led the negotiations to buy the land, was president from 1924 to 1935, Saturday captain in 1924 and 1932, and secretary for ten years. No wonder there is a large, framed portrait picture of him, although that has not seen the light of day in the clubhouse for many years.
Club secretary H.T. Pinner commented in the 1927 AGM agenda: "The whole-hearted efforts of the Ladies Committee to provide for our wants are greatly appreciated by all the members and we again tender our very best thanks to them for their efforts over the past year."
From an enlightened modern perspective, it now seems scandalous (not to mention ridiculous) that it would be another 60 years until women were actually allowed on the green at Abington Bowling Club.
Onwards Through the 20th Century (I)
IN 1931, Abington claimed its first major honour, the Manfield Cup, with a record of 104-56 across the four rinks, and founder members Abell, Knight and Tebbutt in the winning team. It was the first of five Manfield successes to date, the most recent coming in 1991.
It appears that some members now considered ABC to be a cut above the rest. A committee meeting prior to the 1933 AGM agreed, by nine votes to five, to recommend the name be changed to Northampton Town Bowling Club!
Members kicked out that idea, but they did agree to another change. The club colours were changed from green and gold to blue and gold, which endures to this day.
A year later the whiff of the Great Depression was in the air. Rule changes were proposed to allow an increase in social members and to generate more revenue from subscriptions. It was proposed that shareholder-playing members’ subs would be 35 shillings a year, non-shareholder-players two guineas, non-playing-shareholders (men) 2/6, (ladies) 1/-, and non-playing-non-shareholders (men) 5/- and (ladies) 2/6.
H.T. Pinner, secretary, stated "It behoves every member to try and revive the former prosperity". This could be done, he said, by greater support of social events in the winter and attracting new members.
Onwards Through the 20th Century (II)
The surplus for the year was just £1 14s 7d. It was a sad note on which to end Mr. Pinner’s term of office as he died before the next AGM. But his words had not been in vain as the surplus for the year went up to £16 2s 5d.
Later in the 1930s, as storm clouds gathered over Europe, Abington's bowlers had more parochial concerns - the need of a ‘new pavilion’. A gift of £200 from President W.B. Harris got the ball rolling and by the time of an Extraordinary General Meeting on Wednesday 22nd March, 1939, £1,200 had been promised towards the cost of the building (80% of the projected total cost).
It opened on Thursday 19th October, 1939, about seven weeks after the outbreak of World War Two. Ill health prevented Mr. Harris being present to conduct the ceremony.
The last balance sheet before it was built showed beverage sales of £643 7s 11d, which rose by more than a third in the 12 months after it opened. Two years later that had soared to £1,308 15s.
In 1947, a second green was contemplated at the expense of the tennis courts and croquet lawn but this idea was dropped and new Cumberland turf replaced the old green at a cost of £650.
Onwards Through the 20th Century (III)
The immediate post-War years brought an unprecedented period of success for Abington BC. The club provided the county singles champion five times between 1949 and 1956, the pairs champs four times (1949-58), triples champs five times (1947-58) and fours champs five times (1951-59).
At the forefront of this generation were Abington’s two greatest bowlers, Albert Knight and Ron Gargate (left).
Knight, nine times club champion between 1934 and 1966 and an England triallist four times, won 12 county titles. According to club folklore he had a strange delivery which is thought to have cost him an England place.
Long-serving greenkeeper Martin Trasler remembers Knight (who joined Abington in 1932) in his final years, enjoying afternoon roll-ups with friends. They would put a handkerchief over the jack to help combat his failing sight. Even then, his talent was obvious.
Gargate comes closest to matching that record with seven county titles to go with his six club cups between 1954 and 1975.
A policeman by day, Gargate was a respected but feared figure, who set high standards for himself and teammates. His difficult personality is believed to have cost him his place in the county team in 1971. He responded by becoming Midland Counties champion.
Onwards Through the 20th Century (IV)
The link between Abington and local rivals County Ground BC was cemented in 1975 when Jack Partridge presented a trophy to be played for annually between the two clubs - the Rose Bowl.
Born in Wales, Partridge and his family had moved to Finedon when he joined Northampton Borough police force in 1932. He retired in 1962 having reached the rank of uniform inspector. To mark his presidency of County Ground in 1975 he decided to donate a trophy, choosing a bowl that adorned a sideboard in the bungalow he shared with his sister Jessie. His aim was to further relations between the two neighbouring clubs.
Sadly he died before the first game in 1976 so it was left to Jessie to present the bowl, which Abington won on its first staging. Abington went on to claim the prize 21 times to County Ground’s 11 until the latter club's sad and premature end in 2007.
On Sunday 29th July 1979, the club hosted one of several matches it has played against the English Bowling Association (now Bowls England).
Five rinks were pretty soundly beaten but there was glory for skip Bill Hewitt and his rink of Fred Langdon, Vic Wilkins and Bryn Harris (father of radio/TV presenter ‘Whispering’ Bob Harris), who won 23-18. Wilkins was a character, once turning up at his own wake!
Onwards Through the 20th Century (V)
Don Harris had the formidable challenge of skipping against the world’s most famous bowler, David Bryant (left). Harris' rink, also featuring Edgar Hakes, Harold Hill and Harold Brown were not disgraced though, going down 22-13.
Also skipping for the England side was Mal Hughes, then national team manager. The illustrious opponents actually included two Abington men, Norman Trasler (father of greenkeeper Martin) and Max Engel, due to their membership of the national association. The final score was 140-90.
Northampton solicitor Engel became an important figure in the EBA, starting its Charity Trust in 1980. As its inaugural chairman, Engel hatched the idea for this exhibition match with Trust secretary (and fellow pipe smoker) Bob Jack. It would be the first of many such charity matches across the country.
Over the years well in excess of £250,000 has been raised. In the early years donations were made to organisations such as Cancer Research, MacMillan Nurses and Guide Dogs for the Blind. Now the charity confines itself to helping bowlers and their families.
Engel also introduced the idea of signing-up county (and other) associations, clubs and individuals as 'Patrons'. He remained as Trust chairman until December 1998.
Onwards Through the 20th Century (VI)
In 1981 the outstanding Abington player of the modern era announced his arrival at the club, Jonathan Brown (far left of the image, right). In his first season a fresh-faced Brown won the club championship, a resounding 21-6 triumph over Fred Langdon, also taking the Toms-Knight Trophy, 21-8 against Geoff Cox.
Brown's spectacular entry was noticed by the county selectors and the following year he played in a Midlands Counties match at Worcestershire. In 1983 - the same year he married Diana Pauley - Brown made his Middleton Cup debut, on a rink skipped by Kettering Lodge's George Wills. Over almost 40 years he would play in every position for Northants, but may be fated never to appear in the prestigious tournament's latter stages.
Brown has gone on to appear in 15 more club cup finals, losing just two, to Reg Johnson and John Freeman. The latter also joined Abington at a young age in the 1980s and has also remained a frequent club comp winner and county team regular ever since. Freeman has been club champion seven times to date (and is the current holder of the title).
In 1985 Jonathan teamed up with his father Harold to win the club pairs but they were tragically unable to defend their title. A few weeks ahead of the 1986 season, Harold was killed in a car accident. Until then, the Browns had formed something of a dynasty at Abington, with two of Harold's brothers, Reg and Arthur, also playing and administrating on the committee.
Onwards Through the 20th Century (VII)
If the 1980s started in reflected glory, the decade ended in controversy with two issues splitting the membership. Firstly, the club was dragged kicking and screaming into a more feminist world with the emergence of a ladies playing section.
Players' wives had been granted limited access to the green several years before, but it was not until Monday 12th October, 1987, that women were granted equal playing rights at Abington. Given that the country had had a female prime minister for eight years by this point, it now seems incredibly late for this development to have occurred, yet for some the issue would always remain controversial.
Ron Gargate and Alan Ward argued that the club could not accommodate women players with just one green. Secretary Pete Cook echoed concerns that the green couldn't be maintained to the usual high standard because of the extra traffic.
Playing membership had risen above 140 not long before, even with just men, and would go above 160 after the vote for women passed, the all-time peak. But for those arguing the women's case, led by Jim Batchelor (second from left above), it was purely a point of principle. And one they would eventually win - albeit only just. In a secret ballot of playing members, 39 voted in favour, to 33 against. One paper came back spoiled.
Onwards Through the 20th Century (VIII)
The decision led some disgruntled members to take their bowls elsewhere. Mostly to the County Ground, which steadfastly stuck to its anti-female stance right up until its demise in 2007.
Despite the discontent, women bowlers duly founded club competitions in 1988. Mary Parkes wrote herself into the club’s history books by becoming the first ladies singles champion, a feat she repeated the following year.
Another great beneficiary from the change was Wellingborough bowler Pam Wills, who wrote to Abington saying that if the rules on women bowlers were ever relaxed she would like to join. She was accepted and has gone on to win the singles five times, which remains the record, equalled in 2021 by Lisbeth Milburn. In 2000, as women's captain, Wills also launched a Ladies Gala Day. This became an annual event, raising the bulk of the ladies section's contribution to club funds, but the interruption of the Covid pandemic has left its future uncertain.
The relaxation on female players seemed to necessitate the construction of proper dressing rooms. Since the modern clubhouse had taken form, opposition teams changed upstairs in the skittles room while home players had to gather behind screens in the function room. As the 1990s dawned, a change was required, but costs initially proved prohibitive. Some however proposed an even bigger construction job.
Onwards Through the 20th Century (IX)
The initial idea, proposed by Pete Cook and Don Harris, was to rebuild the clubhouse and install a three-rink indoor green upstairs. This evolved into talk of selling off the Park Avenue site and relocating lock, stock and barrel.
Phil Boseley and Bill Beesley floated the idea of relocation at the 1987 AGM. As the idea gathered momentum an EGM was called where an overwhelming majority (93-7) voted to press on.
The proposal put to that meeting was for Abington Bowling Club to move to Booth Lane, on a site that represented part of Weston Favell Upper School. They were told there was space there for two outdoor greens and a six-rink indoor green.
The scheme got the oxygen of publicity through secretary Bob Shaw, who was then on the editorial staff at the Northampton Chronicle & Echo. The report reads like it was a done deal but that was actually far from the case.
Details are sketchy as to why the early enthusiasm waned but it seems a key factor was that ownership of the new site would lay with the county council. Although there was potential for Abington to become the town's first outdoor-and-indoor club (eventually seized by Kingsthorpe BC in 1990), there is now general consensus that, by rejecting a move, the club averted financial disaster.
Onwards Through the 20th Century (X)
Had the club ploughed on they would at least have been able to call on the assistance of Eric Ward, who was a major player in the foundation of Northampton Indoor BC a couple of years before. In recognition of his work, Ward was made the first Northampton Indoor chairman.
Back on grass, Pete Cook, Robin Brown and Don Harris won the county triples in 1993 (pictured). To this day, they remain the last Abington bowlers to go to the national finals as champions.
Several others have qualifed as county runners up since then. Of current members, Jonathan Brown, Terry Brown and Tony O’Leary lead the field having represented Abington in a major national tournament three times each.
In the 21st century though, the story has so far been a continual fight against a general decline for the sport of bowls. The first big pinch at Abington came in 2003 when the Saturday friendly programme shrank back to just one team.
To make back some of the loss in revenue, a floodlit league was founded by Harvey Fruish (later Bowls Northants county president in 2008). This made use of the security lights installed by former captain/president Reg Jones and was initally well-supported, though interest had tailed off by the end of the decade.
Another addition in 2003 was an extension built off the far end of the dining room. Spearheaded by Joe Soanes, who sadly didn't live to see the project's completion, the club finally had proper changing rooms after 80 years.
The £32,000 was definitely money well spent, but how it was raised remains a sore point for several.
To help towards the cost a 'Membership for Life' scheme was introduced in 2001. For £500, any player could render themselves exempt from being charged membership dues ever again. 21 members duly took up the offer, but it proved a deeply controversial scheme.
Even leaving aside the argument that Life Membership should be something earned rather than bought, many now believe that the amount was set much too low. Some of those who paid into the scheme have since contributed money back in donations. In 2017, the club decided to bite the bullet and raised the cost of annual membership into triple figures, after years of resistance.
Modern Times, and Beyond (I)
THAT WAS where Brian left the story when he emigrated to Australia in 2012. But life does go on, and the decade since has been among Abington's most eventful and productive.
The spur for everything that's happened recently was the election of Dave Vernon to club president for 2013. He came into office with the promise to do much more than manage decline. Indeed, he had already begun an ambitious project to give the club a makeover.
Vernon baldly stated that the club could not much longer survive on bowls and the membership alone. He wanted to bring in outside interest, and to do that he freshened Abington's image. The bar room had barely been refurbished since the 1970s, but after several refits and a few licks of white paint, it was transformed.
Establishing contact with local sports therapist Chris Nightingale, he then advertised the club as a community venue. Abington BC immediately became a popular place to hold parties and adult learning classes.
Vernon maintained he had not forgotten the club's primary purpose, saying his chief aim with the makeover was, hopefully, attracting new bowlers. The legacy of his presidency is that Abington has withstood the game's recent fall-off in players much better than most clubs.
Modern Times, and Beyond (II)
The first new member under Vernon's reign was Rob Archer and he threw himself into the modernisation drive, working with Jonathan Brown on the next big project.
Together, they designed and costed a new-look playing kit. The sport had begun to throw off the traditional image of blazers and ties in the previous decade, but Abington had adjusted uneasily, and were still playing friendly games in ties as the 2010s began.
Archer and Brown's breakthrough came when they stumbled upon a template that complimented the club's colours very strikingly. At a stroke, the club went from being behind a curve to its forefront. 'Swoosh' shapes (perhaps because they echo the arc of a biased wood) have become common on bowls shirts since, but Abington's combination of blue and yellow continues to turn heads.
The new shirt made its debut in 2015, accompanied by the club's first official jacket, in the same design. They didn't rest there though and in 2016 came a navy blue jacket for wearing off the green. Except for special occasions, Abington had hung up its blazers and ties for good.
While wearing the shirt, four players enjoyed historic success. Debbie Bradshaw, Diana Brown, Lis Milburn and Debbie Cadd became Abington's first representatives at the women's nationals, qualifying as county fours runners-up in 2017.
Modern Times, and Beyond (III)
That same year Anita Petrucci was elected the first ever woman club president. Three years prior she had become Abington's first ladies county president. Tragically, her historic 2017 season would be blighted by a cancer diagnosis. She passed away at the end of the year after a brave fight.
Cadd's rink repeated their county achievement in 2021, but changes to qualification rules prevented a return to Leamington. It was the same for Alan Dunkley, Abington's first men's county singles finalist since Tony Simons in 1984, but also the first in Northants bowls to be denied a place at the nationals, with only the champion qualifying.
In part, this was a consequence of the Covid pandemic. A requirement to minimise game time led to a streamlining of events. Some form of this was likely on Bowls England's agenda anyway as it seeks to redevelop the sport's image. Beyond all doubt though is that coronavirus, and the ensuing lockdowns of society, presented bowls with its starkest crisis to date.
Yet, during those long, bleak days when the clubhouse and green remained off-limits, despite the fine weather for bowling, Abington's spirit endured. Members remained in contact throughout, checking on each others' welfare, and an action plan was drawn up. With a switch to fixed dates, and distancing rules enforced, Abington was able to stage a full club competition program for 2020, when restrictions eased for a few precious summer months.
It was justification for all the hard work and breaks with tradition of the preceding several years. The sense of community emphatically regained after a lean period. As the club prepares to celebrate its centenary, there remain significant challenges, but Abington Bowling Club is assured that it is well-placed to meet them.