The origins of short mat bowls are shrouded in mystery. Rumours have it that the sport was first played in Wales by two South Africans who came to work in the area. They had played bowls outdoors in South Africa and, perhaps due to the poor climate and the long close season in this country, they began to play a simulation of the outdoor game on a strip of carpet in a church hall. Some time later, they moved to Northern Ireland and took the new game with them. Rules and conditions of play were drawn up and the game soon became well established in the Province during the 1940’s in village halls as a way for outdoor bowlers to keep their “hand in” ready for the next season. The Irish Indoor Bowling Association was formed in 1961.
Short mat bowling was bought across the water to England in 1967 by George Dix who had been sent to Ireland five years earlier by his company to establish a works factory. George was encapsulated by the game from his first experience and saw the potential of the game as an activity to be offered to members of sports and social clubs in England. The word began to spread and George started to sell mats to local clubs. In 1969 a local league was formed in North Staffordshire and South Cheshire. In 1981 George heard that versions of short mat bowls were being played in Scotland and Wales where the visitors would play to the local rules.
From these humble beginnings the English Short Mat Bowling Association (ESMBA) was formed in 1984 after an inaugural meeting held on Saturday 10th March, in the Wool Secretariat, London. George Dix was elected as President, Eric Crosbie as Deputy President, Peter Walter as Chairman, Chris Mills as Secretary, Harry Lockett as Treasurer and George Measey as Vice Chairman. It was decided that the committee should comprise of the officers and nine representatives from the nine zones of the Sports Council. W Whalley (W Mids), R Kett (E Anglia), V Lyle (South East), N Clinnock (South Western), N Dickinson (North West) and C Ashton ( North East) were elected from those at the meeting and other area representatives would be sought. The first actual meeting of the Association was held at the Rists Cable and Wireless Sports and Social Club, Lower Milehouse Lane, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffordshire on Sunday 29th April, 1984.
Rules of the game were later introduced in the same year. The game has grown in popularity with the association’s membership now over 24,000 bowlers. The ESMBA established inter county championships, national championships, junior championships, umpire’s organisation and recently a coaching section.
The ESMBA was also instrumental in establishing international competitions played to the same set of rules. There is an annual British Isles Championship featuring England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Isle of Man and a World Championships which is held every two years with countries such as Belgium and India joining the home nations in the battle for supremacy.
One of the biggest benefits of short mat bowling is its flexibility. The equipment is portable and only need an area large enough to take a mat 6 foot wide and 45 foot long. It is played in village halls, community centres, social clubs and leisure centres. The game is played by all ages, sexes and abilities who can all compete together – a real family sport.