Anyone who was in his or her bowling prime in the 1950s or 60s, and having passed on, would be gob-smacked if he or she were reincarnated and one summer afternoon visited one of the various clubs within the North Harbour centre.

The heavenly visitor would be startled by any number of things. One would be that on the green would be players of mixed gender, they would be using coloured bowls and many of them would be also wearing coloured clothes. They might even be playing on an artificial or carpet green and the tournament might be under the auspices of an organisation foreign to his or her ears: Bowls North Harbour.

In the 50s and 60s, of course, the sexes would be strictly segregated and should any woman be playing that afternoon she would be on either a faraway back green or one green in a different area altogether. All of the players would be garbed in all white, some even in blazers and ties, and they would be delivering black bowls. And if the males were wearing hats they would be mainly of the Panama variety, nearly all would be puffing cigarettes or pipes and the tournament would be under the Auckland centre’s auspices. If, too, the visit was to one of Harbour’s clubs on the Hibiscus Coast, Orewa, he or she might be even more mystified to find the bowlers playing on a carpet indoors under a roof,

No centre, indeed, illustrates the vast social and sporting changes which have occurred over the past 40 to 50 years than Bowls North Harbour. Much of its near 38-year existence has coincided with many of the technological and social innovations which have affected bowls and society in that period.

Today many of those changes are well embedded in most bowling clubs on the North Shore and beyond and some of the activities, which were linked with what was once mocked as “old man’s marbles,” have long since become archaic. No one now would ever contemplate, for example, bowls having the gender divide which persisted into the 1990s.

But while Bowls North Harbour, and its antecedents, is a relatively new sporting body, bowls has long been played on the North Shore and its adjacent areas.

Four of the clubs still affiliated to the centre are more than 100 years old, Northcote (1899), Stanley (in 1908) and Takapuna and Helensville (in 1912).  These clubs and others like Devonport, which folded just a few years ago, started  more than a century ago when the early Shore was very much an outlying suburb of Auckland city, separated only by a ferry ride across the Waitemata Harbour. And those clubs were very much part of what was even then a large and scattered Auckland centre. 

As the North Shore began to expand other clubs were formed: Birkenhead in 1944, Browns Bay (1945), Mairangi Bay (1948), Orewa (1950) and Manly (1955). Further population growth was stimulated by the opening of the Harbour Bridge in 1959 and in later years that led to the formation of other clubs like Sunnybrae in 1982 and Milford in 1984. 

And though some accommodation was made for women to play bowls from the early 20th century, it was not until the 1940s that women’s centres started in the major cities, Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, and not until 1951 that a national women’s championship was held. However, in keeping with the rest of the country and the social mores of the time the genders remained apart. 

Only in the 1990s did common sense prevail with a gradual integration.

The Harbour Bridge’s opening accelerated the North Shore’s growth, ensuring that in time there would be a need for a new centre. But into the 1970s the Shore and what later became known as North Harbour were major contributors to both the playing standards and administration of the Auckland centre.

In the 1970s many of Auckland’s best bowlers came from the Shore and as long ago as the 1952-53 season McMaster, from the Stanley Bay club, had won the national singles title. Takapuna’s Owen Smith was another regular Auckland representative who came close to winning national titles and in this decade the gifted Lionel Franks shifted to Mairangi Bay from Auckland’s Balmoral club, having won a national pairs title in 1957 and the singles in 1969. 

One of the country’s most outstanding woman players in these years was Bayswater’s Barbara Kunicich, a New Zealand international bowler and many times a national champion. When her playing career wound down the Waitemata women’s centre was fortunate in having another great, Marlene Castle, play most of her bowls in the 1990s for the Orewa club. She was so dominant that in her short time with Orewa before returning to Auckland she won a centre gold star to add to those won in Auckland. In 1999 she skipped a Harbour composite four of Carole Fredrick, Mary Gulbrandsen and Paulette Mytton, all with distinguished centre records, to the national title. Thirteen years later Fredrick gained a second national fours title which for her personally was even more significant. For this was with her Birkenhead club-mates, Ruth Lynch, Gayle Melrose and Lisa Helmling and came at a time when national titles were being increasingly dominated by composite “dream teams.”

But the most renowned player from what became the Harbour centre was Helensville’s Ivan Kostanich, winner of the national singles title in 1977 and with his club-mate Pat Robertson, a year or two before the centre’s inception, winner in 1984 of the national pairs title.

Many Shore men, too, were influential Auckland and national administrators. Takapuna’s Bill Hewitt was for many years the Auckland centre’s secretary, Birkenhead’s Len Lanigan and Browns Bay’s Bill Latimer were Auckland presidents and Mairangi Bay’s Gordon Mackay the secretary of the then New Zealand Bowling Association.

The 1970s, indeed, was something of a peak era for bowls in the Shore area. In the 1979-80 season these were some of the clubs’ memberships: Takapuna 254, Mairangi Bay 239, Birkenhead 210 and Devonport 160. At the time there were waiting lists for those wanting to join some clubs and it was not uncommon for Saturday afternoon roll-ups for ballots to be used because even though games were always fours not everyone could be accommodated.  

One who had more than 40 years of involvement with Harbour bowls, Bill Ryan, said in a 2017 interview travelling at the time to outlying clubs like Papakura and Onehunga wasn’t the nightmarish hardship it has now become. “I don’t think it was necessarily because of the traffic that a new centre was formed,” said Ryan, who started playing with the Kaukapakapa club in 1975 before joining Takapuna in 1983.

In the 1980s there was, of course, a push for a North Harbour Rugby Union to be formed and that became reality in 1985. Once the country’s biggest sport had taken such a step it was inevitable it would be accompanied by others like bowls, though it might be said the women had already beaten rugby, with the Waitemata women’s centre starting in 1982-83. There had also been some recognition of the area’s dislocation from Auckland as early as 1949 when a North Shore sub-centre, while still part of Auckland, had been introduced and which lasted until the creation of a full centre in 1985-86.

Two of the North Shore men’s centre’s driving forces were Dick Bree, of the Mairangi Bay club, and Bill Raine, of Birkenhead. Bree’s contribution was marked by the centre triples championship being named in his honour and Raine became the first centre president.

Not everyone was in favour of the new centre. Ryan initially was one of those opposed as he did not admire the way the sub-centre had operated. “I used to think they were incapable of running even a raffle,” he said.

And because, having easily won several of the new centre’s early titles, he did not think he would have the standard of play which he needed Kostanich, for a number of seasons, chose to play his main competitive bowls with Carlton in Auckland.

Bowls North Harbour, as it is now known, came about in 1996, largely because the Sports Foundation, which had become the Hillary Commission, saw little logic or justice in providing funding for sports divided by gender. Both the national body and centres were prompt in following the Commission’s dictates and gradually over the next decade nearly all clubs, too, had integrated. In the main the integration was smooth, the process being enhanced with the game as a whole gaining such effective administrators as Margaret Duke, who was Bowls North Harbour’s president in 2003-05, and Jean Ashby from the umpires. A major role in ensuring a successful process in merging the men’s and women’s games was played by fine administrator Don Manson, who was then with the Milford club. His death from cancer, just as he was about to assume a top international position, robbed bowls one of its most astute thinkers. Another from North Harbour, Takapuna’s Brett O’Riley has emulated Manson in assuming a high international administrative position. In 2022 O’Riley, now the centre’s patron, is the Oceania Regional Director for World Bowls.

Another significant boost for Bowls North Harbour came in 2003 when world champion bowler Rowan Brassey fell out with Auckland and moved to the centre and the Takapuna club. With him he brought many accomplished bowlers, his great mates Danny O’Connor and Ross Haresnape, plus Justin Goodwin, Nevin Ggricevich, Doug Wilson and from Counties, Richard Collett.

Harbour then had more than its share of competent players such as winners of multiple centre championships, Brent Turner, Colin Rogan and John Walker, but the arrival of these players took the playing standard at top level even higher. There have been others, too, who have crossed the bridge, to the centre’s benefit, such as Max Dick, Bert Robinson and Jack Gilbert and in more recent times, Steve Cox, Kerry Chapman and Neil Fisher while Harbour has had its own home-grown star in the Black Jack international, Tony Grantham.  Ryan now was among many who believed the Harbour centre was better run than Auckland.

Brassey and O’Connor were influential in several national titles coming North Harbour’s way, In 2005 and 2007 they were in Takapuna teams which won the New Zealand men’s inter-club sevens and with centre stalwarts like Turner, Rogan and Walker in winning the New Zealand inter-centre title in 2006. Birkenhead life members Lionel Drew and Keith Burgess managed and coached this team.

Some of the maturity Bowls North Harbour the centre has achieved is illustrated in its one-to-eight year men’s representative team which had back-to-back wins in the national inter-centre competition in each of 2016 and 2017.

And a pinnacle was reached in 2022 when three players from clubs within the centre, Takapuna’s Graham Skellern and Selina Goddard and Tony Grantham, who at various times has been with Birkenhead and Browns Bay, represented New Zealand at the Birmingham Commonwealth Games. Selina, indeed, secured two bronze medals in the women’s pairs and fours.

From the mid 2000s onwards, the women’s game in North Harbour has soared with the number of quality women’s players who have come into the centre. In this group have been Selina, Lisa Dickson and Wendy Jensen, all of whom have helped secure for the centre or its clubs several national successes. 

In 2022 Dickson skipped Lauren Mills, Robyne Walker and Anne Dorreen to the national champion of champions fours title and a few weeks later these four, with Selina joining them as the singles specialist, won a second national title, the Women’s New Zealand Inter-club Sevens.

In common with most recreational sport, Bowls North Harbour has had challenges in recent years, Shopping seven days a week and a range of entertainment options have affected recruitment. Club memberships have declined and some have either amalgamated or disappeared. These challenges remain and should not be under-estimated, but with a board willing to embrace innovation, and with clubs, hopefully following suit, they are being confronted. Recent successful promotions have been hosting the national championships with Browns Bay the headquarters in 2014-15 and again in 2022-23, and despite, disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns, since 2019 a national Masters championship.