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 faraway back or 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 a cigarette and the tournament would be the Auckland centre’s.

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 33-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.

Five of the clubs still affiliated to the centre are more than 100 years old: Devonport (founded in 1895), Northcote (1899), Stanley (in 1908) and Takapuna and Helensville (in 1912). This was in an age 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 1943, 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.

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.

And North Harbour gained a notable administrator when an accomplished Auckland bowler in the 1999s moved across the bridge to Milford. An able business executive, Don Manson became Bowls New Zealand chairman in 2001 as well as joining the World Bowls board, having spearheaded Bowls New Zealand’s governance changes. His sudden death was a sad loss to the game.

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 with more than 40 years of involvement with Harbour bowls, Bill Ryan, says 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,” says 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 Brikenhead. 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 says he initially was 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 says.

And because, having easily won a number 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.

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 Richard Collett from Counties.

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 Back Jack international, Tony Grantham. Ryan, for one, now believes the Harbour centre is better run than Auckland.

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

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. Two recent successful promotions have been hosting the national championships with Browns Bay the headquarters in 2014-15 and the Australian Professional league in 2017.