My friends in the BWBA…

I think – at least I hope – you all know that my connection with the British Wheelchair Bowls Association has meant a lot to me over the past 35 years or so.

But, just as in the wider political arena, the landscape of bowls generally (as well as bowls for people with disabilities), is changing quite rapidly, and I believe the time is right for the BWBA to find someone younger and more vigorous to spearhead its moves forward. Last year, I indicated to Ian Blackmore that it was my intention to step down as your Patron.

It was the legendary Doctor David Peacock – remember him? – who approached me in the early 1980’s, and invited me be your Patron – and I gladly accepted the role. Those were the days when Andy Wallace was Chairman, and people like Ken Bridgeman and Paul Hubball were burning up the greens! And stalwarts like Margaret Maughan and Peter Court were hard at work behind the scenes.

Then along came the inspirational (and occasionally mischievous) Ian Blackmore, who was famously (and shamefully) banned from the Plymouth Civil Service indoor club green because he was in a wheelchair. Ian took over as Chairman, spearheading the BWBA’s activities on and off the green, and I am glad to say that he remains – and hopefully will remain – a key figure of influence in the BWBA’s affairs.

But, reflecting on how, thirty years ago, it was possible (nay acceptable), to ban a wheelchair bowler from the green – it is heartening to note how things have changed (for the better) since those dark, un-enlightened days.

I am not going to make the mistake of attempting to name names of people who are currently contributing to the well-being of the Association. So many of you have done – and are doing – so much for the BWBA, that I would be sure to miss key names out! However, to those who are flying the flag for wheelchair bowls – I salute every one of you.

But I feel I should mention my lifelong friendship with a man who has had such a life-changing influence on the sport of bowls for people in wheelchairs. Peter Bradshaw was a long-time teaching colleague of mine at Gordano School in Portishead. It seems incredible that we first met 54 years ago – in September, 1963.

I am proud to have introduced him to the sport of bowls. In fact, that was probably my greatest achievement, because it wasn’t long before Peter met The Doc at Thornbury, and turned his hand to designing a buggy, with wide, low-friction wheels, that could be used on greens of grass as well as carpet.

The rest is history. More than a thousand Bradshaw Bowls Buggies (BBB) have now been made, and are being used all over the country – indeed all over the world. As you know so well from your own personal experiences, the introduction of the BBB has transformed the lives of so many wheelchair bowlers, giving them what I have always called ‘the freedom of the green’.

In April, 2016, Helen Wood, in a motorised buggy, competed in the final stages of the English national women’s indoor pairs championship, and was part of the York team that reached the final of the Yetton Trophy – the national women’s inter-club championship. The previous year, Kevin Woolmore made history when he won the Welsh men’s Over 60 indoor singles title and reached the final of the Over 50 triples.

Last winter season, Helen was selected by the English Indoor Bowling Association to play in a full international trial – and was a non-travelling reserve for England when the series was played in Belfast in March, 2017. Then, in April, she was again in action in the national championships, reaching the quarter finals of the women’s triples.

Meanwhile, also in a buggy, Pauline Shanley was part of the Sutton quartette that reached the quarter finals of the national women’s fours championship. And, although not strictly connected with the BWBA, it was great to see our friend Bob Love qualifying for the final stages of the national men’s over 60 singles and pairs, and putting his best foot forward!

Great achievements that clearly show how what progress has been made over a relatively short time! Once again – how things have changed.

I cannot claim to have contributed to the BWBA in the way that many of have – like the Doc, Pete Bradshaw, Ian Blackmore and so many others – but I do hope that members of the BWBA, whom I count as friends, and for whom I have so much respect and admiration, feel that my time as Patron was of some use.

In the dark days when the national associations were less understanding and helpful than they are today, I was at the centre of the debates about whether buggies would damage the carpet, whether wheelchair bowlers should play on equal terms with the able-bodied, and nitty-gritty matters like how to define footfaulting if the bowler has no feet!

We have indeed come a long way – and again I salute those inside and outside the BWBA who have helped us make strides. We can all allow ourselves a warm feeling of pride and a pat on the back – though, without doubt, there is more work to be done, more to achieve and more territory to gain.

My biggest ‘disappointment’ – though that word does not even begin to cover how I really feel – is to have been part of the team that, at the end of the day, failed to prevent Wheelpower evicting us from Stoke Mandeville. I cannot pretend I don’t suffer pangs of guilt about that.

It has to be said that the odds were stacked against us. The bullying tactics of the Wheelpower officials, backed up, rather strangely, by Sport England, proved too much for us – but we did not go down without a fight. And here I must pay tribute to the tenacity, acumen and skills of people like your ex-Chairman and new President Ian Blackmore, and Lewis Toman, a retired business analyst, who is now the talismanic Chairman of the Bristol Indoor Bowls Club.

Lewis was so appalled at the behaviour of Wheelpower, and so sickened at the way wheelchair bowlers were being treated, that he gave generously of his time and skills – and I can tell you he was as dismayed as we were at the outcome. Professor Sir Ludwig Guttmann (Poppa) must have been turning in his grave at the thought that wheelchair bowlers were being unceremoniously kicked out of their headquarters at Stoke Mandeville. We lost the fight. But, in defeat, we all agreed that we gave it our best shot, and sometimes made life difficult for the dreadful and unprincipled Wheelpower grandees.

Sadly, one of the weaknesses in our argument was the way in which the Stoke Mandeville Indoor Bowls Club, whose members had always been so supportive, and had been such a strong force on our behalf, was diminishing in numbers – but several of the club’s officials put their shoulders to the wheel, and deserve high praise for their perseverance. We must remember that they, too, were cruelly evicted, along with us.

All that is now history. The BWBA must now look forward, and must move on. And I am sure it will do so under the energetic influence of the current Chairman, Paul Brown, who is not only a Commonwealth Games bronze medallist, but the driving force behind Disability Bowls England. All power to your elbow, Paul!

I am proud to have played a small part in the development of the BWBA – but the time is right for someone else to pick up the cudgels. It’s an exciting new chapter – and I will be following the BWBA’s progress with keen interest.

Good luck to you all.

David Rhys Jones