By Tenpin Bowling Proprietors Association President John Ashbridge
The Excel Bowl, Bitterne was the second tenpin bowling centre in Southampton when it opened on 4th March 1965. The centre was on the first floor of a new building above a parade of retail outlets, built on the site of the Ritz Cinema. The cinema, built by local builders Brazier Ltd, opened on 28th September 1936 and continued to serve the local residents throughout the second world war. It remained in the same ownership until sometime in 1957 when it was sold to Harry Mears. Soon after this the cinema was ‘remodelled’ and reopened but only lasted another four years and finally closed on 1st July 1961. A short time later the cinema was demolished and the new building erected.
The Excel Bowl Bitterne became the nineteenth centre, and the penultimate, in the Excel chain and was equipped with 26 bowling lanes and machines supplied by AMF Bowling. The centre also boasted a large snack bar and licensed bar and club room. It was a grand opening on 4th March, marred a little by heavy snow, which prevented some guests to either, arrive late or miss the celebrations altogether. The centre was opened by MacDonald Hobley from BBC Television who rolled the coveted Golden Ball for the first ball of the evening. A fanfare of trumpeters from the Royal Horse Guard were also in attendance.
The centre was welcomed by the Southampton public with some enthusiasm and some leagues were quickly formed, these proved to be very popular and successful, and were long lasting. Unfortunately the open play business was not as successful and during the summer of 1967 levels of business declined and Excel Bowling Ltd found itself in financial difficulties and, as a result, Bitterne Bowl together with four other Excel centres, was acquired by AMF Bowling.
On 1st August 1967 Bitterne Bowl became owned by Humber Bowling Ltd which was a subsidiary of AMF Bowling and the centre became known as Bitterne Bowl. Following the take over new policies and promotions were put in place to sustain, and increase, the levels of business. During the remaining years of the 60’s and throughout the 1970’s business was increased to an acceptable and profitable level. Free Learn to Bowl classes were the main promotion tool used by Humber Bowling during that period and, as a result, some new leagues were formed. Local tournaments and competitions also became popular and attracted bowlers from many parts of the south coast.
During 1982 the Managing Director, who had been in post since 1967, retired and was replaced by the former Financial Controller. By this time Humber Bowling Ltd had been wound up and the centres owned directly by AMF Bowling Ltd. As a result, a start was made on modernising all the centres in the group, and this also coincided with the introduction of computer-based scoring systems which were incorporated into each modernisation.
In 1987 it was Bitterne Bowl’s turn to benefit from the modernisation programme and the centre was closed for about three months whilst the work was carried out. Bowling lanes were resurfaced, the machines refurbished, and colour scoring installed. In addition, the entrance was altered at street level to introduce a ‘Frames’ fast food operation (the AMF fast food brand) which was designed to attract take-away business as well as providing a service for bowlers. The concourse was altered, with a Sandwich bar installed and the former snack bar replaced by a licensed bar and food operation. The former bar on the mezzanine floor was retained and refurbished to become a meeting/function room.
A grand reopening was held with the Mayor of Southampton and ITV’s Fred Dinenage present to perform the ceremony. The modernisation proved popular and business levels increased to a much higher level than had been the norm for the previous fifteen years.
Major changes took place within the AMF Bowling Centre Operations from around the mid 1990’s and business levels continued at a very acceptable level. The BCO operations were purchased by Goldman Sachs 1996 and very soon the UK estate increased from 15 centres to a total of 37 centres. Bitterne Bowl continued to operate until closure took place around February 2009. The decision to close the centre was, due to the fact, that AMF had secured a new site in Eastleigh which opened on 12th March 2009.