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News General Henselite, turns 100.
June 4, 2018

In June 2018, Australian bowls manufacturer, Henselite, turns 100. Current Chairman, Bruce Hensell & his son, Managing Director, Mark Hensell, talked to us about the origins of the 4th generation family business and the changes in bowls manufacture and the industry over the past 100 years.

“The sport of lawn bowls has been around for hundreds of years.” said Bruce. “Originally all lawn bowls were made of wood, called lignum vitae, and to adjust the bias, lead was poured into the ends. To hide the lead, a disk made of casein, a bi-product of milk - was placed over it.”

Timber, however, was an unstable material and would change shape with variations in temperature, causing changes in the bias.

“Up until the early 20th century, most bowls were made in the UK and came in by boat,” said Bruce. “The holds were very hot and the bowls expanded and contracted on the way.”

“My grandfather, William D Hensell, worked in Melbourne for billiard makers, Alcock, Thomson and Taylor. They were empoyed to alter the bias of the misshapen bowls that came in from the UK. It became my grandfather’s role there to re-model these bowls and that’s how he developed his expertise.”

Even after the reshaping, the wooden bowls in a set were still inaccurate and used to be individually numbered so the owner could get to know how they ran differently.

William Hensell was convinced that there must be a more stable material for making lawn bowls and in 1918, he met up with a Mr Roberts, the Works Manager for the Dunlop Rubber company. Together they came up with a plan to make a hard rubber bowl.

W D Hensell left Alcock, Thomson and Taylor and in June 1918, started his own business – originally called W D Hensell. Dunlop would mould the rubber balls then engaged the services of W D Hensell to turn, bias and finish them – creating the first rubber lawn bowls.

The rubber bowls were very popular and quick to take off with many leading bowlers discarding their old ‘woods’ for the new ‘rubbers’. In 1918-1924 they became so popular that the importation of wooden bowls completely ceased and Australia became an exporter of rubber bowls.

The density of the rubber bowls also allowed the bowler to use a heavier bowl at a more comfortable smaller size.

Realising the success of the rubber bowl, in 1930 Dunlop made the decision to bring the turning and biasing of their bowls in house and terminated the contract with W.D. Hensell.

Undeterred however, W D Hensell and his son Raymond, who had recently joined the business, set about improving on the humble lawn bowl yet again.

“Even though the rubber bowls were a vast improvement on timber they were still subject to change with variations in temperature. If a bowler left them on the bank in the sun with one facing up and one facing down, the heat would affect the bias.”

“My Dad, Ray, realised that until we had a perfectly stable material, we couldn’t make a perfect set of bowls,” said Bruce.

The 1930s was the “Age of Plastics” and the Hensells began to research other materials that might have all the properties they were looking for – something that was solid, wear-resistant, tough and durable.

Eventually they discovered that a compound called “Phenol formaldehyde” or “Bakelite” which met their requirements.

There was a catch, however. “The thickest mass of this plastic that had been moulded so far was only 1/4” (6mm) thick and to make a lawn bowl, it need to be more than 5” (125mm). The current understanding at the time was that this creating this mass of plastic ‘just cannot be done’.

But Ray took on the challenge and, through experimentation and research, perfected the moulding of a lawn bowl.

As a result, the “Henselite” name was born in 1930 – a combination of its founders - ‘Hensell” - and the material - “Bakelite”.

The company swapped all bowls production from rubber to the new phenolic material. This took the bowls market by storm. This was the first time a bowler could ensure they had a perfectly matched set and it was an invention that changed the world of bowls.

In 1937, the Hensells came up with “Uni Disc” model, where engraving went straight on to the bowl, the way bowls are still produced today.

Henselite exported bowls from its factory in North Melbourne all round the world in wooden cases of 20 sets at a time. They were loaded on to a cart pulled by horses and sent down to the nearby docks, bound for places like the UK, South Africa and New Zealand.

When World War II broke out, all the men from the factory went off to war and only William, Ray and one other staff member remained. They were approached by the Australian government to turn their plastic moulding expertise to making aeroplane parts for the war effort. The factory transformed and they began to make aircraft “turn and bank indicators” which required a solid mass of plastic.

WWII caused huge disruption to life in Australia and took about a decade for life to settle down again. Once this happened, bowls became extremely popular and the sport grew consistently.

It was 1956 when Bruce, Ray’s son and the company’s current Chairman, began in the business.

He recalls that the main competitors in those days were sporting good giants, Dunlop and Slazenger. “Dunlop had ceased to make bowls once the popularity of rubber dropped away but recommenced later with a plastic version which they produced and was sold by Slazenger.”

But these global sports companies underestimated the Australian family business, driven by a passion for consistently innovating, engineering and improving their product. Soon Slazenger announced that they would no longer be selling lawn bowls.
 

“My Dad Ray and I went up to Sydney to buy some of their equipment and it was the most excited I think I have ever seen him.” recalls Bruce. “Here we were – an Australian family business – and through creating a consistent and superior product, we had created an environment where these big international sports brands couldn’t keep up.”

The company had begun to achieve Australian Government recognition for contribution to Australian exports. “In those days Australia was mostly importing and the government wanted to get exports moving. We were the first Victorian company to win an Australian Export Award in 1962.”

Henselite followed this up with 2 more awards in the next two decades.

“Then we came to the 1980s which were the heyday of bowls”, said Bruce.

“Our manufacturing record was 39,950 sets in one year. Bowls was just so popular in Australia and the Indoor Bowls scene in the UK was exploding.”

“All the legends of the game at the time who had become household names were using Henselite bowls - Glynn Bosito, David Bryant and later Rob Parella. In 1980, 99 of the 100 players competing at World Bowls used Henselite.”

“Testing of bowls every 10 years was mandatory and so we were testing 13,000 sets a year as well as the new bowls we were producing.”

In the 1990s, Bruce’s son Mark, the company’s current managing Director, joined the company and more changes were afoot.

Bruce spent time overseas in Asia, promoting the sport and helping bowling clubs and associations to set up in countries like Japan, India and Malaysia.
World Bowls had recently introduced a new standard bias and the new “narrow biased bowls” were being manufactured.

Up until the 20th century, bowls were only made in Black and Mahogany. Bowls manufacturers began experimenting with colour and slowly sales of coloured bowls over took black.

“The coloured bowls that we make today - including speckled, “Slice”, “Duo” and even our coloured “AFL range” - look very different from the original black Bakelite versions my grandfather first produced back in 1930,” said Mark.

“Instead of the manual lathes, engravers and polishing machines they used in the early days of the factory, these processes are all automated and computerised. We use high frequency heating to mould the bowls, man-made diamonds to turn them and lasers & specialised machinery to engrave them. Much of it would be unrecognisable from the early years.”

“However we still have the same passion and drive for precision and consistency in our product the lead my great grandfather to set up the company 100 years ago this year. I think that this has been the secret of our success over the last century. It’s why Henselite bowls have won more Gold Medals at World Championships and Commonwealth Games than any other brand. Its why our Gold Medal Winning Dreamline XG is the currently the biggest selling bowl in Australia and has achieved such success for bowlers at club & state level as well as at Commonwealth Games and World Bowls.”

“We are very proud the company’s contribution to shaping the modern game of lawn bowls and hope that lawn bowlers will enjoy using our bowls, clothing and accessories for the next 100 years and beyond.”

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Henselite, turns 100.