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FG 175: Ag shows stay key to the heart of rural life

Agricultural shows have long been at the heart of the rural community, but they have had to evolve with the changing times. Angela Calvert reports....

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FG 175: How ag shows stayed key to the heart of rural life

Agricultural shows, both large and small, are intrinsically linked to rural communities.


Initially aimed at improving agricultural productivity to feed a growing population and to give farmers an opportunity to promote their stock to other farmers, these are themes which still run true today.


But, increasingly, particularly in more recent times, they have become a vital link between town and country, giving the agricultural industry an opportunity to educate the general public about farming and where their food comes from.


Many show societies have their origins in the 1700s and, by the mid-1800s, were evolving into the type of events we know today.


Many show societies were established by leading agriculturists of the day, keen to showcase the latest innovations to boost productivity.


Paul Hooper, secretary of the Association of Shows and Agricultural Organisations and also the Royal Bath and West Society secretary, says: “In the south west of England, many shows started out as competitions for individual crafts such as butter making or ditching and dredging, and then other sections were added.


“The Royal Bath and West Society was founded in 1777 and started out as a gentleman’s discussion group.”


The Yorkshire Agricultural Society was founded in 1837, with the first show held in the barrack yard of the 5th Dragoon at Fulford, York, in 1838. The first recorded attendance was 6,044 in 1842.


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At the early shows the classes were very general. For example, best bull any age, best yearling bull, best fat ox and best yearling calf.


By 1878, the number of cattle classes had increased to 10 and all except the dairy cow were Shorthorn classes.


In 1929, cattle breeds were multifunctional animals, bred for milk, butter, meat and leather. The breeds that year included the Blue Albion, the Longhorn, the Sussex and the Red Poll.


In the 19th and 20th centuries, invention and innovation throughout Britain was advancing rapidly. Inventors were keen to present their agricultural innovations to a receptive audience and agricultural shows provided the perfect opportunity.


Early days


In the early days, most of the exhibits were made in Britain. A Great Yorkshire Show 1936 advert from Dales (Bridlington) in Beverley, shows they distributed products from eight manufacturers; seven were British and one was Canadian.


Typically, most of the county and national shows would be held in different locations each year before establishing permanent sites to cut the cost of constantly relocating and allow for expansion.


The Great Yorkshire Show was the first to have a permanent base when the society bought 81 hectares (200 acres) of land on the outskirts of Harrogate for £16,500 in 1950.


Initially, shows were reliant on exhibitors and livestock from the local area but the advent of the railways bought about a big change and meant they could draw entries from much further afield.


Mr Hooper says: “Many shows had railheads built for them. I remember the well-known equestrian David Tatlow telling me how, in the 1920s and 1930s, when his father Harold worked for Lady Astor, he would ride the hunter and herd the cattle from the estate through the village to the railway station, put them and the horse on the train to go, for example, to the Great Yorkshire Show, take them off, compete at the show with them all and then repeat the process to get home.

“There were no shows through the war years but show societies were still active producing Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food papers on growing crops and keeping livestock to inform the people who were left at home running the farms while many of the men were at war.


“After the war shows really began to thrive and some diversified into specialist events.”




Foot-and-mouth year, 2001, was a watershed for many agricultural shows both financially and due to the fact some exhibitors and sponsors found alternative means of promoting their products and not returning to shows.


It also saw the introduction of many new rules and regulations, which have only increased over time, increasing the burden on those who run shows. They have had to adapt and bring in new attractions, not necessarily agricultural, to appeal to a wider audience.


Janet Raw, secretary of Otley Show, founded in 1796 and England’s oldest one-day show, says: “In the early years, 75 per cent of workers who were show visitors were in agriculture-related industries such as woollen mills or on farms.


“Now where a show is based will dictate its footfall. We draw visitors from Leeds, Bradford and Harrogate, who want more than just agriculture, whereas shows further up the Dale will have a more rural audience.”


Mr Hooper says: “The main task of the agricultural shows remains the same as it always has – to innovate, educate and entertain.


“Many show societies play a vital role in education, running additional events and schemes to inform people about food and farming.


“Key challenges we face are getting the next generation on board to take over from current volunteers, as having to bring in professionals adds to running costs for shows and working with authorities to minimise red tape for show organisers, but I am optimistic for the future of the agricultural show.”


IN December 1799 the first Smithfield Club Cattle Show was held at Dolphin Yard, Smithfield, London.


The founders of the club’s objectives were to emphasise the principle of early maturity of animals for the meat trade and the overall improvement in quality of animals.


It was held at several other venues before moving to the new Agricultural Hall, Islington, in 1862.

That year there were 135,000 visitors. After the wars the showrecommenced in 1949 at Earl’s Court Exhibition Centre, London.


The last show there, which was the last major livestock show in London, was in 2004.


The first Dairy Show, known as the Metropolitan Dairy Show, was in October 1876 at the Agricultural Hall, Islington, London, before moving to Olympia.


There were 150 milk cows shown with prizes of 100gns for each of the best Channel Islands cow and for the best other breed cow, which went to a Shorthorn.


There were also classes for butter and cheese and dairy equipment and machinery, as well as goats and poultry, hops, grains and roots.



THE Highland Society of Edinburgh was founded in 1784 and evolved into the Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland by 1834 in recognition of the need for a huge increase in agricultural productivity.


The first Highland Show was held in 1822 in the grounds of Queensberry House, Edinburgh, where the Scottish Parliament building now stands.


After moving around the country it settled on a permanent showground in Ingliston in 1960 where it continued to grow and in 2018 it attracted more than 190,000 visitors over four days.


THE first Royal Welsh show attracted 442 livestock entries and in 1908, 23 special trains comprising of 224 cattle trucks and horseboxes arrived at the show along with 100 passenger coaches bringing visitors.


It now has about 240,000 visitors a year over four days.

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