The attempt to revive the Royal Lancashire Agricultural Show and put it on a solid financial footing moves to Witton Park in Blackburn this weekend. With its weather-induced trials and tribulations in recent years it is difficult to picture now just how important a fixture it once was in the county’s calendar.
The roots of the Royal Lancashire Agricultural Society go back to a meeting of landed proprietors at the Old Coffee Tavern, Salford, in 1767, to discuss forming an agricultural society for the Eastern District of Lancashire. The most influential supporters were Wilbraham Egerton, of Tatton, the Earl of Derby and the Duke of Bridgewater. A Liverpool Society started in 1830, again through the influence of the Earl of Derby, and in 1847 he expressed a wish for the societies in the north of the county to combine, and so the Royal North Lancashire Agricultural Society was born, which eventually absorbed the Liverpool and Manchester societies to form the Royal Lancashire.
A principle soon established was the show should move to different parts of the county each year so the whole area benefited from seeing the best stock and the newest ideas. Prizes awarded by the committee’s judges were called “Premiums,” and with some of the awards it was a stipulation the prize-winners remained in the district for a period of time; the prize for best boar, for instance, required the winner to remain within the county for 12 months to ensure county farmers reaped the benefits. All three sections of the agricultural community, landlords, tenant farmers and labourers were to be catered for. Landlords such as Mr Townley (sometimes Towneley) from East Lancashire prided themselves on their stock-breeding, but to make sure awards were shared tenant farmers had their own special prizes, though a feeling among members remained that prizes tended to go to the “gentlemen farmers” rather than the tenant farmers.
Agricultural labourers had a chance to show off their skills in competitions, and all could have a drink and a chat. The difference between landlords and tenants, according to the Preston Chronicle in 1868, was a matter of diet: the tenant farmer was “fonder of ale than champagne, more devoted to potato pies than salmon”.
The first exhibition was held in October 1847 at the back of the Prince William Henry Inn, in Lancaster. More than 2,000 attended, bulls were “especially fine”, swine “enormous”, horses “truly noble” and implements “truly wonderful.” The local newspapers were always fulsome in their praises of the shows.
In the first shows the prize winners were announced during a splendid after-show meal where those who could afford it congratulated themselves.
In recognition of the trade attracted by the shows, from 1850 the host town was expected to make a contribution to the society’s funds. The relatively large attendances brought problems as well as the rewards of extra business. The 1848 Lytham show was harmed by the poor transport arrangements: no extra trains were put on from Preston and the ordinary trains were delayed by up to two hours.
Transport problems were a recurring issue, in 1861 the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Company, had left “some of the most valuable stock in England standing in a railway siding for an improper length of time.” A further delay had then caused the animals to be left in the railway trucks overnight. Sometimes, though, imaginative solutions were applied. For the 1858 Ulverston show a branch line from Ulverston station to the showground was specially constructed. J Brogden, who provided the field which was the showground, was also a principal shareholder in the Ulverston railway. By 1871 the committee had negotiated special rates for exhibitors from the railway companies.
From the first a feature of the shows was the demonstration of new machinery. In Lancaster in 1851, the star exhibit was held back until the first afternoon: “the great American reaping machine,” built by a Mr M’Cormack. The machine attracted great interest and would have a huge impact on British farming as crops could be harvested more quickly and with fewer men. The weather could be the making or breaking of a show. Several shows seemed cursed with torrential rain – the 1862 Guild show at Preston, then at Southport in 1876 the showground was almost completely demolished the Thursday the show was due to start by “a violent storm of wind and rain”.
Even very hot weather brought problems: in 1869 at Burnley, Mr Eden of Salford had originally entered his two year old prize sow Acorn, unbeaten in any of its previous competitions. It had been valued at £100, but on the way to the show, at Rosegrove railway station, two miles from Burnley, it had died. Mr Eden did win first prize with his boar Gulliver as some consolation. The 1903 show brought the first exhibition of the “agricultural automobile,” the first tractors, by the de Souza and Ivel companies. The Preston Guardian felt the machines were impressive and hinted at a near future of “motor traction for harvesting”.
In 1923 The Society’s Secretary, Mr Bradbury, offered his resignation, citing failing health brought on by the strain of the yearly shows. The subsequent discussions as to his replacement gave details of the permanent staff of the society and the salary structure, which indicate just how big the business was.
There was a secretary at £500 per annum, who lived in the offices at Derby House, Winckley Square, Preston. Coal, lighting and water were all free. Under him was a chief clerk earning £350 per annum, an additional male clerk earning £130, three female clerks, and a clerk of works earning £300. Competition was taken seriously, and sometimes sharp practice was involved as the quality of the prizes improved. Increasing numbers of appeals were made against the judges’ decisions: the animals had not been the property of the owners for the required period of time, one month, or there was a dispute over the age of the animals.
Even now, behind the friendly banter, competition is fierce, and though the range of exhibits and activities are now much broader than the original agricultural base, it is worth supporting as a piece of living social history, and in acknowledgement of the prestige the Royal Lancashire Agricultural Society brought to our county.