History of the Royal Lancashire Show: War years and a fight for survival

A group of bathers getting a lift on a dray pulled by four of London Brewery's Clydesdale Shire horses in Blackpool for the Royal Show of 1953
A group of bathers getting a lift on a dray pulled by four of London Brewery's Clydesdale Shire horses in Blackpool for the Royal Show of 1953
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Ahead of the return of the Royal Lancashire Show , local historian John Grimbaldeston looks at the history of the show from start of the Second World War to 1959 in the first of a two-part special

It is difficult now to think how important the Royal Lancashire Show was to the life of the county, especially in the days from its inception in 1767, through re-organisations in 1847 and 1874, right up to the Second World War. But from then, the society began to diminish as a force to be reckoned with.

Pageantry at the Royal Lancashire Show in Stanley Park, Blackpool, in 1949

Pageantry at the Royal Lancashire Show in Stanley Park, Blackpool, in 1949

As it became apparent during 1939 that war was likely, the Royal Lancashire Show Committee began to make contingency plans: shows may not be possible, but the society wanted to continue to help local agriculture as that too would help the war effort, and also preserve what they had, ready to resume activities once things returned to normal.

Permanent yard materials were put in storage at White Lund with the Morecambe and Lancaster corporation, and Lady Ashton of Lancaster agreed to be nominal president over the period when no shows were to be held. Neither lasted the war: Lady Ashton died in 1944, and Mr Chawder resigned in October of the same year.

The society kept ticking over through the war by holding appropriate competitions and awarding financial prizes. They also supported several wartime charities: £100 was given to the Lord Mayor of London’s Red Cross and St John’s Fund, £500 to support Preston’s War Weapons Week effort, for instance.

As the war came to a close and the society thought about renewing a full programme of activities, there were difficulties: more controls and ministry restrictions, stewards and officials would not be experienced and would need training, stored equipment would need repairing and painting and wages would need paying, without any immediate financial return.

Show jumping at the Royal Lancashire Show in 1954

Show jumping at the Royal Lancashire Show in 1954

Shows associated with Preston Guild had always been the most successful and the hope was to get off the ground after the war with a Guild show, Preston was not ready for a Guild until 1952.

READ MORE: History of the Royal Lancashire Show: Sixties, Sandie Shaw, The Walker Brothers and the fight to remain relevant

The Royal Lancashire Agricultural Society (RLAS) aimed for 1946, Astley Park, Chorley. Various Government ministries would not allow large scale shows because of restrictions on building materials needed for domestic rebuilding projects, but did not object to single day shows when the stock moved in and out on the same day, so that first post-war show was actually three single day shows run consecutively. Over the next few years the shows continued the time-honoured tradition of travelling around the county, to Blackburn, Burnley, Salford and Blackpool, but by 1949 the wisdom of travelling around the county was questioned.

The migratory system took new ideas to all four corners of the county, but might a permanent site be cheaper than preparing a different site every year and erecting and dismantling huge amounts of equipment?

Royal Lancashire Show at Stanley Park in 1949

Royal Lancashire Show at Stanley Park in 1949

The Bolton Show of 1950 made a loss of £2,000, largely because of expenses bringing the ground up to scratch, and the showground the following year at Blackburn also needed work, and in the event only two of the three grandstands were constructed.

Other societies around the country were finding permanent homes, and it was felt that if a permanent showground was developed, lettings would provide an annual income, permanent offices for the officials could be built and Derby House in Winckley Square sold to generate capital. From March 1952 the RLAS began its search for a permanent site.

The 1953 show was cancelled as the Royal Agricultural Society of England’s (RASE) Show was being held at Blackpool, and in the hiatus the RLAS committee felt either Preston or Blackpool should be permanent sites as these venues had always held the most successful exhibitions in the past.

Stanley Park had hosted the RASE’s show so had recent experience: the venue, the old Stanley Park airfield, which had closed in 1947, was not particularly attractive as it was, and so terms were agreed with Blackpool Corporation for 137 acres of land, together with a clubhouse and hangars.

Boys of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps stage a cavalry charge at the Royal Lancashire Show, in Blackpool, in 1955

Boys of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps stage a cavalry charge at the Royal Lancashire Show, in Blackpool, in 1955

Finance was needed to develop the permanent showfield, so it was agreed to approach their bankers for a loan of £20,000 to establish a development account to assist in development of the new showground.
The move, and the accompanying debts, represented a huge leap in the dark for the rather careful and conservative RLAS committee. It was important the first show on the new Blackpool showground should be a success, and it was as far as entries were concerned.

Entries of livestock were the largest in the show’s history, 2,381, and there were 234 trade stands. The weather was poor both before and during the show, however, and the eventual loss of £3,329 was not as great as had been feared.

The show continued at Blackpool, and in 1957 at last made a profit, of £2,686, and the RLAS chairman, Sir Stanley Bell, finally declared himself satisfied that Blackpool was the best venue for the show.

The relationship with Blackpool was never an easy one. Preston had always been the most successful venue, and it was the preference of the secretary of the Exhibitors’ Association. There were also doubts as to exactly how permanent the arrangement with Blackpool was: the lease with Blackpool was in two parts: the hangars and precincts, and the showground proper, and the lease expiry date was December 1, 1959.

There was some doubt whether Blackpool would want to offer a permanent site after that date, and even if they could the society would not want to commit to a lengthy stay until they could confidently expect regular profits.

The Blackpool shows did not attract the hoped-for crowds: holiday-makers did not come in their droves, preferring other attractions of the town, and newspapers commented that new attractions needed to be added to provide “novelty” and “spectacle”.

The major ring attraction was the show jumping, but there was a surfeit on television and audiences were thus growing rather tired of it. There was also a problem of cost: in 1958 entry to the show, to the grandstand, a catalogue and then entry to the horticultural exhibition added up to more than £1, so if a family went it was an expensive day, and that did not include meals.

Economies were set in place: permanent works staff were reduced, the number of show days was reduced from four to three, prize money was reduced, catering prices were raised. It was hoped to make economies to the tune of £6,000 in 1959, but costs were still being incurred – the condition of the grandstand was deteriorating markedly, and the committee discovered any attempt to raise money by holding events would be subject to income tax.

A formal appeal for funds was launched at a press conference on May, 13 1959. Even the Queen made a “substantial” contribution, and within a couple of months donations stood at £12,527, but Lancashire’s agriculturalists are still notoriously slow to put their hands in their pockets and in February 1960 a proposed repeated appeal was rejected because of the poor initial response.

The society gradually came to the conclusion that a move away from Blackpool to a permanent site of their own would give them some impetus. Several possible sites were considered including part of the plot on which Kirkham Open Prison stood; the English Electric site at Samlesbury; Risley, near Warrington, and land which was part of the Clifton Hall estate belonging to William Pickles.