The best of Dorset in words and pictures

150 years on

The Gillingham & Shaftesbury Show celebrates a ‘significant birthday’ this year, as Sam Braddick explains

A typical trade stand in the 1950s, including the latest word in tractors

A typical trade stand in the 1950s, including the latest word in tractors

This year has particular significance for the Gillingham & Shaftesbury Agricultural Show as it marks the 150th anniversary of the foundation of the Gillingham Agricultural Society. In February 1860 a group of local farmers held a meeting in the South Western Hotel and agreed to form the Society with the idea of holding a Show. Unfortunately it is not clear from the minutes where the early Shows were held, possibly in one of the two livestock market premises that existed in Gillingham at that time. Later, a field in Station Road, next to Hudson & Martin’s saw mills, was used for the Show. This field, owned by the timber merchants, later became allotments, then a car park before being buried under La Neubourg Way.

Shows have been held annually, except for the war years and when animal disease restrictions made it impossible, with farm livestock constantly featuring, even though the breeds of former years are now classed as rare and minority breeds as farming practices continue to change. Back in those early years wagons and ploughs were powered by cart horse or oxen; now the average farm tractor has a 150-horsepower engine and the pitchfork has given way to a telescopic hydraulic handler that can lift a couple of tons!

Young farmers about to start stock judging in about 1960

Young farmers about to start stock judging in about 1960

Agricultural shows were and are about quality animals, farm produce and improving production methods. Livestock and dairy produce would have been judged on Show day, and on-farm inspections of herds of cattle, flocks of sheep, fields of mangels, swedes and other crops were a very important part of the Society’s activities. Training courses in both traditional and new agricultural practices were organised in conjunction with the County Education Board and with the local agents of dairy supply companies. The traditional training included rick-thatching, ditching and hedge-laying, while among the new practices were butter and cheese making, calf-rearing and dairy hygiene.

In 1862 the Shaftesbury Farmers Club was founded, very similar in concept to its neighbour, running an annual Show and organising training. Herbert Green used to tell of exhibiting his father’s best Shorthorn cow at the Shaftesbury Show in 1927. The cow was loaded into an oxen cart for the journey to Shaftesbury but at the bottom of the final hill, the cow had to be unloaded and walked up the hill as the total weight of the cow and the cart were more than the oxen could handle.

The Gillingham Agricultural Society’s meetings offered farmers the opportunity to get together and to air their views. Meetings were often held in the South Western Hotel on market day, which ensured a good attendance! Affairs of state were often on the agenda, with proposals that the Member of Parliament should be invited to the next meeting or that a strongly worded letter be dispatched to the Secretary of Agriculture about this matter or that; until the NFU was formed in 1908, there was no other lobbying force available to the farming community.

In 1906 it was recorded that the ‘Troop Horse and Yeomanry Sports’ be included in the day’s programme. This presumably was a very early form of recruiting volunteers for the army. Military matters played an important part in country life, and in 1912 the minutes record a ‘complaint about the call-out of the Territorial Army as it was interfering with farming’. Another story from Herbert Green: in 1914 he and other young men had been called up and were guarding the entrances to the railway tunnel at Sandley. On Show day they were allowed to leave their post early to prepare their animals for the Show, where they were allowed to exhibit in their uniforms.

The old trade carts and wagons are always well received

The old trade carts and wagons are always well received

Back in 1910 was the first mention in the minutes of a charge for ‘motors’ – double the charge for a wagon was proposed but not approved. Transport by one means and another has always been an issue, and in the 1920s there are references in the minutes to a ‘request to the Railway company to run the first train from Templecombe earlier’, to bring livestock in on Show day. Mr Billy Cole, of the funfair family, can remember hearing about the Show in 1948 when his father had to winch all of their equipment out through the mud. The ex-US Army winch lorry, a ‘White’ with a petrol engine, is reported to have used eighty gallons of fuel on that day. The nearest garage selling petrol was Lights Motorcycles and the Coles had to keep sending down jerry cans to keep the lorry refuelled.

One of the features of the early years was ‘Labourers’ Premiums – Awards to bona fide Labourers who have continued in the employ of any member of the Society for the greatest number of years in succession or worked on the same farm or place and have during that period borne a good character’. There were several different categories, under 25 years of age, under 40, over 40, awards for shepherds and for non-agricultural labourers. In 1906 one award reads ‘Fred Street, aged 24 years 9 months in the employ of Mr L B Matthews, Milton Farm, a premium of £1-10s-0d for 12 years and 9 months faithful service’. Another award in 1906 is the longest service record found so far: ‘Robert Maidment aged 66 years and 1 month, in the employ of Sir H H A Hoare, Stourhead, a premium of £1-10s-0d for 54 years faithful service’.

In 1907 the minutes state: ‘Rent for the Gillingham field £10’, but it was too small and a larger one had to be found. The sites to be inspected included Pottery Field, Chantry Field, Mr Joseph Shute’s ground, Mr Rose’s field, Stone’s field, Major Jackson’s field. All these were considered but none was found to be suitable, then Harry Allard offered his field in Hardings Lane. From 1908 till 1952 the Gillingham Show was held on Mr Allard’s ground. We know that in later years this consisted of four fields, where the Gillingham Town Football Club now have their clubhouse and pitch, a field that has recently been converted into school playing fields and the two fields towards Woodwater Farm.

4	The hounds seem to enjoy their traditional parade as much as the spectators do!

The hounds seem to enjoy their traditional parade as much as the spectators do!

Over the years there had been several attempts to join with the Shaftesbury Farmers Club. Eventually in 1930 agreement was reached and the Gillingham & Shaftesbury Agricultural Society was formed. It was agreed to hold an annual Show which would alternate between sites in the two towns and that the first Show should be held in Gillingham ‘because it had been established longer and had better transport facilities’. According to a full-page report in the Western Gazette of 22 August 1930, it was a great success: ‘The amalgamation of the Gillingham & Shaftesbury Agricultural Societies was justified on Monday in the splendid exhibition which was held in Gillingham. All the indications were that the developments since the last two separate shows had greatly advanced the interests of agriculture in the area and had not only given North Dorset pre-eminence over other similar shows in the counties of Dorset, Somerset and Wiltshire but it had given a stability and pre-eminence to this show at a time when many small shows are threatened with declining fortunes. Never has there been so large and representative an exhibition of the farming industry and the entries numbered 1,441 of which about 380 were poultry. It was easily a record for a local show and the attendance also created a record. The last important factor was all the more gratifying because the weather, though it might have been worse, was not always of the pleasantest character. There were several showers but the enjoyment of the big crowd was not unduly interfered with.’

From 1930 annual Shows were held alternately, in Gillingham in even years and in Shaftesbury in odd years, until the next big change. In 1993 the Society purchased 92 acres of land that had formerly been part of the Duke of Westminster’s Motcombe Park estate. The land, once described by a prominent local land agent as ‘the wettest land in the Vale’, was drained and levelled, gateways were improved and a temporary roadway created. The first show of the new era was held on the Turnpike Showground in August 1994. The Society now had a permanent home which it continues to improve to provide a premium site for the Show and for other community events.

The Show still claims to be the agricultural show of the three counties, with almost 2000 members, over 3000 livestock entries, 600 trade stands, entertainment in three rings, and more tractors than most three-day shows. The long-term success of the Show is due to the small band of dedicated volunteers who give so much time and effort, to the co-operation of neighbours and local service providers, to the landowners who hosted the early Shows, and especially to all the exhibitors, without whom there would be no Show.

5	Today’s main ring attractions often involve feats of amazing skill and daring

Today’s main ring attractions often involve feats of amazing skill and daring

3          Michael Head
4          Michael Head
5          Michael Head

Dorset Directory