TWO HUNDRED YEARS ON: HOW THE SHOW EVOLVED
AT A meeting in December 1798 with Francis, Duke of Bedford in the chair, the decision was taken to establish a "Cattle and Sheep Society" with the active support of a large number of livestock enthusiasts.
The result was the first show in London in 1799, an event which prospered over the succeeding years to become the principal farmers gathering of the winter and the focus of much progressive discussion.
At the annual meeting of the Smithfield Club in 1837, Earl Spencer, as the chairman, proposed the formation of a much wider organisation under the title of the Agricultural Society of England to cover all other aspects of plants, animals and general husbandry. Plans were developed in 1838, and the first of the succession of Royal Shows took place in 1839.
The Smithfield Show expanded through a variety of locations and by 1860 had reached a point where a purpose-built hall covering 2.5 acres at Islington was erected ready for the show of 1862. This venue had a first attendance of 134,000 and in succeeding years became a popular social as well as agricultural occasion, attracting all classes of enthusiasts including the Royal Family. The Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) attended his first show at the age of 14 and subsequently became the club president on three occasions – 1875, 1883 and 1898.
Boom years in the 1860s were followed by severe depression in the 1880s and 90s, and the coming of the Great War closed the show down for two years. A short post-war recovery was followed by an even more severe depression in the late 20s and 30s with a marked effect on attendance. The 1862 show had attracted 134,000, and subsequent figures were often in the region of 100,000, but in 1937 the total fell to under 17,000.
The 1939-45 war caused the cancellation of all Smithfield shows between 1938 and 1949, and resulted in the requisition of the Royal Agricultural Hall, which was neither available nor suitable for post-war shows, and was eventually refurbished and transformed to become the Business Design Centre of today.
The major decision in 1948 was to establish "The Smithfield Show and Agricultural Machinery Exhibition" under the auspices of a joint committee of the Royal Smithfield Club, the Agricultural Engineers Association and the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, putting on the first event at Earls Court in 1949.
This quickly became established as the foremost winter occasion for both the livestock and machinery sectors of agriculture, with a very large volume of sales being transacted for all sorts of equipment.
At this first post-war event, the champion was a Shorthorn x Aberdeen Angus from Scottish Malt Distillers. The exhibitor-bred champion was an Angus heifer from JL Cridlan, continuing a remarkable sequence of 11 championship successes by his family stretching back to 1910.
Best steer group
A competition for the breed society parading the best group of three pure-bred steers was instituted in 1951 for the Duke of Norfolk Trophy, and in this it was not until 1987 that the European Challenge made any impact when a Charolais group was successful. In recent years the Limousin Society has taken the award in every one of the five years to the last Show in 1996.
The arrival of the continental crosses in winning the supreme championship came several years earlier with a Charolais x Angus steer in 1970. Thereafter the British native breeds had to be content with a single success as champion with a pure-bred Angus steer from L Watson and Son in 1980. To encourage the British breeds the Queen Mother gave a cup in 1984 for the best native-bred animal, and this has led to keen competition.
With the sheep, large entries have seen the regular winners from the Hampshire and Southdown in the 1950s being overtaken by the Suffolks in the mid 80s, and later the Texels which made a big impression in recent years.
In the pig section the last occasion when a coloured pig was champion was a Berkshire in 1953 – a breed first mentioned at the show in 1871. Thereafter the winners came regularly from the principal white breeds – Large White, Welsh and Landrace until, through lack of entry numbers, the section was suspended in 1993.
The carcass competitions, from their introduction in 1895, expanded rapidly over the years. After 1949 the pressure to exhibit became so keen that entries for several years were restricted to one per exhibitor per class in the pork and lamb sections, but still resulted in 70 animals per class. In 1993 a purpose-built portable carcass hall was introduced, with chilling and special exhibition facilities to meet the rising standards required by hygiene regulations.
The Smithfield Club secretary from 1948 onwards was JG Yardley, also at the time secretary of the Bath and West whose summer event travelled around the whole of the south of England.
This arrangement continued until 1960 when the club moved to other premises in Bath, and in 1968 Yardley retired and was succeeded by Alfred Austin.
He then commenced a long and fruitful co-operation with Gerry Kunz of the SMMT, one for the livestock, and the other for the overall layout of the show and trade stands. Judging rings around the show were used at various times for demonstrations on technical subjects, such as improved breeds and methods of production, husbandry and veterinary innovations, and for many years there was a well-attended childrens show. Alfred Austin was succeeded as club secretary in 1984 by David Child.
The decision by the AEA in 1993 that rationalisation of shows across Europe would mean that it and its major machinery members would only be able to take part at Smithfield in alternate years raised considerable problems for the club, whose policies revolved around an annual show.
With the co-operation of Earls Court & Olympia Ltd – which had succeeded the SMMT in 1991 – and of farmers weekly, a smaller Smithfield FarmTech was held in the new Earls Court extension, EC2, in 1995. This was highly successful as a livestock, carcass and farming forum event, but without the major farm machinery exhibitors, did not attract the attendance needed to be a financial success. The event underlined the fact that all sides were necessary to make a profit.
A full and very successful event was held in 1996, and in the alternate year of 1997 a carcass competition was organised at a Midlands abattoir, which attracted a very large entry. At the same time the club offered special cash prizes and rosettes at six of the major Christmas fatstock shows, covering venues in England, Wales and Scotland.
Thus 1998 is a full year in all senses, but the club bicentenary comes at a time of deep depression in the livestock section, as well as in other aspects of the industry.
Looking back, the pioneers of 200 years ago had as their driving force the initiative to improve both their stock and their production methods. Those ideals have remained consistent all down the years, and are just as powerful in todays livestock breeders.
• The History of the Royal Smithfield Club, written by Richard Waltham, currently vice-president of the Smithfield Club, is published by the Royal Smithfield Club, Brierley House, Summer Lane, Combe Down, Bath, BA2 5LE, and costs £8 + £1 post and packing. The 1980 history of the club by Robert Trow-Smith is still available at £5 + £1 post and packing. *
The Limousin Breed Group receiving the Duke of Norfolk trophy from the Queen Mother, 1992. The trophy was instituted in 1951.
The Smithfield Club is
200 years old this month.
Richard Waltham, who has
just published a new history
of the club, looks back at
some of its key dates
Top left: Gerry Kunz, exhibitions manager at the SMMT (left) and Alfred Austin, secretary of the Smithfield Club, 1983.
Left: Supreme Champion Pair Pigs – Landrace from
DWP Gough, with stockman
Reg Simkin, 1983.
Above: Carcass Hall 1993.
Above: Cattle lines and rings at Smithfield Farmtech 1995.
Left: Judging Shortwool
Below: The Queen Mother
with Royal Smithfield Club chairman Donald Biggar.