Marking a century
Kent County Agricultural Society Founded
The Kent County Agricultural Society was founded in 1923, with 63 members and chairman, The Right Honourable, Earl of Guildford. The first Kent County Agricultural Show was held in June at Wombwell Hall Park, Gravesend.
The first President, The Right Honourable Earl of Darnley, reported the show entries were ‘exceptionally good’ and proof that the County show ‘fulfilled a long-felt want’.
The Kent County Agricultural Society was formed in 1923 by a group of pioneering local farmers and land-owners who wished to bring together the county’s farming community. Soon after their initial meeting, preparations began for what was to become the newly formed Society’s inaugural event. Chaired by The Right Honorable The Earl of Guilford, with 63 council members, and more than 800 members, the Society approached the town of Gravesend about hosting this event, and so the Kent County Agricultural Show was born.
In the official guide and programme, The Mayor stated that the town was about to receive “the biggest advertisement it had been privileged to enjoy”. The first Kent County Agricultural Show was held at Wombwell Hall Park, on Tuesday 19, Wednesday 20 and Thursday 21 June 1923. While The Right Honorable The Earl of Darnley, the Society’s first President, reported that the first annual Show was a success, financially it took a loss due to unfavourable weather, with takings at the gates and stands reported to be extremely disappointing.
The second Show was held at Barrow Hill in Ashford on 10, 11 and 12 July 1924 with more than 100 trade exhibitors and 250 exhibitors of stock, including His Majesty the King, who showed Shorthorn Cattle from The Royal Farms at Windsor. The Show was hailed an exceptional success. And so, the format for the next 80 Shows was now beginning to emerge.
The War Years
During the Second World War, close supervision by the Government pulled agriculture away from the severe depression it had suffered in the 1920s and 1930s. Farmers and the Woman’s Land Army provided maximum levels of home-grown food, while the Government guaranteed agricultural prices. Alongside the policy for increased food production came the realisation that there was a shortfall of around 50,000 agricultural workers. It was to fill this gap that the Woman’s Land Army was reborn. Lady Denman was appointed Director and set up systems for recruitment, enlisting, training, placements, and the welfare of Land Girls. While the Woman’s Land Army did not prevent food rationing in Britain during the War, it did prevent a food famine. Despite this success, it was clear that measures would still be needed to promote the long-term stability of agriculture post-War. The Agriculture Act of 1947 was drafted with the close involvement of farmers and their representatives. It proved to be a far-reaching measure and set the trend for British farming for the next 30 years. The 7th Earl of Radnor who had been President of the Kent County Agricultural Society in 1928 and 1929, was vocal at the third and final reading of the bill in Parliament and in an extract from the debate, we learn that he told the house: “The basis of this Bill is, putting it quite bluntly, that in exchange for control of the industry is to have security. I think that is fairly clear. “We are given assured markets and assured prices and in exchange we submit, as an industry to control… So far as the landlord is concerned, he is for the first time being controlled… [and] might easily be made bankrupt under this Bill”. Parliament also assisted farmers in the issue of tenure. In a separate measure, the Agricultural Holdings Act of 1948, all existing and future tenant farmers were given security of tenure for life. This provision then extended in 1976 to allow close relatives of a deceased tenant to take over the holding on the same terms. In the long-term, the greater sense of security offered by the 1947 and 1948 Acts, and also by later legislation, encouraged a movement towards owner-occupied farms and allowed the farming community a level of security within their own industry to re-group and continue with the commitments they had prior to the outbreak of war.
The Mote Park Years
Following the War, the Kent County Show resumed in 1947 under the Presidency of The Lord Lieutenant Cornwallis. Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Kent’s visit to the Show on the first day was a great success. The Council was determined that its first post-war Show should be celebrated in a fitting manner and every effort was made to overcome the challenges of putting on a Show after so many years. Early in 1948 the Kent County Agricultural Society received an invitation from the Corporation of Maidstone to consider the County town as the Kent Show’s permanent home. After many meetings it was agreed to accept the offer for a period of 10 years, with the option to continue for 21 years or longer. And so the 19th Annual Show was staged at Mote Park, the new permanent Showground.
The visit by Winston Churchill and his wife was much appreciated that year, however owing to the state of the ground following heavy rain the previous day, they were driven in an open car through cheering crowds to the President’s enclosure at the Main Ring. Churchill inspected a Guard of Honour drawn from the 489 H.A.A Regiment and the 6th Cadet Battalion, in his capacity as Colonel Chief for both units. His speech at the official luncheon was relayed around the Main Ring and many thousands of visitors listened. During the luncheon he was elected the first Honorary Life Governor of the Society.
The 1950 Show was acclaimed as one of the most successful, as the weather had been perfect and by the end of the second day, all stands had been re-booked for the 1951 Show. No doubt this trend of success would have continued in earnest if it had not been for an outbreak of foot and mouth disease, which meant that there was no cattle, sheep, pigs or goats at the 1952 Show. This blow did not deter visitors, and trade stands were once again completely booked out for the following year. The Council had always endeavoured to maintain its primary objective that the Show existed to promote agriculture, and the Kent County Show had on more than one occasion been declared among the finest in the country.
Under the careful guidance of George R Stevens as Chairman of Finance from 1947 and Hugh Goodenough, Honorary Treasurer, the Society’s finances were in fine order with in excess of £25,000 on the balance sheet by August 1955. The following year, the Society agreed to the first day of the Show being televised for a period of one and a half hours and to let the crew film on the day before as a means of publicising the event. This may in part have helped towards establishing a new visitor record.
The appalling weather and subsequent condition around Mote Park in 1960 caused some bad publicity and criticism of the Society for not providing permanent roads around the Showground. On 21 October 1960, five members of the Committee met at the Royal Star Hotel in Maidstone to discuss whether or not to devote money to improvement of the current Showground, or to use the new available capital to acquire a new permanent ground. One proposal saw an extra 71 to 72 acres to be made available in the existing site of Mote Park, including a series of main and subsidiary roadways. This was estimated to cost £40,000, with 70% paid by the Society, and the remaining 30% by Maidstone Corporation. Despite the attraction of this scheme, the Society felt that the financial commitment was beyond its resources. George Stevens had made extensive searches to find an alternative site, and concluded that the most ideal was the 38-acre site at Detling Aerodrome, which already had 11 or 12 miles of concrete roads, with adequate access at several points from the A249. Kent Show Property Ltd was formed to deal with the purchase and under the Charities Act 1960, the Society’s request for charitable status was acknowledged and registered. By February 4th 1963, George Stevens had been elected as Chairman and the contracts had been exchanged on Murrain Place and Ten Acres. The Kent County Agricultural Society was now the proud owner of its own Showground.
The Early Detling Years
The last Kent County Show at Mote Park in Maidstone marked an important change for the Kent County Agricultural Society. The task ahead, to turn the grazing land at Murrain Place into a workable Showground, would be a labour of love. Leading the changes was Chairman George Stevens who, together with a small team of experts, set about planning the grounds. The ground was seeded, with the direction of Edward Day. He felt that with proper farming, there would be enough grass by the 1964 Show, despite the severe winter and not too promising summer. And so the fate of the first Show at Detling fell down to whether the grass would grow or not! As well as challenges over the grass, some of the existing trees on the site needed to be felled, but Hollingbourne Rural Council had placed a tree preservation order on some of the woodland. This would ultimately affect the layout and would have to be taken into consideration for any future plans.
On 11 June the Council met in Maidstone for a pre-Show briefing. Mr Harrison, Honorary Director, reported that the new Showground was in very good shape and paid tribute to Mr Tassell and his team of workers, who had done so much in to ensure it was possible to stage the Society’s first Show on the permanent Showground. The transformation had meant heavy expenditure, but nearly all the work was now completed with water being laid on, the fencing almost finished, and the work on the electricity about to begin. With a sense of pride and renewed vigour, the Kent County Agricultural Society was ready to present the new Showground to many visitors and exhibitors in July.
HRH Princess Alexandra declared the new Showground open on Wednesday 15 July 1964. The unusual layout of of two large rings proved popular, as they provided a continuous programme in both throughout the Show, while a concentration of agricultural machinery stands along each side of the main approach made an ideal introduction for visitors to the new grounds. That year Alan Day and his family offered to pay for the construction of a building for use as the secretary’s office in memory of the late Alfred Day, Honorary Show Director for many years. In recognition of Sir Leslie Doubleday’s generous financial donation, the Society’s Registered Offices would be called Doubleday House, and the Society’s Administration Offices the Alfred Day Memorial Building. In 1966, Kent Show Property Ltd sold Doubleday House (formerly 10 acres), and bought the neighbouring property known as Norton Farm, a modern bungalow with just over 10 acres of land. It was agreed that the secretary John Hendry would take up residence and that the new Alfred Day House would become the future Show Office.
The Golden Years
1970 bought with it new chairman, Viscount Falmouth. The Society’s Council had been considering the future of the Show for a number of years, and decided to change the Show days to include a Saturday. Adding a Saturday would mean that a much larger number of visitors interested in Kent, its countryside, farming, horticulture and gardening would be able to visit. The 1971 Show was held for the first time on Friday 16 and Saturday 17 July, with attendance figures up on previous years. After the Show in 1974, the Executive Committee discussed whether it should become a three-day event, with Viscount Falmouth explaining to members that the East, South, Devon and Three Counties, among others had all made the change. He argued that the cost of putting on the Show would be spread over three days rather than two, and it would not cost a great deal more to stage the extra day. The gamble to change to a three-day Show paid off and the Society was delighted that once gate takings had been counted and the tickets sold reconciled, public paid attendance had risen from 39,715 in 1975 to 44,182. In 1978, the Society took a big risk by removing the charge for the car parks at the Show, in the interests of rising cost of living. Once again this gamble paid off and post-Show figures revealed a dramatic increase in visitor numbers: over 60,000 compared to 47,565. The visitor numbers became so much at one point that the Traffic Committee had to hastily contact the owner of the land surrounding the Showground to ask for permission to use it as additional car parking! 1979 saw the Show’s Golden Anniversary and it proved to be a best seller, with headlines in the local press such as ‘A Gold Top County Show’, ‘This year’s Anniversary Kent County Show looks to be a blockbuster’ and ‘It’s Fifty Years on for the Kent County Show’.
A Royal Visit
On 13 December 1988, Robin Leigh-Pemberton received a letter from The Rt Hon Sir William Heseltine, Private Secretary to Her Majesty The Queen, to say that Her Majesty and HRH The Duke of Edinburgh would be pleased to visit the Kent County Show on 14 July 1989. The public announcement was not to be made until 5 January and it was strongly suggested that the information should be kept confidential with the exception of those within the Society who would need to begin planning immediately for such an auspicious occasion. In March a letter arrived to inform the Society of The Queen’s travel arrangements as well as approval for the official lunch menu. It was suggested that the caterers should have the first course ready on the table so that the time spent at lunch could be reduced to a minimum, creating more time for seeing the Show. At the pre-lunch reception The Queen requested a gin and Dubonnet and Prince Philip a gin and tonic with ice and lemon; it was also noted that The Duke of Edinburgh did not like strawberries.
The Royal Party arrived with seven vehicles at the Bredhurst Road Gate at 12:30pm on Friday 14 July, where they were met by Viscount Falmouth and Alan Day. Three of the vehicles entered the gates of the Showground, accompanied by two mounted police officers, and drove to the Main Ring. The first eight bars of the National Anthem were played and the Royal Standard was raised. The Queen received the civic dignitaries and Society officers in the Main Ring before officially opening the new Pavilion by cutting a red ribbon across the entrance. At 2:35pm the permanent staff at the Showground were presented, before The Queen and Prince Philip went on foot to the Cherry and Soft Fruit Show. After talking to growers, the Royal party left the marquee and proceeded down Churchill Avenue by car to the British Farming Demonstration. The Queen’s final duty was to present the Society’s long-service awards and a selection of trophies. A mere three days later, a letter arrived from Buckingham Palace to the Chairman Edward Brice. Sir William Heseltine, on The Queen’s instructions, had asked for a special word of thanks from herself and Prince Philip for arranging such a happy visit. In particular, Her Majesty was delighted that, given the shortage of time, she was able to see as much of the activities around the Showground that she did.