Those attending the BSAVA congress in Birmingham on the weekend of 4th April may have missed the shock announcement that the Royal Show to be held in Warwickshire in July would be the last.
The 160-year-old show had not made a profit in the last 20 years and after a series of unfortunate events in the last decade there were ominous signs that this premier show, which for many would have equated with attending Royal Ascot, could not survive.
Cancellation of the show in 2001 from foot-and-mouth, the floods of 2007 with ankle-deep mud, and reduced livestock entries in 2008 from bluetongue all contributed to the eventual demise of this event which previously had attracted visitors from all over the world.
Since 1840 the Royal Agricultural Society of England (RASE) based itself on “science and technology transfer”, using the Royal Show as its showcase and more recently at Stoneleigh with more specialised technical events.
It was at one time a travelling show: a different area would be visited each year, portable wooden buildings and tented accommodation gave a unique atmosphere with a touch of the fairground in the programme.
My first visit to a Royal was at Oxford as a veterinary student and my one memory was squelching through the mud between exhibits, glad of my waterproof boots. A few years later I received a silver medal at the College Finals, a prize sponsored by the RASE.
The show’s permanent site was the land surrounding Stoneleigh Abbey, situated close to the large urban population of the West Midlands, but it proved less accessible to working farmers; it was also adjacent to our practice and for many years I became involved in events and demonstrations there.
Permanent facilities with metalled roads and underground services were an advantage but again in 2007 the mud on the showground discouraged shoppers. Some exhibitors withdrew and the large exhibitors, including many banks and manufacturers, were less enthusiastic than before.
The 46th show at this venue will be the last but the RASE’s boldest current project is the development of the Stoneleigh Park site as The Open Country Initiative with many permanent buildings.
Major exhibitors withdrawing their support due to the economic situation led to reports that bookings for this year’s show were 15- 20% down. Those attending were no longer the farmers who came to choose equipment but were replaced by shoppers who were coming for the farmers’ market atmosphere and 5,000 schoolchildren boosted the attendance figures.
Regional and county shows such as The Great Yorkshire and the Royal Welsh, amongst many, were able to draw on much greater local support from persons still directly involved in agriculture, one such region’s show drawing double the attendance figures in 2008 than The Royal.
It had been hoped to revive the show this year with a celebrity chef president and two halls devoted to food and cooking but sadly that did not work out after an unexpected resignation. Many of the RASE’s membership only subscribe for their free entry to the four-day show and a fall in income may be anticipated by the society.
English Agricultural Society and the Veterinary College
The RASE will still continue by providing smaller, more specialised technical events. The society was founded in 1838 by a group of farmers and soon attracted the support of large landowners and the aristocracy. Queen Victoria granted its Royal Charter in 1840, the Prince of Wales would often attend and in the last century a royal “person” would usually grace the show with a visit on one of the days.
Although the London veterinary college had assumed the title “Royal”, it did not receive its royal charter from Queen Victoria until 35 years later than the RASE!
The agricultural society in England had for a long time had a close link with the veterinary profession and especially gave financial support to the then struggling Royal Veterinary College in Camden Town.
The location of the college meant that it relied on carriage horses from the streets of London for clinical material although there were a few cattle from the “town dairies” – a cow keeper is listed in the census return of Royal College Street.
In order to provide better teaching, members of the RASE from the 1840s were invited to submit diseased animals to the college but this met with almost complete lack of response, according to the historian, Professor Ernest Cotchin.
With only two teaching colleges in the UK, the Edinburgh College with its close links to the Highland Agricultural Society was able to provide a better broad training than in London. Eventually it was proposed a chair of cattle pathology would be funded by the English agricultural society at £100 per annum. This new post commenced in 1842; the subsidy was later increased to £200 by the time of the 1875 Charter of the Royal Veterinary College.
Professor Simonds was the first veterinary professor of the Royal Agricultural Society of England; he taught “epizootic maladies”, the “rot” in sheep and gave just two small animal lectures on distemper in dogs (Williamson, 1863).
The leading journal The Veterinarian in that year devoted 19 pages to listing the prizes awarded to cattle, horses, sheep and pigs at the Royal Show held at Worcester, where the society also awarded prizes for implements listed as “fixed and portable steam engines, hand dressing machines, and barleyhummelers”.
In subsequent years the society paid for Simonds to study cattle plague measures of control on the eastern frontiers with Russia. In 1886 it paid for William Robertson and a house surgeon to visit the Louis Pasteur Laboratories in Paris and in 1891 a new chair was founded by the RASE in pathology and bacteriology.
The annual payment of £500 was awarded to John MacFadyean who left Edinburgh in 1892 to take the position. He became the first dean, the RVC finding additional funds to make up his salary to the £800 he required. A pathology laboratory was set up in 1890 with the help of a £500 grant from the RASE and until recently the RASE always appointed one of its members to the General Council of the RVC.
Farming has seen many changes, none more so than in recent years in the demography of agriculture. Cattle plague and sheep pox were problems in the 19th century when the show first toured; wars and more recent epizootics interrupted the show but the organisers in recent years seemed more out of touch with the needs of farm businesses.
Conversely, the equine side of the show flourished and this is one way the showground can be used to put on popular events.
The show ceased to be the place where farmers came to purchase tractors and equipment. Pedigree animal showing became less relevant with availability of scientifically assessed sires through AI.
On a personal note I shall miss the excitement of the show each year; older vets will remember the Vitamealo lunch as an annual veterinary reunion.
Whilst briefly acting as an official veterinary surgeon for the five-day show I was advised by an eminent veterinary surgeon to eat the salmon on the first day but stick to the cold beef on subsequent days as he suspected the refrigeration facilities!
But my finest memory must be from a related event at the Stoneleigh showground: whilst inspecting cattle at the veterinary checkpoint, a Limousin heifer bolted. On coming out of a trailer, its female handler was dragged, then let go of the head halter. The animal went straight off at a gallop, cleared two wooden fences and entered the main show-ring and paused in wonderment at the empty grass arena.
Descending from above were the Red Devils parachute team. With smoke flares from their legs they dropped at the appointed place with the crowd watching the landing as their parachutes flattened behind them. It was one of those memorable moments with “red rag to the bull” thoughts in my head as I seemed to be the vet in charge of the situation. But it never happened. The parachute team moved away from the puzzled heifer and eventually a stockman arrived with a rope halter.
In attempting to lasso the heifer she put her head down, knocked him over, then backed away. His fractured ankle led to a health and safety enquiry as a major injury but meanwhile I had melted away to look after the even larger Limousin bull that came in the same truck and I had left in charge of an inexperienced youth.
After an hour or so the heifer was coaxed out of the main ring, a corral of vehicles was made and I insisted that as I started with the incident, I should have the privilege of injecting a sedative so the animal could be reloaded and taken back home. I had learnt my lesson on veterinary inspections – never to rely on one’s helpers
Anon (1863) The Veterinarian 36: 541- 562.
Cotchin, E. (1990) The Royal Veterinary College, Barracuda Books, London.
Royal Agricultural Society of England web pages. Williamson, G. (1863) Diary in private ownership.