50 years of the South of England Show

Isabel Gander on half a century of the South of England Show at Ardingly.

The Queen in 1974 at the show
The Queen in 1974 at the show

The South of England Agricultural Society is celebrating its 50th year of supporting farming, agriculture and the countryside in the South of England in 2017.

Its flagship event, the South of England Show, to be held on June 8, 9 and 10 this year, has welcomed over 3.5 million visitors over the last five decades.

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A registered charity founded in 1967 from a consolidation of agricultural societies going back to the 18th Century the Society works across the six counties of Berkshire, East Sussex, Hampshire & the Isle of Wight, Kent, Surrey and West Sussex.

The showground in 1974

Its aims are to showcase agriculture and the countryside through annual shows and to serve the rural community by providing educational grants, awards, bursaries and scholarships for people involved in agriculture, horticulture and land based industries.

Agricultural Societies started life in the 18th Century when progressive farmers and landowners wanted to share the improvements in their breeds of cattle and sheep. Reaching out to all ordinary farmers in the 19th and early 20th Century, peripatetic

shows such as those run by the Sussex Agricultural Society sought to demonstrate technological advancements, crop husbandry as well as genetic improvements of livestock.

In the 1960s the Tunbridge Wells and South-Eastern Counties, the Sussex County and the Royal Counties Agricultural Societies came together to form the South of England Agricultural Society. The 150 acre farm at Ardingly was purchased in time for the first Show to be held 1967.

A cattle parade in 1969

There have been 49 Shows since they started in 1967 (one was cancelled in 2001 due to Foot and Mouth so 2017 will be the 50th Show)

There have been 23 Royal visits to Society events during the last 50 years

There have been three Royal Presidents

Her Majesty The Queen Elizabeth II has been Patron of the Society since 1975

Some hard roads were laid in time for the first Show, but with no permanent buildings it was held all under canvas. It attracted 50,000 visitors and cost 10/- (50p) to enter

There was no permanent office building in 1967 and Reg Hughes, the chief executive, collected the post from The Post Office in Ardingly. Ken Monk was the post master at the time and he still sits on the Society’s council today

In 1967 the Society purchased a red Tractor, which has become the Society’s mascot for the 50th Show. ‘Bill the Tractor’ is still in use today and will be seen in the main ring as part of the Machinery Display at the South of England Show this year

The Flower Marquee, visible from the road highlighting the forthcoming show, has occupied the same site since the show started

During the first Show in 1967 the livestock were paraded around the ring in a continually moving line. This tradition continues to the present day.

In 1968 the Richmond Royal Horse Show, hailed as one of the most fashionable events of the time, integrated into the South of England Agricultural Society, bringing a wealth of beautiful silverware, much of which continues to be presented into the 21st Century

In 1972 extensive tree planting was carried out across the showground

In 1973 the first permanent toilets and concrete roads were built on the showground

In 1974 the Society hosted the first Farming Conference at the showground, Farming in the Weald supported by ADAS. Over 13,000 farmers and people from land based industries have attended the South of England Farming Conference.

In 1975 the first Horse Trials were held on the Showground and other events followed ranging from dog shows to caravan rallies. The Members Pavilion was used for weddings, dances and Antique Fairs making a countryside centre at Ardingly a reality

1976 on the first day of the South of England Show, Lord Abergavenny opened the new building, which bears his name. It is home for the cattle entries during the South of England Show and is used for various other events throughout each year

Since 1978 the Society has made an annual Award of Honour to a person who has made an outstanding contribution to agriculture, horticulture, forestry or countryside skills.

1980 saw the first visit to the South of England Show by a Minister for Agriculture, Peter Walker

In 1983 a new education project named Farmers Adopt a School was established through a partnership with Brighton University. Over the next 20 years 92 farmers adopted 114 schools across the six counties and in London.

In 1983 the Society also started its support for students in the Volunteer Overseas (VSO) programme. Over £80,000 of travel bursaries have been awarded to support agricultural learning.

200 farming groups have been given funding by the Agricultural Eurolink Network

In 1987 the Young Craftsman of the Year competition is launched for woodwork, pottery, needlework and metal work. Over 3,500 students have entered the competition since it was launched.

In the October 1987 Great Storm the South of England Showground suffered only slight damage but provided a large site for the burning of fallen timber from other local dwellings and estates

In 1988 the Norfolk Pavilion was rebuilt and officially opened by Lady Kleinwort

Since 1996, Presidents have been invited to present a trophy for an outstanding contribution to the South of England Show

First Nuffield Scholarship was awarded in 1979 and since then 30 Nuffield Scholars have received funding for their research from the Society

In 1999 the Jim Green Competition (now Challenge) started in acknowledgement of Jim’s contribution to the Educational work of the Society. Over 1,000 students with learning difficulties have taken part in the Jim Green Challenge.

In 2006 the Society’s Connect with the Countryside event started which now hosts over 2,500 primary school children every year

This first appeared in etc Magazine’s June edition out now.