Great Eccleston Agricultural Society, originally named the Rawcliffe Farmers Club, was founded in 1853 for “the improvement and advancement of agriculture”. At the inaugural meeting held in the Cartford Hotel sixty-two farmers from Out Rawcliffe, St Michaels, Hambleton, and Great and Little Eccleston each paid five shillings (25p) to join – several days’ wages in those days. The local squires, Thomas Robert Wilson-ffrance and the Rev. William Hornby, as Patrons, and Jocelin Westby as President, each paid £3. A local solicitor, John Addie, the agent for the Rawcliffe Hall estates, served as secretary. In addition to the subscription each member was expected to send at least one plough to the annual ploughing and ridging competition, and ploughmen were to be allowed to borrow ploughs and horses from members of the Society to compete in the event.
The first ploughing match was held two weeks later on March 1st at Crane Hall Farm, Out Rawcliffe, and the first cattle show was held at Cartford, Little Eccleston, on October 4th the same year. Admission cost sixpence (214 p) but stock handlers were admitted free. The pattern of combining serious purpose with enjoyable entertainment was established from the start. Dinner cost ten pence (4p) “wines and liquor not included” and the minutes record that after both events “… the judges and Members proceeded to the Cartford … where the parties partook of a Substantial Dinner; after which, the cloth being drawn, the remainder of the evening was spent by giving appropriate Toasts and Songs.”
In 1856 the Society also staged an Entire Horse Show. Although those stallion shows did not survive they led to the formation of the Great Eccleston Shire Horse Society which continues to thrive to this day. In keeping with the drive for a general improvement of livestock prize-winning stallions had to be available once a week for three months to serve local mares. Similar conditions were imposed on champion bulls and boars which were required to remain in the locality and available for service for several months.
True to its aim of “advancement” the Society arranged a steam ploughing demonstration in October 1857, drawing a crowd of nearly a thousand to Out Rawcliffe to see “the strange monster try her power”. Although the steam traction engine didn’t turn up until the following day and then broke down after a short demonstration, the members were reported to be “highly pleased and wonderfully surprised” by what they had seen. At the show that year it was recorded that “a few choice Agricultural implements bedecked the ground”. Displays of “quite new and approved Implements” soon became a regular feature of the annual show.
For the first seventy years of the Society’s existence the cattle kept by Fylde farmers were almost exclusively of the Shorthorn breed – an animal that provided both beef and milk. Formally registered pedigrees were uncommon and in the show catalogue they were simply “Horned Cattle, any breed or cross bred”. By the 1920’s a few higher yielding Friesian and Ayrshire cattle were making an appearance on local farms but it was not until 1933 that Pedigree British Friesian classes made an appearance. Pedigree Ayrshire classes were not introduced until 1949. In those early days many of the local farmers were breeding carthorses and there were usually many more horses than cattle entered. However, at the Jubilee Show in 1903 the work of dairy industry was evidenced by an entry of more than 90 cheeses “of the true Lancashire type” – making it at that time the biggest cheese show in the country.
In the nineteenth century all market towns in the Fylde staged annual agricultural shows. The Great Eccleston Show, then held in September at the end of the showing season, was dubbed ‘The Show of Champions’ where the prize-winners from the earlier shows were compared.
After the Second World War Great Eccleston Show, like many others, struggled to survive and in 1955, just two years after celebrating its centenary, the annual show was suspended. Fortunately the Society had purchased the freehold of the show fields between the wars, and after seventeen years the accumulated rent money provided essential funds when the Show was re-launched 1972. With the enthusiastic support of the Great Eccleston Shire Horse Society that opening show made its mark with one of the finest parades of heavy horses and turnouts ever seen outside Wembley.
It was after a succession of very wet shows in 1973 and 74 that it was decided to stage the even in July instead of September, and the change brought a change of fortune. Within a few years the pressure of entries was such that the Show had to become a two-day event to accommodate them.
Over the past 157 years the show has remained true to its agricultural roots, with the content and mix reflecting the evolution of local agriculture. The founding fathers would certainly appreciate the fine turnout of Shires and light horses, and the pigs and poultry, although they would not recognise many of today’s cattle and sheep breeds. They would be astonished by the milk yield of the modern dairy cow and dazzled by range of tractors and agricultural appliances on display. They would be completely dumbfounded by the tractor-pulling competition.
Article by John Mackie