Oswestry & district Agricultural Society held its first annual Show on Friday, October 3rd 1862, at the Smithfield cattle market, off English Walls. The Show was an immediate success, prompting swift activity to safeguard the event for the future. However, before the Show took place, local opinion was much more wary, and uncertain whether the agricultural community would stick together, landowners with their tenants. Oswestry was comparatively late on the scene with its own agricultural society but, of those established earlier, several had collapsed through internal disputes. Oswestry was determined to avoid any splits, so much so that local farmers were each waiting for one of their neighbours to propose the formation of a society, so that any blame for its failure would not fall on them. As a result, the Society’s foundation was the work, to a great extent, of a stranger from Worcestershire, Mr H M Aldham. He won the support of the influential local landowners and farmer John Ralph Ormsby Gore of Brogyntyn, the Conservative Member of Parliament for the northern division of Shropshire since 1859. Aldham and Ormsby Gore raised the idea of a local agricultural society with their friends and neighbours, and won over sufficient farmers at to prelimary meetings, at the Wynnstay Hotel, for a public meeting to be held at the Guildhall on April 23rd 1862, with the express purpose of establishing such a society.
What then were the objectives of these men, the founders of Oswestry Agricultural Society? In the early years of the Society and its annual show the purpose was strictly agricultural; originally, the Show was not intended as a day out for the people of Oswestry, with side-shows and entertainments, but was held to provide an opportunity for farmers to meet mix , and exchange ideas for the improvement of local farming. One of the Society’s first patrons, Edmund Wright of Halston, emphasised three goals: the production of better quality food, and greater quantities of food, and improvement of the conditions of the farm labourer. Mr R G Jebb pointed out that “ our population increases, and will increase in spite all the Malthusian doctrines in the world, but the surface of the soil cannot be extended, unless some great discoverer should arise who will teach us how to extend out one acre into two.” An annual Show would allow local farmers to see what standard could be reached; it would enable them to examine new farm machinery; and would prompt them to consider different breeds of stock and new varieties of produce.
Thus, on April 23rd 1862, Mr Ormsby Gore chaired a meeting, attended by about sixty, mostly members of the local gentry and farming community. The idea of the society was taken up with enthusiasm by landowners, tenant farmers, and by the town of Oswestry as a whole. The Mayor of Oswestry, Mr David Lloyd, was elected chairman of the Society’s Finance Committee. The editor of the Advertizer, John Askew Roberts, who paid his one guinea subscription to the new organisation, wrote in his next editorial that the Society had been set up on a “sound basis” but that success was possible only with “the landed gentry and tenant farmers contributing liberally in the way of subscriptions, and saving up choice stock for the show day. A notice placed on the Advertizer’s front page, and written by Mr Aldham, claimed that “the benefits arising from an association of this nature are so evident and so vastly important”, the meeting had pledged itself “to exert its best efforts for its support and welfare”, he said” all persons interested in the prosperity of this neighbourhood are earnestly solicited to become members of this Society.”
The gamble paid off. The farming community rallied round, so that within weeks, the Society could list as its patrons the Earl of Powis, the Earl Brownlow, Viscount Newport, the Hon. Rowland Clegg Hill M.P, Sir Watkins Wynn M.P of Wynnstay, Colonel Myddelton Biddulph M. P for Chirk, Thomas Barnes M.P of the Quinta, Edmund Wright and John Ralph Ormsby Gore. The latter was elected the Society’s first President, and he chose as his Vice President John Groom of Hisland. Mr Aldham was appointed the Society’s Secretary and Messrs Croxon, Jones, Longueville & Co became the Society’s Treasurers. Membership encompassed nobility and gentry, Liberals and Conservatives, landowners and tenants, and towns people interested in the general well-being of Oswestry.
The Advertizer had noted that “as far back as 1849 the late Mr Bickerton, of Sandford, advocated in our columns the desirability of establishing such a society”, so why did it take another thirteen years before the Society was set up? In April 1862, the newspaper wrote that “the subject had been talked and written about for many years, but it required more than this to effect any practical end. Talking and writing are all very well as aids to working, but are of little avail taken by themselves: and it is due to the working powers of Me Aldham that there has been a practical commencement of a local agricultural society.” However, there were other reasons which encouraged actions at this precise time. In 1862, the Advertizer’s column were dominated by three subjects: Garibaldi’s fight for a united Italy, the American Civil War, and the railways. Whilst it is unlikely that Garibaldi’s activities had any effect upon Oswestry’s farming community, both the North American situation and the domestic railway boom certainly had an impact. The American Civil War had hit the Lancashire cotton industry hard, but had provided a major boost to British agricultural interests by putting our North American rivals at a severe disadvantage. The 1860s were buoyant times for local agriculture. At this time, the development of the rail network was also improving Oswestry’s prospects. By the summer of 1861, rail passengers could travel south from Oswestry to Llanidloes, via Welshpool and Newtown. On September 4th 1862, with much celebration, the first sod was cut on the Oswestry section of the Oswestry, Ellesmere & Whitchurch Railway. The line to Gobowen had, since 1849, delivered a direct line with Chester, Shrewsbury and beyond. Oswestry was becoming an important railway centre, and partly as a result, was growing in size: it expanded by 35%, to 7,306 inhabitants, in the ten years from 1861. Founded at the start of such a decade, the Agricultural Society was likely to enjoy the best possible infancy. The railways made Oswestry much more accessible: they also made the movement of livestock a simpler process. As if to cement this marriage of farming and transport- and no doubt to win the goodwill of landowning interests- the railway contractor Thomas Savin announced that all cattle to be exhibited at the Show would be conveyed free of charge on the Oswestry & Newtown, and the Llanidloes & Newtown Railways. The Advertizer commented “This act of liberality on the part of this company deserves the highest commendation, and shows a desire on the part of the managers to accommodate the public, which must be admitted to be most praiseworthy.”
On October 3rd 1862, the centre of Oswestry would have been crowded with people, waiting expectantly for the inaugural Agricultural Show to begin. There was no public holiday; the influx of farmers, farm workers and their families added to the routine crowds of shoppers, travellers and people just out doing their business. Inns adjacent to the Smithfield, such as the Fox, the Barley Mow, the Bear and the White Horse, would have done a roaring trade, helping to quench the thirst of the town who had made their way to Oswestry by cart, carriage, on foot or even by train. Inside the show-ground, the Society’s judges carried out their task in peace: the public were only admitted once all the judging was over, to ensure fair play, considered essential with £150 worth of prize money.
The Society was in luck as “the day was delightfully fine”. One thousand and five hundred visitors, each paying one shilling admission fee, steamed through the Smithfield gates from mid-day onwards, to examine the display of stock and implements, and to file through the various trade tents, including one for artificial manures. Mr Clay of Ellesmere showed off “a novelty in the shape of a travelling steam-engine”, and the livestock on display included “curious specimens of the feathered tribe”. The prize winners included Mayor. Captain Hamer of Glanyrafon and among the horse classes, a Mr John Suckley. John Roberts of Brook Cottage, Hisland, won the considerable sum of three pounds, awarded by Mrs Lloyd of Aston Hall and Mrs Ormsby Gore of Brogyntyn “to the labourer, of good character, who shall have his Cottage and Garden in the neatest, most orderly, and best order.” Later on the Recorder of Oswestry, Mr J R Kenyon, praised this award as likely to keep the labourer in his cottage, and away from the public house!
Proceedings were brought to a close with a celebratory dinner at the Wynnstay Arms Hotel. Over one hundred guests sat down to an evening meal of a “first rate description, prepared under the superintendence of Mr Samuel Mountford of Worcester.” Sir Watkin Williams Wynn and the Hon. Rowland Hill had sent haunches of venison, and game had been donated by Messrs Edmund Wright and Ormsby Gore. After the meal there were no less than twenty-two toasts, from “the Queen” to “All friends around the Wrekin.” The Society’s President, Mr Ormsby Gore, reminded his audience of the Society’s first meeting, when “there was only one landowner besides myself present, and there were grave doubts as to whether we should succeed or not expressed. I had, however, several Shropshire farmers at my back, and I knew that they were not at all likely to be beaten.
“I hope our Society will last for many years”, Mr Ormsby Gore said, whilst the Advertizer commented that “ the first meeting of the Oswestry District Agricultural Society was so decided a success, that we cannot but believe that it is established in manhood, although only in the first stage of infancy.” Ninety-nine shows later, in very much a different age, we can only agree with observations of the Society’s founders: Oswestry Show prospers, still!
(from Oswestry & Border Counties Advertizer of July 25th 1984, and written to commemorate the one hundredth Show)