The Royal Agricultural Show in Hoole, June 1893

The Showground in Hoole, an engraving from “The illustrated London News”, published on the opening day of the Show: in the foreground the main Show Ring, with Chester’s skyline and the Welsh hills in the background.

The Royal Agricultural Show was held in Hoole from 17th – 23rd June 1893, the biggest event that has ever taken place in Hoole. It was the Olympics of its time, a national competition and an international exhibition. Regional English cities competed annually for the privilege of hosting the Show. It was similar to a county show, but on a completely different scale “The New Zealand Herald” called it the “Premier agricultural event in the world”.

The first stage of Chester’s involvement was to put in a bid to The Royal Agricultural Society of England two years before the planned event. This was followed by a period of lobbying, leading up to the decision on the successful town or city. Following the decision, a period of one year was given over to the preparations before the week-long event. It was expected that there would be a “legacy” from it, rather like our modern Olympics.

The Royal Agricultural Society of England had been set up on 9th May 1838, following a suggestion by the Third Earl Spencer on 11th December 1837, at the Annual Dinner of the Smithfield Club. There was a need for a showcase of the best in agricultural developments, such was the speed of agricultural mechanical and husbandry improvements in England in the mid nineteenth century. The controlling body of the Society was Royalty and the landed aristocracy, the young Queen Victoria being its first Patron.

The first Show was held in 1839, on three acres of land in Cambridge. Chester had the honour in 1858 for the first time, when the show was held on the sixty-five acres of the Roodee racecourse. Chester’s second bid, in 1886, failed at the inspection stage, because a hundred- acre site was needed by this time, and the Roodee had been submitted again.

By 1891, when it was known that the Show was to take place in the North West of England, Chester was still smarting at its previous failure: three Shows had taken place in Lancashire in the previous 30 years.

The Bid

The bid from Chester was submitted by the Chester Improvement Committee and the Chester Farmers’ Club at the 1891 Doncaster Show – two years ahead of the planned 1893 Show, as was customary. The only realistic rival was Manchester, disparagingly referred to by the Chester contingent as “Cottonopolis”.

Three possible sites were included in the bid: Upton, Hoole and Hough Green. Chester Town Council preferred Hough Green, as it would lead to more trade from visitors walking from the General Station through the city centre to the show site.

One Saturday morning in August of 1891, a packed public meeting was held in the Town Hall, chaired by Sam Smith, the Town Clerk. In attendance were the First Duke of Westminster and nine other peers of the realm. The local Member of Parliament, Robert Armstrong Yerburgh, could not be present, but sent a stirring letter of support for the bid and £500 towards the funds (something like £50,000 in today’s values). Two resolutions were passed: firstly, to set up a Local Committee, and secondly, to start a Guarantee Fund with a target of £7000.

The committee was formidable: the Chairman was Charles Brown, Mayor of Chester; Hugh Lupus, First Duke of Westminster, local landowner; the secretary was George Dickson (of Dickson’s Nurseries); J.R. Thomas was the treasurer; together with the Hon. Cecil T. Parker (the Duke’s agent); and Robert Yerburgh MP.

Lobbying

During the autumn of 1891, leading up to the decision in early 1892 in London, a period of lobbying took place. Local councils were approached to provide “Warrants”, letters of support for Chester’s bid, to be sent to the Society’s headquarters in Hanover Square. Many councils were keen to support Chester, but, notably, Macclesfield was non-committal, as it was so close to Manchester, and Holywell was positively hostile, since its Council believed that Chester took too many of Holywell’s shoppers away from their town centre already!

The Decision

On January 29th 1892 a delegation of The Royal Agricultural Society visited Chester, to inspect the submitted sites. These were now down to two, the Upton site having mysteriously disappeared from the list. Following the inspection, the delegation was entertained to lunch at the Grosvenor Hotel by Robert Yerburgh. It then proceeded to visit Eaton Hall to look at the Duke of Westminster’s world-famous stud. What was left of the day was devoted to inspecting the rival Manchester’s sites.

Five days later, on Wednesday, 3rd February, at 12 Hanover Square in London, the Council of the Royal Agricultural Society of England (RASE) met in session to hear the presentations of Chester’s and Manchester’s local committees. Charles Brown spoke first and praised the unique position of Chester in the agricultural world, positioned as it was in a largely rural county, in close proximity to Wales and Ireland. Robert Yerburgh M.P. was more brutal in his remarks; he pointed out that it was better that 50,000 agriculturalists “athirst for knowledge” should come to the show in Chester than that 500,000 factory operatives should visit a show in Manchester for mere spectacle, or “gapeseed” (something stared at by a gaping crowd).

The “Manchester Men” gave of their best, then the RASE. Council proceeded to the vote. The Council numbered 41, two of whom were the Duke of Westminster and Cecil T. Parker! There seemed to be no concern for potential conflict of interest.

Lord Egerton of Tatton proposed that Manchester be selected; Cecil T. Parker proposed an amendment, that Chester be chosen. The vote was taken on the amendment. For Chester: 21, for Manchester 20! It was said that five votes had been changed by Robert Yerburgh’s speech.

The Council further accepted the Society’s surveyor’s, Mr Bennison’s, recommendation that, of the two sites on offer in Chester, the Hoole site should be selected. The reason for the choice was that the soil of Hoole was sandier and contained more gravel; it was, therefore, less likely to be churned into mud by the thousands of animals and people using the site, than the more heavy soil of the Hough Green site. This decision actually turned out to be somewhat ironic during the Show Week.

Following the decision at 2pm, Cecil T. Parker was sent from the society’s committee room to give the news to the Chester delegation. He is reported in “The Cheshire Observer” to have said to them: “Come quick – we’ve got it!

Some members of the Chester delegation had had to catch the train back to Chester earlier in the day, before the decision was announced. To their surprise, on arriving at Chester Station that evening, they were met by celebrating crowds, who had heard the news hours before: a message had been sent from London to the newly-installed main telegraph office in Chester. The city was full of excitement and pride at the prospect of hosting the Show, and preparations began almost immediately.

A negative note was struck, the April following, however, at a meeting of the Hoole Local Board (the precursor of Hoole Urban District Council). The newspaper account of the meeting suggests that the Board was churlish about the decision, questioning its benefit to Hoole and wrangling about the costs of improving and maintaining the roads. The Board also complained that “frontagers”, residents whose properties would be affected by improvements, would have to pay £83 towards the costs.

By July 1892, following the Show’s week in Warwick, the permanent features of the Show’s buildings were transported to Hoole, the clock tower and Bodega amongst them, and were placed in a one-acre timber store on a site where the present Beech Grove is now.

From August 1892 to May 1893, the Local Committee, with a local workforce of 150 men, prepared the site. With the Victorian delight in detailed figures, “The Cheshire Observer” notes that “1100 yards of hedges were grubbed up, 10,000 tons of soil moved, 2200 yards of fencing removed, 1700 yards of fencing erected, 2000 yards of creosote fencing, 4500 yards of (2.5 miles) sleeper road laid, 3800 yards of drains, 3400 yards of water pipe, 35000 superficial yards for show ring, 320 joists for entrance platform”.

During the spring, the Royal Agricultural Society, also using a local work force, began its work of erecting the permanent structures, which included: “a 210 feet - long entrance building, with its clock tower, 86000 cubic feet of new timber (1300 tons), 13018 feet of shedding plus 4422 feet of horse boxes, 5630 feet for cattle, 3381 feet for sheep & pigs, a Large Horse ring 500 feet x 150 feet, a Grandstand full length, plus a covered stand and platforms for 4000 persons and a Royal Box. The buildings end to end would have stretched for 6 miles. The Refreshment department had nine separate buildings, two large 150 feet x 50 feet refreshment rooms, two dining rooms and a Royal pavilion”.

It was then announced that the Prince of Wales would be visiting Chester and the Show, so a separate subscription fund was set up to decorate the city.

The Showground

The Hon. Claud Hamilton Vivian, of Hoole House, had rented out the hundred acres of the show ground to the Local Committee. The ground was bounded in the north-west by the Hoole Road, in the south-east by Hoole Lane, the north-easterly limit was just about where Pine Grove is now, and in the south-west it stretched to where Lime Grove is today. It is the only former showground in England not to have been fully built over, parts of it being the site of Hoole Allotments, and the Coronation Playing Fields.

The undeveloped part of the site is now registered with Archaeological Services as of archaeological interest. Crockery, silver spoons, the original man-hole covers to the drains, and the possible brick footings of the Royal Pavilion, have been discovered.

Whilst research was being carried out at the National Archives in Kew, important photographs, undisturbed for 120 years, were discovered, of the interior of the Royal Pavilion, taken on the Tuesday of the Show by a hitherto little-known Chester photographer, James Hampson Spencer. His photographs consisted of double images, taken at slightly different angles, as in some of the early experiments in stereoscopic photography. They reveal a sumptuous drawing room and dining room, specially prepared for the Prince of Wales to entertain his honoured guests on the official Meetings Day of the Show.

The dining room in the Royal Pavilion, partially set for lunch

The Plan of the Showground taken from “The Farmers’ Herald”, printed on the ground

The showground’s footprint on a plan of modern Hoole

The exhibits included the following stands and stalls: Implements 50, Cheeses 44, Machinery in Motion 12, Poultry 11, Horses 12, Cattle 18, Sheep 8, and Pigs 4.

There were 43 exhibitions from the Empire and the Dominions.

In addition, the Show had its own fire station, post office, telephone exchange, and publishing house, where “The Farmers’ Herald” was printed.

Outside the ground, there had been major changes, to cater for the expected throngs of visitors. A footbridge had been constructed by the Joint Railway Companies, from one of the General Station’s main platforms to an exit on the Hoole Road (its bricked-up entrance can be seen on the south side of Hoole Road today). This bridge was in continuous use until 1967. Hoole Road had been widened from Newton Lane to where the United Reformed Church is today (note the extra-wide footpath on the north side of Hoole Road). A partial one-way traffic system was introduced, up the Hoole Road, for the duration of the Show, which hackney carriages had to follow. Lightfoot Street was paved for the first time as a consequence, and was described in the newspapers as “The most elegant  thoroughfare in the whole of Europe”.

The Week of the Show

Now that everything was in place, an observer described Hoole and the showground as “a white tented city when viewed from the walls of Chester” and “Hoole has grown with mushroom rapidity into a busy industrial centre”. “Vast public improvements at Hoole and visits of so many surging thousands of visitors from all over the country, a stimulus to agricultural life locally”.

True to the abiding love of figures, the reports of the lead-up to the Show itemised the numbers of entries: livestock 2061, implements 5527, horses 509, cattle 759, sheep 631, pigs 162, poultry 836, produce 975 (including 475 Cheshire cheeses). Most, if not all, of the animals would have been driven up Hoole Road from Chester General Station. Earlier plans to build special railway sidings alongside Lightfoot Street had proved to be unnecessary.

The animals would have been taken into the showground, via the show service road entrance, to stock pens at the rear of the ground, to acclimatise and to settle. (This road is in Alexandra Park, which leads to its maintenance yard along the easterly edge of the Dene Hotel).

A copybook exists, written by Vincent Williams, an eight-year old boy at the time, who lived in Egerton Terrace, Hoole Road, and who watched the passage of the animals to the showground: “Although I did not go to the show, I saw a great deal of it, in the Pigs and Sheep and Cows and Bulls and Horses passing our house to the Show. Some of the Cattle, particularly the Bulls, were very fat. I also saw a great many implements pass and the Steam rollers and locomotive traction engines and all dairy things, churns and such like. The decorations on the road and in the town are very nice”.

Saturday, 17th June dawned hot and dry, as indeed it had for the previous seventeen weeks. There had been a drought in England, with only two days’ rain since early April, thus belying Mr Bennison’s (the Society’s surveyor’s) earlier fears for the possible muddy condition of the ground at the Chester Show.

Partly as a consequence of drought, there was an agricultural depression in England, but this was also caused by more long-term trends. There had been an increasingly successful set of imports of cheap cereals from the mid-west of the United States, with a parallel lack of investment by British farmers in home-grown crops.

The country was also in political turmoil, as the last stages of Mr Gladstone’s (eventually unsuccessful) Home Rule Bill for Ireland made its passage through Parliament.

However, a far more optimistic impression of ‘the state of the nation’ was created at the Royal Agricultural Showground in June 1893: “The green turf, dotted at intervals with snow-white marquees”, “tempting rustic summerhouses of elegant design”, “scrupulously-polished parts of the gigantic steam engines of varying types – setting off the scene admirably” (Cheshire Observer)

What may seem an odd way of beginning the show to the modern observer, after so much preparation, was, in husbandry terms, very sensible. The first day was always “Implements Day”. Visitors were allowed to view the vast array of machinery and tools, but the animals were out of bounds. It was thought that this was to prevent the recently-arrived animals from suffering more stress.

Entry cost two shillings and sixpence (12.5p), £12 50 in today’s values. There were 299 visitors all day. Amongst the engines viewed were some of the earliest internal-combustion engines (“heavy oil” engines). They were all, at this stage, stationary engines, which had to be transported to their working site on horse-drawn carts. It wasn’t until a year later that Karl Benz in Mannheim, Germany, produced the first commercially-viable “automobile” engine.

Sunday, 18th June was equally odd. The public were excluded from the show all day. We perhaps would think of Sunday as being the day that would attract most visitors, not so in the late Victorian period. The day began with Divine Service for the four hundred grooms, shepherds and herdsmen, in the large tent that would be used later in the week for the Society’s Annual General Meeting. The service was conducted by the Bishop of Chester, the Rt. Revd. Francis Jayne, assisted by the Duke of Westminster’s chaplain. A sermon was delivered, and hymns were accompanied by the band of the 14th Hussars, which played for the rest of the week from its position in the bandstand.

Following the service, invited guests of the Duke’s toured the showground.

Monday, 19th June was the “First Day” – Judging Day. The entrance fee was 5 shillings. (25p) (£25). There were 2397 visitors. The drought continued, the temperature being 103oF [39oC] in the shade. Whilst the judging continued, one of the steam engines caused a fire, setting the canvas awning of one of the displays alight. The fire brigade were on hand to extinguish the flames.

That evening, Edward, Prince of Wales, arrived in Chester on the 6.10pm train from Euston. Unfortunately, the train stopped short and the Prince had to walk along the platform before he reached the red carpet. He was then driven through the decorated centre of Chester to the Town Hall, where he received, and replied to, the Loyal Address. To a loud pealing of bells, and watched by hundreds of people, he was then driven to Eaton Hall for a house-party that evening.

Tuesday, 20th June was the “Official Day”. It was also very dusty and very hot. The entry fee was 2s 6d (£12.50) Visitor numbers were 20,959. The Prince of Wales arrived, having driven through Chester, along City Road, and up the Hoole Road, accompanied by cheering all the way. He conducted a tour of the stands and then officiated at the Society’s General Meeting, where the new President (9th Duke of Devonshire) was installed. Reference was made in the speeches to the depression in agriculture. At the end of the meeting the Prince and his guests repaired for lunch to the Royal Pavilion.

During the afternoon, the Prince and his party sat in the Royal Box of the main horse-ring. There was a parade of the horse prize winners for his benefit. At 4.30pm he left for Eaton Hall.

The show was over for the day, but the planned spectacles were not. The day was the summer solstice and there were two events planned for the evening, centred upon the River Dee, a fireworks display and an “illuminated river”, based on an event in the annual Chester Regatta.

At 9pm, “Bend d’Or”, the Duke of Westminster’s steamer, containing the royal party, arrived at the Groves, to meet the Mayor of Chester’s steamer, the “Ormonde”. The river was lit by fireworks of every description, ranging from depictions of Chinese pagodas, to moving boxers in the middle of a bout. The fireworks went on till 2am. Visitors had streamed in from outlying districts by special train, especially from Hawarden and Connah’s Quay. So rapt was the crowd, that many people missed their return train, and had to spend the night by the river. Luckily the weather was benign: “Perfect midsummer weather, not a twig stirring, a half-moon shining, either bank a stream of dazzling colour, boats tricked-out with glittery lights. The floating Baths seemed on fire. The suspension bridge a fairy picture worked out in red, green and gold”.

The two steamers were compared - unfavourably in the case of the Mayor’s: “The royal steamer’s ornamentation from waterline to funnel was a mass of dazzling lights “Ormonde” seen by herself was greatly admired, but when placed alongside the floating palace, she was a farthing-dip to the moon”.

The following day the Prince of Wales wrote to Charles Brown, the Mayor, saying that the spectacle had been the best setting he had ever seen.

Wednesday, 21st June was hot and dusty again. The entry was again two shillings and sixpence. Attendance was 19,034. The Prince of Wales left Chester at 1pm, for a dinner engagement in London that evening.

Remarkable on the day was the prize-winning prowess of Thomas Houlbrooke, Calverley Farm, Tarporley. He had four 1st prizes, twelve 2nds, and was champion for Cheshire cheese. His unprecedented prize was £100, with a £10 prize for the dairymaid.

Thursday, 22nd June was the so-called “Popular Day”. Entrance was cheaper, at one shilling (£5 equivalent), and there were 59,555 visitors, the third highest figure in ten years. In the afternoon, rain started, and went on for several hours: the drought had broken.

Friday, 23rd June saw continuous rain. The temperature was 54oF [12oC]. The entrance fees was again one shilling. Attendance was 13,664, the lowest attendance on the last day of a show for ten years.

The total attendance for the week had been 115,908. This makes a stark comparison with Hoole’s population at the time of 3000. The show had been a social, financial and professional success, and it could be believed that the event was all over.

However: on Saturday, 24th June, as a reward for their efforts in working twelve to fourteen hour shifts to control the crowds, the police were offered a police sports in the large show ring, including a 3-legged race. The Duke provided the prizes.

In the aftermath of the show, the Royal Agricultural Society noted in its proceedings, detailing the “Chester Meeting” “farewell glance at the Chester meeting of 1893 must necessarily rest upon those features which possessed special merit. In what was universally admitted to have been a capital show, fully up to the standard always aimed at in the “Royal”, these were afforded by the Hackneys, the Clydesdales and the Shires”.

The permanent features of the show were moved to Cambridge, the 1894 venue. The timber was sold off. Chester Town Council bought the bandstand for £24, and for a time had it installed in Grosvenor Park, till the bands’ sheet music was continually blown away by winds coming up the River Dee.

At the winding-up meeting of the Chester Local Committee, it was reported that the show had been a financial success. The gate money had amounted to £9000 which was the Royal Agricultural Society’s income, the prize money had been more than covered by the guarantee subscription fund of £7000, raised by the Local Committee. Of the £1200 left, £200 was voted to George Dickson, the secretary, for his efforts on the committee. It was recognised that Agricultural Education was a priority in Cheshire. The remaining £1000 was endowed, together with £6000 from Cheshire County Council, to the College of Agriculture in 1895. This college subsequently became Reaseheath College.

There could have been a part of the legacy of the show which would have led to the character of Hoole being very different today. Following the clearance of the site, the Bellevue Entertainment Company of Manchester considered moving its operation from Manchester to Chester, and using the show site permanently. The consequence would have been a permanent circus, a greyhound track, and in later years, a motorcycle dirt track. After a period of investigation the company decided not to move after all. The result in modern Hoole is a mixed site of housing, allotments, a public park and playing fields, all adding to the character of this unique township on the edge of Chester.

The Show did come to Chester again, in 1925. This time the potential for mud was no bar, and the Hough Green site was chosen – and special railway sidings were built, at Saltney Station.

The entrance to the Showground on Hoole Road, from the front page of “The Farmers’ Herald”, printed daily at the Show

Acknowledgments and Sources:

Mrs Churton, for access to her father’s, Vincent Williams’, copybook of 1893

Cheshire County Records Office

Lancashire County Libraries’ Digital Archive of 19th century newspapers

The National Archives, Kew

The Hoole Millennium Book

[Article researched and written by Monty Mercer, May 2017, Hoole History & Heritage Society]