In the second of a two part special local historian John Grimbaldeston looks at Royal Lancashire Show in the years from 1960 to 1975
By 1960 the Royal Lancashire Agricultural Show (RLAS) committee had decided they should move from Blackpool to a new site at Clifton Hall.
It was available, subject to planning permission, there was no police objection as to traffic control, and despite their overdraft, then standing at £40,046, the council felt they should be able to raise sufficient finance through a debenture.
The land consisted of 130 acres on the Blackpool side of where the main road divided to Lytham and to Blackpool. It was also a free gift from William Pickles, Vice-President of the Society and chairman of the Amalgamated Cotton Mills Trust.
While negotiations over the Clifton site continued, the show remained at Blackpool. Arrangements were made to sell Derby House in Winckley Square and other fixtures at Blackpool, plans were drawn up for the land at Clifton, to be called Derby Park, and the Lowton Construction Company was employed to prepare plans for the permanent structures at the site.
Work for preparation of the site was costed at more than £105,000: how this would be funded remained vague, and Mr Pickles’ cheery optimism, “we needn’t worry, we shall get the money when we need it,” was not really helpful.
Despite the excitement of the projected new site, there were planning objections. County Hall had several planning concerns, but the major three were: the grandstand should be temporary, erected before and dismantled after each show.
The society had objected immediately on the grounds of health and safety, expense, lack of storage space, as well as impracticality – toilets and refreshment rooms were part of the structure. County Hall had given no reason for the requirement.
Objections two and three concerned access during non-show periods, and County Hall had banned access on all non-show days, even those on which the show was being erected. As it was also the intention to have the society’s offices on site, to which access would be needed throughout the year, this was a major concern. The society’s council had already invested more than £1,500 in Derby Park.
In the meantime, the arrangement with Blackpool for Stanley Park continued on a yearly basis, but understandably Blackpool Council wondered if their land could be put to more lucrative use.
Billy Smart’s Circus was interested, a motor racing organisation, Brand’s Hatch Circuit Ltd wanted to develop major northern meetings, an American company wanted a trotting course – trotting was very popular in the USA – and ABC and Billy Butlin combined to plan a theme park, ‘Ventureland’.
As the sixties progressed, Blackpool Corporation came to favour the park developing a zoo on at least part of the land the society used. In the face of such prospective competition, the RLAS committee felt they ought to widen the range of what they offered, and moved far out of their comfort zone.
In 1965 the show accepted the sixties as it was proposed to finish with a ‘Beat Night’ in the main ring on the final night. The groups were to have a Lancashire or Merseyside flavour, admission would be 5s.
The discomfort the committee felt is reflected in the rather awkward attempt to incorporate a more modern vocabulary. Brian Epstein was contacted to supply “a well-known beat group,” the council insisting it should be “a top group.” In the catalogue under the heading ‘Teenage Entertainment’, the show featured Sandie Shaw, Moody Blues, Walker Brothers, The Lancastrians, Jeff ‘N Jon and The Untamed. The following year, a Canadian style rodeo was the major ring attraction.
The planning objections finally resulted in the Derby Park scheme being dropped, though not before considerable expense had been committed, and Blackpool came to be seen as a longer term arrangement, and a wider range of entertainments sought.
However, the question of finance weighed more and more heavily on the minds of the council of the RLAS. As Blackpool Corporation began to investigate other uses for the land, so the RLAS began to look for ways to extend their activities through the year and become less reliant on a single show for their income.
In June 1966 the society produced an ‘Outline Plan for a Royal Lancashire Centre’. This would have: an agricultural centre with an annual show, a demonstration, exhibition and trials centre, and conference facilities; zoological gardens – created and run by the society; a sports’ centre – this would utilise the existing stand and would have an indoor arena, an athletics track, pitches for football, rugby and hockey and a clay pigeon shooting area.
Eventually, overnight accommodation and general club facilities would be available. The plans would have an estimated financial outlay of £350,000, and once again, fund-raising was started.
In the meantime, shows continued to lose money. A special effort was made with the 1967 show, the bi-centenary of the society, but even that lost money, and in October 1967 the overdraft stood at £31,000, with further unpaid bills of £18,000.
Mr Thursz, the society’s accountant, stressed that they had reached their limits. As often happens in moments of crisis, the committee began to argue: some wanted to cancel the 1968 show, others felt that if the show was cancelled it would never start up again.
Two attitudes typical of when long-running institutions came under pressure manifested themselves: the original aims of the society, to help and encourage the agriculturalists of the county, became subsumed under an unspoken one that above all else the society must survive; and secondly, someone else must be to blame, and in this case Blackpool Corporation was seen as the root of all problems as being too difficult to deal with.
The 1968 show went on, by 14 votes to 11: the strictest economies were to be made, and the society continued to seek alternative accommodation. Economies, lay-offs, asset sales and fund-raisers led to the overdraft being reduced to £39,500 in October 1969. An alternative venue was found, Ribby Hall at Wrea Green. Ribby Hall cost £12,000, Ribby Hall Farm £75,000, and despite their debts the society went ahead with the purchase.
The RLAS also employed a fund-raiser, Mr Biles of Hooker, Craigmyle and Co. – meaning more expense. He estimated Ribby Hall would need £250,000 spending on it over the next few years to be made suitable as a long-term site for shows.
To encourage investors, long-term plans for the site now included a rural museum, a leisure and horticultural centre, and a general building complex available for hire, all of which would cost a further £185,000.
Hopes for generating these sums at first rested with petitions to the wealthy of the county. Lord Cozen-Hardy launched an appeal and put up £50,000 of his own money, the ladies committee chipped in £1,500, William Pickles a similar amount, but these amounts were trifling compared with the sums required.
Inevitably, discussions included accusations and recriminations, “Mr Marsh said if everyone pulled his weight it would be ideal, but unfortunately some people would try very hard and others would just sit back.”
Yet another appeal was made to the people of the county. And there was still a show to organise. Discussions with the organisers of Preston Guild failed to reach agreement for a 1972 Guild Show at Preston, and it was decided the Ribby Hall site should be used that year for the first time, even though some of the structures and accommodation would be temporary.
Appeals committees formed and re-formed, new costings were made of new plans, but on none of these could the committee agree, which delayed the production of an appeals brochure.
The estimated cost of the project gradually increased to £658,000, the overdraft stood at £279,514, and by January 1973 the appeal had still not been launched. It is with the last meeting of December 1972 that the minutes of the show which have survived in the Lancashire Archives stop.
Any other information has to be pieced together through scraps of information in newspapers, and indeed, scraps in scrap books. Glorious weather resulted in the best attendance for 20 years in 1973, more than 75,000, and yet another surge of misplaced optimism as it was hoped 1974 could be a four day show. It was reported in several papers that Mr Palfrey wanted a new image for the show, “we are going to sack the bowler hat brigade.”
Lord Cozens-Hardy delivered the annual report of 1973 and spoke of a year of progress. The second show at Ribby had seen a large number of entries and “improved financial figures.”
The appeal chairman was the former Chief Constable of Lancashire, Mr W Palfrey and as of September 30, 1973 £107,686 had been received in cash and covenants and a wildly improbable plan for a rural centre had been put to the public.
Though the show itself had made a profit of more than £20,000, because of bank interest of £28,850 and costs of improvements to the grounds, the loss for the year was £38,338.
By October 1973 news in the press had the appeal standing at £120,000, and a plaque was unveiled to Lord Cozens-Hardy at Ribby Hall in appreciation of his efforts for the society.
But then in June 1974 the committee finally accepted that unless more contributions came in, 1974 would be the last show.
The Evening Post journalist observed that the annual interest on the society’s debt was £50,000, which was more than any show had ever made. Towards the end of 1974 the equipment at Ribby Hall was auctioned off in a series of sales over December 1974 to March 1975.
Items sold included stabling, pavilions and other show yard equipment: a sad and anti-climactic end to an important chapter in our county’s agricultural history.
* Thanks to the staff at Lancashire Archives for all their help.