Page last updated at 21:38 GMT, Tuesday, 7 July 2009 22:38 UK

End of era with final Royal Show

By Clare Lissaman
BBC News Birmingham


Organisers said the 1989 Royal Show was "one of the best"

Hit by falling visitor numbers, the 160th Royal Show will be the last. But less than 20 years ago the event was the agricultural highlight of the year, with 250,000 people flocking through the gates.

During its 170-year history the Royal Show saw glory days of waving royals and immense crowds. But there were also the dark days of animal disease and bad weather.

The show began in 1839 as a way for the then year-old Royal Agricultural Society of England (Rase) to spread the word about new technologies.

Denis Chamberlain, Rase marketing and communications director, said: "With a growing world population it was believed that increased productivity would be driven by new technology - and this was a way of telling farmers what was available."

Rase itself had been set up by a group of landowners, agricultural journalists and farming "enthusiasts", the society said.

In the beginning, the event was a key way for farmers to communicate with each other and find out about advances in technology.

'Social event'

The first show was held in Oxford and then the event moved around annually to places such as Liverpool and Manchester as towns fought for the prestige of hosting it.

The Queen Mother
The Queen Mother was a star attraction at the show

As the Industrial Revolution advanced, crowds were drawn to see the new technology on show.

In the late 1850s the show began to grow into a "mass event" with visitors turning up to see steam machinery trials.

Mr Chamberlain said the livestock element had also been very important.

"Farmers like to show their livestock competitively and winning the livestock championships at the Royal Show is like winning the FA Cup," he said.

As attendance and exhibitor numbers soared, the number of towns with the space and facilities to host the event dwindled.

The Royal Show settled at Stoneleigh Park in Warwickshire in 1963 and that year nearly 120,000 visitors passed through the gates over four days.

Crowds gathered to see packed programmes in the Grand Ring, enjoy tasty food and stunning flowers as well as displays of crafts, equestrian competitions and arena displays.

Mr Chamberlain said the show began to reach its peak in popularity after it moved to its new home.

"It was the go-to event," he said.

"It was a big social event for rural people. More and more people were coming to the 'Henley on dry land'."

By the 1970s and 1980s about 250,000 people and thousands of animals were filling the 250-acre site.

BBC footage from 1989 shows crowds enjoying the sun and watching the Queen arrive in a horse-drawn carriage and former prime minister Margaret Thatcher drive by in an open-top Land Rover.

Fewer farmers

Percy Dodd, who has been foreman of the Grand Ring for more than 40 years, said "the show has altered an awful lot" over the years.

Children at the Royal Show
Muddy conditions cut short the show in 2007

He said: "Look at the state we are in at present with redundancies and all the rest of it.

"Years ago the show was really flowing.

"You'd get landed gentry that used to come here. They did the circuit in those days. They did Henley, they did Wimbledon and then the Royal Show and then on to the Game Fair."

The Royal Show did not take place during the two world wars. Apart from that it has only been cancelled in 1866 as a result of cattle plague and in 2001 because of the Foot and Mouth outbreak.

Two years ago, the show was forced to close a day early because of muddy conditions.

But visitor numbers have been markedly falling and in April Rase announced the show was no longer financially viable.

Mr Chamberlain said a big reason for its demise was that the number of farmers in the UK had fallen to about 55,000 - about a third of when the show was at its peak.

The number of businesses serving rural communities, which had been so vital for the show, has also dramatically dropped.

Rase is now looking to the future and says elements of the show will continue and be incorporated into smaller more specialist events, with many based at Stoneleigh Park.

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