Wednesday, 29 May 2013

The Old Shrewsbury Show

On the 6th March 1878, the Home Secretary of the day, Richard Cross, using powers afforded him by the Fairs Act of 1871, abolished the Old Shrewsbury Show.  This great Shrewsbury tradition had been held annually up at Kingsland since well before Elizabethan time. Organized informally without any committee to run it, every second Sunday after Whitsun [ie. our modern Spring Bank Holiday] the Old Shrewsbury Show was like a force of nature: it ‘just happened’.

I know this because I’ve been reading a Shrewsbury Library publication on the subject [Victorian Shrewsbury - Studies in the History of a County Town, written by the Victorian Shrewsbury Research Group and edited by Barrie Trinder]. The celebration hailed back to the Festival of Corpus Christi, but at the time of the Reformation it lost its religious component.  Trade guilds were behind the Show, erecting arbours in the area now covered by Ashcroft Road and Beehive Lane, their masters, journeymen and apprentices processing up there to entertain the Mayor and Corporation with all sorts of feasting and fun. Without the Kingsland Bridge [which didn’t open until 1881] this must have been quite a trek, but people made it in their thousands.

I was astonished to read this. A Shrewsbury Show at Whitsun, attended by people in their thousands?  Why hadn’t I heard about it before?  And what had happened to it?  By 1866, when Headmaster Moss of Shrewsbury School [citing support from all ‘right-thinking people in the town, including ‘moralists, parents and educationalists’] suggested moving its location from Castle Gates, the writing was on the wall for the Old Show. The eyes of the great and good of Shrewsbury had fallen upon the land and Kingsland. It was far too valuable to waste on the Old Show.

Even so, how could Shrewsbury have allowed an institution that had taken place ‘time out of mynd’ to simply disappear?  Well, according to the case presented by the Chairman of Shrewsbury’s Quarter Sessions to the Home Secretary, it wasn’t just a trade fair but a pleasure fair attracting a lower sort of person and resulting in much drunkenness.  Not only did it have no necessary purpose, but it brought injury to the town and was the cause of immorality.

This was the voice of Victorian England speaking. Until then the police had turned a blind eye to the excesses of the Show, locking up the worst offenders and releasing them next day - in which respect the Show was no more outstanding an occasion than the Shrewsbury Races [yes, horse racing in Shrewsbury – we’ve lost that too]. However, battle lines had been drawn up. One one side were the companies and guilds that had always been at the heart of the Old Show, the Carpenters, Brickmakers, Shoemakers, Tylers, Plasterers and all the rest, and on the other were the great and good of the town, including the clergy [especially Julia, reformer wife of Revd Charles Wightman of St Alkmunds].  Even the good old Shrewsbury Chronicle got in on the act, in 1859 describing the Show as a ‘ridiculous pageant’ with its ‘usual array of drunken kings and factory queens promenading the streets’.  

But what was the Old Show like in its glory days? Apparently it kicked off with a procession that, in its heyday, including the Mayor and Corporation along with burlesque figures wearing huge comic heads. That would have been good to see [and courtesy of THIS LINK you can get some idea of it] The burlesque figures included Crispin and Crispianus, patron saints of shoemakers, Vulcan, who always escorting the smiths and Rubens, who lead the house painters.  Henry I always appeared, it being he who had first granted a charter to Shrewsbury. Cupid led the tailors, the Stag led the skinners, Henry VIII was in charge of the builders, the Black Prince led the cabinet makers and hatters, Elizabeth I the hair dressers and bakers and, finally, the flax dressers were led by Katherine of Aragon. 

Booths were erected on Kingsland for all of these trades to advertise their wares and entertain their guests. A contemporary record of 1846 describes Kingsland as a ‘tented field of glorious pastimes in all its enticing forms’.  These included ‘fun shows’, ‘shindies of every sort’, shooting, wines, cakes, comfits, beef and ham sandwiches, coffee, brown stout, beer and ‘backey’.  ‘Slapbangs’ were also on offer.

The Show had its ups and downs over the years, notably during the French Wars between 1793 and 1815, when only the apprentices went up to Kingsland - and their behaviour was described as ‘an undignified ritual’.  In fact in 1808, the Show was reckoned to be in such serious decline that a succession of revivals were instigated to turn around its fortunes.  Behind these were the various trade guilds and companies who were at the heart of the Old Show, and who now gave financial incentives to encourage people to ‘take treats at Kingsland’.

These revivals were greeted with some success. In 1831, not only the Mayor and Corporation attended, along with the representatives of eight Guilds, two County MPs and the Earl of Powis.  ‘The poor were fed with plenty, and the rich not sent empty away’.  However, the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 brought this to an end with the guilds losing their legal status, one result of this being that there was no longer a formal obligation laid upon the Mayor to attend.

Consequently, the show of 1835 saw only the Butchers’ Guild attending, along with a random assortment of apprentices from other guilds. No show was set up on the field, nothing but a solitary hobby horse – and [thank God, I hear you all saying] plenty of food. The dancing was remarked upon too.  

The fortune of the Show changed again, however, in 1849 when the railway came to Shrewsbury.  That year's Show was a huge success, so much so that afterwards its organization was taken from the guilds and put into the hands of a Show Committee.  Money-raising activities took place, supported by many of the county’s leading families and boosted by cheap trains from the Chester and Stafford lines.  The result of this was that visitors poured into Shrewsbury in their thousands.  In 1850, the Shrewsbury Journal reported that the railway station was ‘literally besieged all Monday morning [by then, out of religious sensitivity, the Show had moved from Sundays to Mondays] by crowds of people to view the ancient pageant of the Shrewsbury Show.’ The station became so crowded that one year later, ‘several females were placed in danger from the pressure to get into the carriage.’    In fact, every mode of conveyance, from carts to steam engines, were employed in bringing in the punters.  One train alone is credited with bringing in 2,900 people at one time.   Is that possible?  Have I read this right?  I read the figures again.  Yes, I have.

So how could such a popular Show come to such an ignoble end, only twenty years later?  In other words, what went wrong that the people of Shrewsbury fell out of love with their Show? A press report from 1870 describes it as this once famous Show, being celebrated with mimic pomp, the streets of Shrewsbury no more crowded than for a normal day.  Another recorded ‘just’ four thousand people coming in by train. Yet twenty years previously trains had been bringing in as many as thirty-two thousand.  Which is an extraordinary figure. 

What happened proves that we slick 21st century operators aren’t the only ones to have ever known about effective PR.  The Victorians knew how to run a successful campaign. And, then as now, people are easily swayed. 

The campaign against the Show began, ironically enough, as soon as it began to show signs of revival.  Some of the town’s clergy attempted to persuade people not to go to Kingsland in 1849, and a letter from The Salopian took the Mayor to task for encouraging ‘beastly intoxications, horrid Sabbath desecration and tremendous oaths and cursing’.  Though the Show was now held on a Monday, Sabbath Day observers were offended by the fact that stallholders had to travel to the Show, and set up, on a Sunday.  An Evangelicism that wasn’t just local, but spread nationwide, had the town in its grip. It taught that people who indulged in all the attendant horrors of the Show were destined to eternal punishment. 

All sorts of evil goings on were cited. Fights were recorded, like the stabbing which took place involving Daniel Phillips, circus clown, and John Akers, Castlefields billard-marker, over a sixpenny seat. Mrs Julia Wightman's book, ‘Haste to the Rescue’ led the charge, claiming that ‘the love of money, not the love of the working class is at the root of the matter’.  Kingsland development plans loomed ever-closer, and what turned out to be the final Show was reported in The Journal as a ‘dingy’ affair. ‘We confess we regret the necessity that has arisen for the abolition of the ancient Pageant,’ said its editorial. ‘Not only for the sake of public morals and the reputation of the British… it is desirable that it should cease.’  

This wasn’t just a religious crusade then, it was a social one. The Show had been shorn of its ‘theatrical appendages’, but even so was regarded by many as unsophisticated and tawdry, providing no profitable entertainment. In 1874, the Journal reported that the Mayor would not lower himself to ‘drinking a tankard with a cobbler’. Once he would have marched in procession to the Show, now, as part of decent society, he regarded it as beneath him.  Moral issues had come in to play.  Town innkeepers were issued with warnings about what would happen to them if they infringed their licences during Show time. Gaming, be it as innocuous as thimble-rigging [don’t ask] was warned against. The companies’ arbours had all but disappeared and the feasting was little more than a profitable business for local publicans. 

Desperate attempts were made by Show organizers to introduce new novelities. Traditional burlesque figures were joined by contemporary ones from popular songs of the day, but nothing could halt the Show’s demise. The feeling in the town was largely that it provided no profitable entertainment and might just as well be closed, especially if the site could be used for something not just more edifying, but  more profitable too.

Enter the comprehensive building programme that created the upmarket suburb of Kingsland, connected to the town by its brand new Kingsland Bridge.  Enter, too, the first Shrewsbury Flower Show in 1875, and the Shrewsbury Regatta [so much more ‘manly’, dignified and physically demanding], which was held for the first time the year the Home Secretary finished off the Old Shrewsbury Show.   

And enter Shrewsbury School.  Headmaster Moss got his way in the end.  It’s hard now, looking at the Castle Gates Library, and then at the sprawling campus of the current Shrewsbury School, to believe that one could ever have fitted into the other.  But in 1882 Shrewsbury School left the old building in the heart of the town, which had housed it for the best part of three hundred and forty years, and moved out to Kingsland, taking up a position looking down upon the river and the town, where it still stands to this day. 

I’ve always reckoned that I know my Shrewsbury history, but plainly there are some gaps and this is one of them.  I’m well acquainted with Shrewsbury School’s previous home, now the Castle Gates Library, which has to be one of the most beautiful libraries in the country. But until this week, reading Patti Price’s sterling account in ‘Victorian Shrewsbury’, I never knew that the stately avenues and gracious buildings of Kingsland once hosted the Old Shrewsbury Show.  In fact, I never even knew there was an Old Shrewsbury Show.  Some historian, me.

Incidentally, Pattie Price was born in Montgomeryshire, but moved to Shropshire as a child. After graduating at King’s College, London, she became a teacher, her career concluding at the Priory Girls’ School, Shrewsbury, where she was Head of History.  Her excellent paper on the Old Shrewsbury Show, which I've drawn on extensively here, was first published in ‘West Midland Studies, Vol 11 [1978]’. Shropshire Libraries published ‘Victorian Shrewsbury’ - which included it - in 1984.  This is a book worth reading.  Do look out for it.  

No comments:

Post a Comment