I see that there are plans to revive the annual Essex Agricultural Show at Great Leighs. Before the show acquired a fixed home in 1958, it was held in a different place every year. So it seems a good time to look back at the three occasions when it was held in Witham – 1863, 1910 and 1929. Witham parish included a large area of farmland and there were many farmworkers. The farmers themselves were influential in parish affairs. So it was a very suitable place to hold the show.
The 1863 show took place for one day in the private grounds of Witham House (now 57 Newland Street). The land is now occupied by the Maldon Road Park and the cricket ground. There were special trains and reduced fares from all over Essex and parts of Suffolk. One observer described how a “congregation of men and beasts” took over the “usually quiet, and always respectable little town” of Witham. Four hundred animals took part. At Freebornes farm (whose farmhouse is now 3 Newland Street), there was a “trial of steam cultivators”. These would be a source of wonder to many; they only came into use a few years earlier.
In 1910 there were some striking photos taken, and I have printed one of them below. The show was held in the Avenue fields, which belonged to the mansion at the Grove. They extended all the way from Avenue Road to Collingwood Road. At Avenue Lodge, on the right of the photo, lived Walter Burton, who looked after the electric plant at the Grove, and eventually wired Freebornes farm. He was self taught. It was a small house for his six red-headed children. Witham’s farmworkers were given the day off to attend, and we can see people crowding through the arch. It seemed to be a special skill of the times, to put up grand archways and decorations. There was a luncheon in a marquee for the farmers and gentry, and they heard a speech by Rider Haggard. He wrote famous books about agriculture, especially “Rural England” but became better known for his adventure novels like “King Solomon’s Mines”. So it was quite an honour to have him in Witham.
The 1929 show was on yet another site, the London field. This was on the left going out towards Colchester, now occupied by factories. It belonged to Mr Francis Crittall, who must have bought it when he acquired the nearby site for his great window factory ten years previously. He was president for the year, an interesting change from the rural gentleman who usually took the post. The country was suffering a severe economic depression at the time of the show, but the usual array of animals and displays had been mustered. And as well as performances by two military bands, there was a “Musical Ride over Jumps, Vaulting and Cossack Trick Riding” by the 7th Queen’s Own Hussars. I’m sure we can expect something equally spectacular at the Essex showground when it re-opens.