When the Bath and West Came to Town

This weekend sees the return of the Bath and West of England Society’s show at Shepton Mallet in Somerset. The Society was originally called the Bath Society and was established in 1777 ‘for the encouragement of Agriculture, Arts, Manufactures and Commerce in the Counties of Somerset, Wilts, Gloucester and Dorset’. By 1779 Devon and Cornwall had joined and by 1790 it was opened up to other counties and renamed the Bath and West of England Society.

Harper Album 5

By the 1840s the Society was struggling, and new ideas were needed to keep it alive. One of these ideas came in 1848 when the Royal Agricultural Society of England held it’s show at Exeter. In 1852 the Society put on its first show at Taunton and over the following years several towns hosted the event and in 1859 the Bath and West of England Society came to Barnstaple.

Funds to enable the show to be held at Barnstaple was raised from across North Devon and exceeded the amount required by the Society to secure the right to host it. “[M]ore than £500 having been realized above and beyond the guarantee fund of £800, enabling the Executive Committee to offer just £200 in Extra Prizes to local breeders of Stock, manufacturers of Implements, &c.” [North Devon Journal Thursday 2nd June 1859 page 1, column B]

Harper Album 5

The show was a huge event for Barnstaple and North Devon and took place over the course of five days. The showground was created from two fields at Pottington which had a dividing hedge removed to create enough space and the local water company was employed to bring water onto the site.

The Show Yard

Was most judiciously selected: two fields on the Pottington estate, the property of the honourable Mark Rolle and in the occupation of Mr. W. B. Fisher, the intervening hedge of which was thrown down, presented an area of 18 acres of perfectly level ground. This was surrounded by a high wooden fence, within the circumference of which offices, tents, and sheds of the most capacious and tasteful descriptions have been erected, which, being for the most part covered with white canvas and having flags flying at their summits, have a very pretty and finished appearance. Eight of the sheds are occupied by cattle, horses, sheep pigs, and poultry: two are appropriated to arts and manufacturers; two to horticultural shrubs, plants, and flowers; eleven to machinery and implements; besides which there are tents and other erection for refreshments. The major part of the sheds have been constructed by Mr. James Brady, for the contractor and local honorary secretary (Mr. George Brown)

[North Devon Journal Thursday 2nd June 1859 page 1, column B]

Harper Album 5

Special trains and ferry services were laid on to carry people into North Devon for the show and the entire town was decorated with triumphal arches and other decorations. The decorations were refreshed most days to ensure they were kept looking their best.

According to the minute books and annual report our forerunner, the Barnstaple Literary and Scientific Institute threw open its doors to any members of the Bath and West of England Society and other visitors who presented their membership cards for the week. A third reading room was created, and extra papers were ordered to deal with an increase in demand.

“The past year has embraced a feature which will be ever memorable in the annals of the town – the meeting of the Bath and West of England Society. The Council being anxious to afford every facility to the Society and the Visitors on that occasion, threw open the Institution to the public during the entire week, and provided an ample supply of Journals and Books of local information of all sorts, besides facilities for correspondence, &c., and they are happy to say that this course was fully appreciated; the Institution during the week having been visited by more than 1000 strangers…”

[p7 of the 15th Annual Report for the Barnstaple Literary and Scientific Institute, 1860]
Harper Album 5

The show opened to much fanfare on 30th May and despite the less than favourable weather during parts of the days which followed the show was a huge success with over 30,399 men women and children attending. The exhibition showcased animals, machinery, art, and horticulture from North Devon and beyond. There was a grand banquet hosted by the Mayor, Mr Brembridge, and a ball hosted by the Mayoress during the five-day celebration.

Harper Album 5

Many of the local farmers, craftsmen and manufacturers displayed their livestock and wares, including local photographer and optician, William Britton who took photos of the show.

A collection of posters, newspaper articles, catalogues, tickets, and photographs were collected by one of the visitors, Mr Charles Godwin of Bath. Godwin appears to have been a bookseller and spent time in both Bath and Barnstaple before and after the Show. His collection of items was bound together in volume and donated to the Barnstaple Literary and Scientific Institute and is a fascinating insight into the week the Bath and West came to town.


You can view an online exhibition about the Bath and West of England Society Show on the South West Heritage Site https://swheritage.org.uk/digital-exhibitions/bath-and-west/

For more information about the Bath and West of England Society and their annual show visit http://www.bathandwestsociety.com/

Further Reading:

North Devon Journal 1858-1859: there are several articles about the show and raising the funds required to secure it.

Report of the Bath and West of England Agricultural Society Show held at Barnstaple June 1859: A scrap-book produced by the Barnstaple Literary and Scientific Institution comprising newspaper reports, photographs, handbills, invitations, catalogues, etc., Compiled andd donated by Mr Charles Godwin [D630/BAR/BAR]

Minute Books of the Barnstaple Literary and Scientific Institute in three volumes document reference B27a-01

Rules and Regulations of the Barnstaple Literary and Scientific Institution, and Bye-Laws of the Council, 1856-1865 – contains the annual reports for the institution [D060/BAR]

Harper Album volume 5 contains pages of photographs and notes about the show.

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