New Zealand’s country shows are – almost without exception – organised by agricultural and pastoral (A & P) associations, which were set up to promote farming pursuits.
The idea of these societies and shows came from Britain. In 1784 the Highland Society of Edinburgh was established to promote the Scottish Highlands. The society encouraged agricultural improvements, and held its first show in 1822. Sixteen years later the Royal Agricultural Society was founded in England, and also held shows to foster the use of science in farming.
European settlers in the 1840s expected New Zealand to have an agricultural future, and the first show was held in the Bay of Islands in 1842. A year later the Agricultural and Horticultural Society of Auckland was set up. It printed a pamphlet on farming prospects in Auckland, and held its first show at the Exchange Hotel in December 1843, and its second show two months later. However, shows were not held regularly in Auckland until the 1870s, and the Auckland Agricultural and Pastoral Association was established in 1877.
In Canterbury the first show was held on the banks of the Rangitātā River in 1859, and the A & P society was set up in 1863. That same year, politician and runholder Donald McLean set up the Hawke’s Bay Agricultural Society.
The first Hawke’s Bay show was held in Alfred Dawes’ paddock in Havelock North in October 1863. It attracted 22 horses, 23 cattle, 18 sheep, six pigs, a pen of poultry and three dogs. Four hundred people turned up in gigs and buggies to see the displays.
By the 1870s, some associations were holding annual shows. From then until the First World War, at least one A & P society was set up each year, and shows became common – in Southland in 1884, shows were held at Riverton, Gore, Wyndham and Invercargill. By the 1950s there were well over 100 shows, held annually between October and March.
A & P societies promoted farm improvement in many ways. They held lectures about the latest sheep breeds, wrote to politicians about vet shortages or rabbit control, and published pamphlets about the best crops for local conditions. They held ram fairs, or horse parades where stallions strutted in front of farmers looking for a breeding mate for their mares. For a while the associations were lobbyists, and an interest group for farmers.
At the start of the 20th century, organisations such as the Farmers Union took over the lobbying role, and the Department of Agriculture took on the educative mission. The A & P associations concentrated on shows.
Changing nature of shows
At first, shows were purely competitions featuring farm animals and crops, designed to demonstrate excellence and promote good breeding. Later they included other competitions and attractions, such as:
- shearing, wood chopping and horse riding
- displays of farm machinery
- domestic crafts
- entertainments in the show ring.
As shows became established, they needed permanent homes. In 1877 Parliament gave A & P associations protection as incorporated societies. Most acquired showgrounds within their first decade of existencet. The best of these, such as the Hawke’s Bay grounds, were close to town, and had a rail connection (so stock did not have to be driven through town), sheep pens, horse stalls, a grandstand bordering the ring, ladies’ rest rooms and plenty of grass and trees for picnicking and parking. The grounds were often leased out for activities like rugby matches.
The greatest show on earth
From 1952 to 1972, the small Taranaki town of Inglewood held ‘the greatest show on earth’. It was not an A & P show, but a gala day featuring parades of floats, athletics races, circus acts, quick-fire raffles, wood chopping, marching teams, performing police dogs and human cannon-balls. In the event’s heyday up to 35,000 people attended, but it was eventually killed by rising prices and the competing attraction of television.
The Royal Agricultural Society
In 1924 the Royal Agricultural Society was formed. It became the umbrella body for the A & P associations and bestowed the name ‘royal’ on a different show each year – Manawatū was first. In 2005 Canterbury, which ran the largest show in the country with over 100,000 visitors, gained the right to host the Royal Show for the next four years.
In 2007 the Society had 99 affiliated associations holding shows – 49 in the North Island and 50 in the South Island.