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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
Shows were primarily intended to display new breeds and encourage improvements in stock. In the 19th century, the main animals shown were horses, cattle and sheep, with a few competitive classes for dogs. At first poultry were included, but the smelly coops were unpleasant, so they became less common. Competitions for pigs were brought in later.
Stock were carefully prepared for their appearance in the show. The report of the 1898 Gore show described the work: ‘[H]orses are shampooed; fowls have their legs bathed in warm water and their crops laden with all the delicacies the wit of man can devise and the appetite of the bird desire; bulls’ heads are carefully shaven and shorn; cows’ flanks are gently burnished with the softest of towels; the coats of the sheep are lubricated with choice brands of hair oil …’
Stud breeders used shows to advertise their animals – the prizes increased their sales. Shows helped promote sheep farmers’ transition from merinos to the new long-woolled breeds such as border Leicesters. The A & P associations also helped breeders to compile stud books.
In the late 20th century, stud breeding became based on statistical measurements rather than the look of an animal, and genetic records were very important. This reduced the importance of shows for breeders. The number of competition classes and animals declined, especially for cattle. In 2007 the Mayfield show in Canterbury had about half as many animals as 30 years before.
However in areas with lifestyle properties, such as Franklin in South Auckland, there has been an increase in classes for specialty animals such as alpacas, Highland cattle and dairy goats.
From the start shows held competitions for butter, wool and other animal products. There were classes for crops such as grass seed, wheat, oats and hops, vegetables such as turnips and potatoes, and fruit such as apples.
A & P associations were keen to encourage better use of machinery on farms, so a practice of exhibiting the latest agricultural implements began early. Machinery in motion always attracted interest, especially if it made some noise. At the 1897 Masterton show visitors flocked to see a Yankee straw press at work, a drain plough pulled by a traction engine, a cream separator and a shearing machine. Shows held field competitions for ploughs, harvesters, reapers and binders. In 1904 the Gore show demonstrated the first imported tractor, and in the 1920s milking machines appeared. Shows contributed significantly to the uptake of technology on New Zealand farms.
Shows held competitions for various farming activities. In the early days ploughing with bullock or horse was common. The Gore show offered a prize for the ploughman with the largest family!
Sheep-shearing contests began in the 19th century, and became more organised in the 20th when shearing machines were introduced. A Wellington provincial shearing championship was held at the 1959 Masterton show, and inspired the hugely successful Golden Shears competition, still held in Masterton.
Wood-chopping events were held from the early 20th century, and continue in some places. Other activities included tossing sheaves of oats with a pitchfork – a feature of the Golden Bay show. After the Second World War, sheepdog trials were an important spectator attraction.
Horse riding and jumping became an important part of shows, and were very popular with the crowd. Originally draught horses were shown, especially Clydesdales, or farm hacks, often ridden side-saddle by women. As cars became common, there were fewer horses in shows, and in 1912 the president of the Masterton show feared that horses would turn into ‘weeds’ and people would no longer come to the show. 1
Jumping competitions had been introduced from the 1890s, as grandstands and show-rings were built. Until the Second World War there were normally just three classes – maiden jumper, open jumper and pair of jumpers. In the 1950s the spread of pony clubs led to a surge in dressage and jumping competitions, increasingly organised under the rules of the FEI (Fédération Equestrienne Internationale). In the 1950s Golden Bay changed the date of its show so pony clubs could take part.
Today, horse events remain hugely important and a prime drawcard. At the 2007 Oxford show, there were 224 classes of horse entries, compared with 100 of sheep and wool, and 66 of cattle.
At the end of the 19th century the Grand Parade was introduced. The prize-winning horses and cattle (but not sheep) and the machinery were paraded around the ring. Usually held on the last afternoon, the parade remains the high point of a country show.
In rural New Zealand there was no clear distinction between farm work and home work, or farm crops and produce from domestic gardens or kitchens. Competitions for fruits and vegetables, and for home-made butter, began early in shows.
In Golden Bay the heat of competition in the home-craft classes led to some interesting tricks. Onions were preserved in acetic acid rather than vinegar to make them white and shiny – one bottle won prizes at five different shows. For the rainbow-cake competition, the green came from putting cabbage through a washing machine wringer, the blue from blue-bags used in washing and the pink from old Auckland Weekly News covers.
Women were involved in making these items, so they came to play a very active role in shows. There was always a Ladies’ Committee, and under its leadership the range of domestic creativity expanded. Competitions for vegetables led on to competitions for jams, chutneys and other preserves. There were many classes of cooking – from breads and scones to sponges and chocolate éclairs. Contestants would get up at 3 o’clock on the morning of the show to bake cakes.
Some women put their energies into knitting, crochet and needlework, while others focused on the floral section. Several women are recorded as having entered over 100 events each.
For children the show has long been one of the big days of the year. From the early 1900s they were encouraged to take part – some began very young, when they were entered in a baby show. Some children’s competitions had an educational spin. At Mangōnui in 1906, children provided a handwriting sample of the Lord’s Prayer and the fifth commandment (to ‘honour thy parents’). In the inter-war years schools got involved, and encouraged boys to grow carrots, and girls marigolds. Calf clubs were set up, and children showed their pet calves or lambs.
There were also classes for bird’s-egg collections and floral sand saucers, and from the 1940s, competitions for Highland dancing and girls’ marching – the latter is a competitive sport in Australia and New Zealand.
In 1920s ‘musical chairs’ competitions, couples would drive around the show-ring in cars. When the music stopped the drivers slammed on their brakes. The women threw open the doors and raced to a kerosene tin in the middle of the ring, daringly showing their knees.
In the 20th century, shows included a variety of competitions – some quite serious, such as the ‘Pastoral Queen’ contest for rural beauties. Others were primarily spectator entertainment – steer riding, catching the greasy pig, most on a pony, tug-of-wars or gumboot- and rolling pin-throwing. In the 1930s, Manawatū introduced chariot racing, which became very popular.
The winners always received a ribbon – red for first, blue for second, green for third and yellow for highly commended – and often a cash prize, usually sponsored by local businesses.
Horse jumping and competitive games at shows were increasingly performed as much for the spectators as for the participants. Grandstands were built around the show-ring from the early 1900s, and loudspeakers were introduced in the 1930s.
Entertainment events had begun even earlier. Brass bands and pipe bands often played at shows in the late 19th century. During the South African War, troopers displayed their prowess at marching and horse riding to enthusiastic applause. In 1920 at the Manawatū show, a plane looped the loop. In later years the Manawatū show had go-karts and police-dog displays, and in the 1970s the spectacle of ‘hell drivers’ crashing through walls of flame.
By the early 2000s such events were essential to a show’s success. The 2007 Waikato show included ‘rough riders’ doing dangerous stunts on horseback, armoured knights jousting, fire-eating and juggling, and a fireworks display. The Auckland Royal Easter Show offered the Cadbury Great Bunny Show and the Looney Tunes Loot Show – family fun for city kids.
Sideshow alleys appeared in the late 19th century – one was introduced at the Hawke’s Bay show in 1892. Emerging from entertainments like world’s fairs, sideshows were usually provided by travelling troupes that went from one rural show to another.
Fortune tellers, music halls and cinemas were popular in the early years. There were skittle games with prizes of plaster-of-paris dogs, and illicit gambling, such as games of crown and anchor. One popular attraction, usually advertised by a ‘leather-lunged gentleman’ hollering outside, was the ‘freaks’ – very fat people, or odd animals like fighting kangaroos or the Queensland ‘shoat’ (half sheep, half goat).
In 1897 Manawatū introduced a steam-driven merry-go-round, but these did not become universal until the late 1920s. There were soon chair-o-planes and eventually ferris wheels. The 1930s saw the arrival of exotic confectionery such as candy floss and brightly coloured popcorn. There were always rigged shooting galleys and ‘laughing clowns’ – moving plaster clowns' heads, in whose mouths the punters dropped balls.
The sideshows offered an exciting family time out for one special day a year.
As the shows focused on entertainment, their audience grew. Early shows had been attended by farmers who came, as W. H. Beetham wrote, ‘to look at each others stock and to have a yarn about matters agricultural and pastoral’ 1. As farmers’ wives and children were drawn in, the show became a gala day for which the whole community turned out. It became more ‘a show of people than a show of produce’. 2 Families would turn up in their gigs or cars and bring a picnic. Brick coppers were built to provide a steady supply of hot water for tea. At Hawke’s Bay, mothers could leave their babies at a Plunket building, and enjoy the fair. People dressed up for the occasion. The success of the show depended much on the weather – rain would bring a big decline in attendance. In the evening there was often a dance, or even a formal ball.
In 1902 it was decided that there would be no alcohol at the Gore show. But there were no parched palates, because the occasion was marked by heavy rain. The local newspaper described the show as both ‘wet and dry’. 3
Increasingly town and city people were attracted to shows. At first the promoters were largely the local farming élite – but as early as 1888 in Gore there were complaints about the lawyers, bankers, merchants and auctioneers who were joining. By the 1960s A & P associations were deliberately recruiting townsfolk as members.
City people began to come in their thousands for a day at the show. Some shows were extended to two or even three days. Show week was often timed to coincide with local race meetings, and ‘people’s days’ began when local businesses would close for a half-day. In Canterbury the provincial anniversary day was moved to the ‘people’s day’. Winter shows sprang up, with a more urban flavour and featuring industrial displays and home appliances. In the 1980s the Egmont show was described as ‘perhaps the greatest factor welding town and country people together’. 4 Shows close to the big cities had displays of wines and exotic foods.
As A & P shows became primarily entertainment, another type of event emerged. This was the field day – a display of new machinery and technology for the modern farmer, often demonstrated under working conditions. The idea developed in Australia after the Second World War, and began in New Zealand in 1953 with the South Island Agricultural Field Day.
The first South Island Agricultural Field Days were organised by the Christchurch District Young Farmers Clubs, but since 2003 have been run by a society. They are held in conjunction with Lincoln University, and the permanent site is on the university’s research farm. The biennial event alternates with the Southern Field Days, organised since 1982 by the Eastern Southland Young Farmers Club and held at Waimumu, near Gore.
The name of Mystery Creek, the site of the National Fieldays, is itself a mystery. One theory is that there was a murder there in the 19th century, but both the culprit and the policeman sent to track him disappeared. Others believe that a fully saddled and bridled horse was once found near the creek, but no rider ever appeared. A third view is that a captain in the New Zealand wars travelled along the creek on a horse named Mystery.
The North Island’s major field day is an annual event at Mystery Creek near Hamilton. The first New Zealand National Fieldays were held in 1969. They grew out of an attempt to expand the established Ruakura Farmers’ Week and the winter show. The A & P association was initially unhappy and insisted that there be no competitions for animals. Instead the aim was to bring manufacturers of agricultural products face-to-face with farmers – the coat and tie meets the bush shirt and the gumboot. Products had to have an agricultural focus.
Since 1971 the Fieldays have been held at their own property at Mystery Creek over four days in mid-June. Other ventures have been tried at Mystery Creek, including Farmworld, a geodesic dome with audiovisual displays set up in the late 1980s. But this failed and the Fieldays are the main business.
In the late 1970s over 50,000 attended, and in 2006 the Fieldays drew over 115,000 visitors and almost 1,000 exhibitors. Eighty per cent of the visitors are from farms, and only 20% are under 20 – very different from the local Waikato show, where half the visitors are children or teenagers. There are no sideshows at the Fieldays.
One feature of the Fieldays is the farmer invention competition, with a piece of No. 8 fencing wire as the prize. One competitor entered a goat as the ‘Caprine post peeler’, which was claimed to be ‘self motivated, produces mohair, meat, milk and reproduces’. 1
Other parts of New Zealand have now copied the field day format. There is a large annual event at Feilding in March, and a number of events cater for lifestyle farmers.
Bell, R. M. The history of the Hawke’s Bay Agricultural and Pastoral Society Inc., 1863–1983. Hastings: Hawke’s Bay Agricultural and Pastoral Society, 1984.
Hunt, Christine. 1893 onwards: reminiscences of Golden Bay A. & P. shows. Tākaka: Golden Bay A & P Association, 1980?
McCallum, Angus. A meeting of gentlemen on matters agricultural: the Masterton Show, 1871–1986. Masterton: Masterton Agricultural and Pastoral Association, 1986.
Thompson, Linda. Having a Fielday: reminiscences of 25 years at Mystery Creek: New Zealand National Fieldays Society. Hamilton: New Zealand National Fieldays Society, 1993.