The Bath & West

A short history


Distilled from
The Bath & West: a bi-centenary history
by Kenneth Hudson


Revised with a new preface



Royal Bath & West of England Society


This revision, comprising the text of the original Short History as published in 1982, with a new preface for 2010, was edited and updated by Katy Jordan, Allen Cotton and Philip Bryant for the RBWES.




This Short History of the Royal Bath & West Society was distilled from Kenneth Hudson's book The Bath & West: a bicentenary history, which was published in 1976 by the Moonraker Press, in readiness for the Society's Bicentenary in 1977. The Short History is republished in this revised form, with a new preface which includes further historical updates, bringing it fully into the 21st century.

The Society never forgets its origins and heritage, and possesses an excellent collection of historical books and archival materials which are in the joint care and custody of the Honorary Archivist and Honorary Librarian. Anyone interested in accessing the library or archives should contact the Librarian or Archivist to arrange a visit. Both collections are in the City of Bath: more details are on the University of Bath Library's website at www.bath.ac.uk/library/about/collections/bathandwest/

Similarly, the Society is proud of its Royal patronage, and maintains active links with members of the Royal Family. Nowhere has this been more in evidence than during its immensely successful Bicentenary celebrations. The Show President that year was HRH The Prince of Wales. Links were further strengthened in 1980-81 when HRH The Duke of Edinburgh took the Presidency. In March 1981 he became the first member of the Royal Family to chair a Council meeting, and followed this with two days at the Show. This coincided with his Presidency of the Royal Agricultural Society of the Commonwealth, which held its biennial conference at Bath Guildhall the week after the Show and for which the Society arranged an exhibition. Over seventy Commonwealth delegates attended the conference and, as part of their programme, paid a visit to the Show, where the President hosted an evening reception for them. In more recent years, HRH the Princess Royal was President in 1986, HRH the Duke of Gloucester held the Presidency in 2002, and HRH the Countess of Wessex has accepted the invitation to be President of the Society in 2010.

The permanent Showground, acquired in 1965, is under a constant steady process of development with in excess of 71,000 square feet of undercover exhibition space, available for use throughout the year. There is ample parking on site for all types of vehicle. Permanent catering on-site can easily be supplemented by a broad range of mobile and additional catering facilities, brought in when required. Further development of the site is under active consideration at the time of writing, with the aim of improving building standards & site facilities bringing it up to national exhibition standards. If all goes ahead as planned, this will give the West Country a major exhibition space and transform the Showground into a worthy competitor with the National Exhibition Centre at Birmingham.

Since the period covered by Kenneth Hudson's book, the Society has continued to develop and evolve to suit the changing needs of the rural, agricultural and business communities that it serves. To that end it continues the well-established and popular practice of organising shows and other events during the course of the year. The first, and best known, is the Bath & West Show itself, running from Wednesday to Saturday on the week following the Spring Bank Holiday. On the first Wednesday in October is the Dairy Show, first launched in 1981. with its associated South West Dairy Farmer of the Year competition, and the Dairy Industry Dinner. The triennial Grassland UK event is held both on the Showground and on neighbouring farmland. Other Society-run events include various seminars and conferences, aimed at the encouragement of innovative practice and awareness of environmental issues. Similarly, the Rural Business Development Awards, have promoted and encouraged farm diversification, best building, rural business and a sense of community.

Parallel with these Society events, the Bath & West's Trading Company enables any organization to book the Showground facilities, so that it plays host to a very wide range of events. The National Amateur Gardening Show has been held at the Showground for more than 10 years; while other regular events include antique fairs, car, motorcycle and homebuilding shows, equine fairs and faith rallies. As Kenneth Hudson envisaged, the Society is putting much more emphasis on outside events - as it must do to survive in today's economic climate.

But through all the changes it has seen in well over 200 years, the Society has never lost sight of its original aims, as noted by those "several gentlemen" who met in Bath in the autumn of 1777: that the Society should encourage "Agriculture, Arts, Manufactures and Commerce" in the counties of the West of England. Only the methods adapt to suit changing times; our aims and focus remain unchanged, our link with our founders still strong and unbroken.

Katy Jordan
Allen Cotton
Philip Bryant


In the Autumn season of the year 1777, several gentlemen met at the City of Bath, and formed a Society for the encouragement of Agriculture, Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. in the Counties of Somerset, Wilts, Gloucester, and Dorset, and in the City and County of Bristol.

The meeting, at York House, was attended by twenty-two people. Among them were Edmund Rack, the Society's first Secretary, William Matthews, who succeeded him, and Dr. Falconer, Fellow of the Royal Society, and Physician to the General (now the Royal United) Hospital in Bath. None of the twenty-two had any direct connexion with farming.

In November 1777, a much larger group of people than had assembled at York House two months earlier elected the principal officers of the Society, including the Earl of Ilchester as President. The founding fathers were very local - Lord Ilchester was the only prominent county member - and this fact was emphasised by the original title of the Society. It was the Bath Society and it was thirteen years before it widened its horizons and became the Bath and West of England Society. The original group was gradually supplemented and strengthened by the addition of people of greater influence and expertise, men like Arthur Young, Dr. Priestley, the chemist, and Thomas Curtis, the botanist. Lord Ilchester, incidentally, was not a particularly assiduous President. After two years he expressed a desire to resign. The offer was accepted and the Chairman wrote to the noble earl accordingly, at the same time ‘requesting that his Lordship would pay his subscription'.

At the first General Meeting, the Society set out its aims:
To promote the good of the community by the encouragement of industry and ingenuity to excite a spirit of enquiry which may lead to improvements not yet known
- and to bring speculation and theory to the test of accurate experiment, are the grand ends intended by the present laudable and honourable institution.

A desire to introduce into the western counties those obvious advantages which the public have reaped in the several parts of this kingdom, where societies of a similar kind have been formed, first excited the idea of the present establishment, in support of which the spirit of true patriotism has distinguished itself with unexampled ardor.

The annual subscription was to be not less than One Guinea, with life membership at 12 guineas, and a system of premiums, or prizes, was to be instituted, 'directed to Improvements in Agriculture, Planting, and such Manufactures as are best adapted to these Counties.'

The Secretary was paid 50 guineas a year, together with £30 for the use of rooms in his house and for 'Furniture, Fire and Candles'. A library was started, with the purchase of sixteen books. Seven of them are still in the Society's library today.

The improvements and inventions for which premiums were offered ranged from 'destroying the fly on turnips' to 'making writing paper without rags', and from 'securing boots and shoes from imbibing wet' to growing rhubarb for medicinal purposes. There were also premiums awarded to farm workers for 'long and faithful servitude'.

In 1780 the Society began the publication of an annual volume of reports, essays. and correspondence, its Letters and Papers, in an attempt to bring farmers in the West of England into contact with the most up-to-date and most effective methods. One is struck again and again by the excellent balance of each volume. Technical and practical articles are judiciously mixed with others with a social or political emphasis, and the refreshing eighteenth-century habit of calling a spade a spade gives an attractive flavour to these old volumes and makes them very good reading even today. It is enjoyable to find Mordaunt Martin expressing a low opinion of the people he employed to hoe his mangolds, ‘women who ran home for every shower, and staid there if they saw a cloud'; and Dr. Fothergill's belief that tea-drinking led women on to alcoholism is expressed in an equally forthright fashion.

The first Secretary, Edmund Rack, died in 1781, and the new Secretary, William Matthews, combined his duties with the running of a business supplying seeds, implements and machinery. He remained in office for ten years. During that time, stockbreeding and the improvement of rural housing conditions began to occupy an increasing amount of the Society's attention. The Society regarded the re-housing of farm workers as a matter which deserved a very high priority. This was emphasised by a new premium, offered for the first time in 1801. It was for the landowner who could show that he had built ‘the greatest number of cheap durable and comfortable cottages, in proportion to the extent of his estate, for poor industrious Labourers to inhabit and who shall annex a portion of land not less than ¼ of an acre to each cottage.'

The next Secretary, Nehemiah Bartley, a Bristol nurseryman, was not a success and was soon asked to resign. His offence was muddled administration, referred to by one critic as ‘Indolence and Incapability'. Publication of the Letters and Papers had languished, its finances were in disorder and membership had fallen away. The next two Secretaries, Robert Ricards, a print-seller and stationer, and Benjamin Leigh Lye, a retired Army officer, had to deal with a difficult situation, caused partly by mismanagement and partly by a serious agricultural depression, but a number of useful innovations were established, including the setting up of a chemical laboratory, and an annual show in King's Mead Square, Bath. The Society's income steadily declined, however, and by the middle of the 19th century, with the fading away of interest and support, there was a real possibility that the venture which had begun in such a promising fashion seventy years earlier would have to be brought to an end.

The situation was saved by a number of administrative changes introduced at the Annual Meeting of 1849. There was a new committee system and a big effort to secure new members, especially from industry and commerce. Within two years, a very marked improvement had taken place in the Society's affairs. In 1851 a merger with the Devon County Agricultural Society was arranged and in 1853 the fact that the Society had taken on a new lease of life was emphasised by the publication of the first of a new series of Journals.
A network of 24 Correspondents was set up, 12 in the Eastern District and 12 in the Western. These had promised ‘to use their influence in extending a knowledge of the Society and increasing its income. They have been authorized to receive subscriptions. It is much to be desired that a local correspondent should be found in or near every market-town, as the punctual collection of subscriptions is one of the most urgent necessities, and, unhappily, one of the greatest difficulties of Agricultural Societies.'

Most important of all, the decision was taken to take the Annual Meeting away from Bath and to hold it each year in a different town within the Society's area, combined with a Show of machinery and livestock. The first of these peripatetic Shows was at Taunton, which contributed £200 towards the expenses. This would have been impossible before the construction of a railway network, to bring people, stock and machinery to the Show. Railways changed the basis of the Society's operation.

The Society's revival was due to a large extent to the energy and ideas of a member of one of the largest landowning families in Devon, Sir Thomas Dyke Acland. Acland lost his seat in Parliament in 1846, by voting against the repeal of the Corn Laws. He was out of Parliament for eighteen years and during that time he took a very active part in the affairs of the Society, including editing the Journal for seven years. He was tireless in insisting that a farmer with no scientific knowledge was working half-blind and with one arm tied behind his back. He took a keen and discriminatory interest in contemporary art and artists. It is not surprising, therefore, that technology was strongly featured at the Annual Show and that there should have been an Arts and Manufactures section; which gave visitors to the Show an opportunity to see, quite possibly for the first time in their lives, a collection of good paintings and sculpture, together with examples of the best contemporary industrial designs.

Another of Acland's achievements was to secure the appointment of a very remarkable man, Dr. Augustus Voelcker, as the Society's Consultant Chemist. Voelcker was Professor of Chemistry at the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester. He carried out his work for the Society with great devotion, analyzing samples of soil and fertiliser, writing long articles for the Journal - those on cheese-making were particularly valuable - and giving many popular lectures each year throughout the Society's area.

In 1859, Josiah Goodwin, a journalist, took over as editor of the Society's Journal and continued in this role until his death in 1889, combining it between 1866-82 with the role of Secretary. Under Goodwin's expert and not ill-rewarded guidance - by 1863 he was being paid £105 a year, £5 more than the Secretary of the time, H. St.J. Maule - the Journal became a publication of real importance, reflecting the full range of activities in the agricultural field. For those with the time to spare, these volumes of the 1860s and 1870s make excellent reading. One can dip into any one of them and discover a great deal of interesting information, well written-up and presented. It devoted a great deal of attention to the dairying industry, which was developing rapidly, mainly in order to supply the profitable London market.

The Society entered its second century with 1,033 members and £10,000 invested in Government stock, a very different situation from twenty-five years earlier. A merger with the Southern Counties Association had been arranged in 1868 and, after a hundred years of fluctuating fortunes, the Bath and West was now unquestionably the strongest local society in Britain. At the Centenary Meeting in Bath. the Secretary, Josiah Goodwin, said, ‘The founders of the Society were among the first, if not the very first, to promote the welfare of the English people by a systematic co-operation between the tillers of the soil and the cultivators of literature, art and science. They recognised the intimate connection between agriculture, manufactures, and commerce. They took the trouble to inquire into facts in various parts of the British dominions; they recorded the experience of practical farmers; they endeavoured, according to the knowledge of those days, to dive into the principles of nature, and illustrate facts and experience by science.'

The retirement of Josiah Goodwin from the Secretaryship in 1882, because of ill health, led the Society to advertise for a successor. They had, as a result, 1,073 applications, of which they eventually examined the testimonials of 340, and from the 340 they chose Thomas Plowman, who had been Secretary of the Oxford Society for the past fifteen years.

Plowman took a very active part in the life of Bath. He was a member of the Council for many years, graduating eventually to Alderman and Mayor. He was a magistrate, and a member of the Bath School Board. He was a hardworking and popular member of the Bath Literary and Philosophical Society. He saw clearly that the old concept of the Show, as something primarily intended for country people, would have to go. The number of people earning a living from the land was getting smaller each year, and, as a result, shows had to be attractive to townspeople if they were to pay their way. Plowman understood very well that the best way to get the general public interested in agricultural matters was to provide an opportunity to see farming operations in action. One of the Society's most successful developments of this kind was the Working Dairy. This had been pioneered in 1880 by the Royal Agricultural Society at their Carlisle Show and in the following year, at their Show in Tunbridge Wells, the Bath and West Society embarked on a similar but larger venture, using the most up-to-date equipment then on the market.

After the success of these demonstrations at the Annual Show, the Society developed a system of butter and cheese-making schools during the summer months. The farms were very carefully selected and pupils lived in during the course.

The fundamental problem which the Society has had to face for a hundred years and more is: 'How does a provincial society do useful and necessary work without duplicating the programme of a national society? And how does it stay solvent in the process?'

By the end of the nineteenth century, the answers to both these questions had become fairly plain. The Bath and West would continue to make sense by specialising in those branches of agriculture and horticulture which were of particular importance to the region, by digesting the results of nationally-based research and passing these on to Members, by crusading on behalf of both popular and unpopular causes, and by nursing promising local experiments until they were big enough to support themselves and to find sufficient finance and encouragement from other sources.

On the whole, the Bath and West has done all these things rather well. A glance through the file of the Journal, which came to an end with the outbreak of war in 1939, will show authoritative articles on, for example, silage-making, incubators, the need for uniform quality in bacon, cheese and butter, all written when these developments were still in the pioneering stage. During the 1914-18 war it produced a series of cheap, easy-to-understand pamphlets which were the forerunners of those published by the Ministry of Agriculture during the 1920s and 1930s. During the 1939-45 war a similar series was published by the Society as its 'Wartime Pamphlets'. It supported the National Fruit and Cider Institute at Ashton Court during its early stages and helped it to grow into the Research Station of the University of Bristol. It did everything possible to help the agricultural community to survive the depressed conditions of the inter-war period.

By 1951, however, it had become evident that membership was declining rather than increasing, and that steadily rising costs made it essential to re-plan the way the Society was running its affairs. In 1964 the public learnt that the days of the peripatetic show were over and that from 1965 onwards there was to be a permanent showground of 200 acres of flat ground near Shepton Mallet. With the move to Shepton Mallet, and the considerable investment involved, the Society was compelled to face the fact that it was running a large business and that its traditional form of organisation and management was no longer adequate. A Board of Management, elected by the Council, was set up to manage the overall affairs of the Society and a Capital Fund established to provide the money for more profitable operations. In 1966 the Board's Chairman, Sir Gerald Beadle, pointed out that it would be ‘bad business and bad public policy to occupy these magnificent two hundred acres permanently with nothing in mind but a four-day annual Show. We can't farm it in the proper sense because we need it for the Show at the height of the farming year. To use it merely as a sheep ranch would be wasteful. We must devise and encourage suitable and profitable uses for the Showground all the year round.'
The future of the Society points unmistakably that way