Hinckley's fame in the last two centuries has been linked in large measure with the hosiery industry, but the origins of the town's prosperity were to be found in agriculture. The Hinckley Market of today, with its early medieval beginnings recorded in a previous article, would have been mainly concerned with the produce of the farmer. Names like the Horsefair record an event which many readers will still recall taking place in the town.
During the period known as 'the Golden Age of Agriculture' from 1846 to the mid 1870s, Hinckley was still a prominent agricultural centre. Like many agricultural towns with a thriving market it had a club for farmers which organised an annual agricultural show. Such an event is today still commemorated in the Bosworth Show which is a focal point for the Hinckley area at the beginning of July every year. In the 1850s the Hinckley Show was held in September, when hopefully the harvest had been safely gathered in. The catalogue for the show held on Wednesday and Thursday September 17th and 18th 1856 is a useful record of the prosperity and personalities of that age, and of the values upheld by the community which was the basis of support for 'the Sparkenhoe Farmers' Club'.
The one shilling catalogue, no small sum. for a labourer of those days with the Crimean War recently ended, listed the “Livestock, Poultry, Corn, Roots, Vegetables, Fruit and Flowers to be exhibited”. Also, in an age when ‘service’ was one of the largest areas of employment in the Kingdom, there was included. "A List of Premiums Awarded to Deserving Labourers, Servants etc.’. The patronage, so important to the success of the Show, included all the notable landowners of the area of "Ashby-de-la-Zouch, Hinckley, Atherstone, Market-Bosworth and Nuneaton'1. The President of the Sparkenhoe Farmers' Club, resident of Gopsall Hall, associate of royalty, was the Right Hon. the Earl Howe. Patrons included the Duke of Rutland of Belvoir Castle, the Earl Ferrers of Staunton Harold, Sir John Harpur Crewe, Bart. of Calke Abbey, Sir Alexander Dixie, Bart. of Bosworth Hall, C. N. Newdegate Esq. ,M. P. of Arbury Hall, and Major Wollaston of Shenton Hall. Hardly a local figure of note was omitted from the list of patrons which was completed with the blessing of the churches in the shape of Rev. Roberts? Rev. Greenway and Rev. Arkwright. The organising committee similarly included notable Hinckley personalities such as Messrs. Blakesley, Cotterell, McEwan, Pilgrim and Ward, with Pares1 Leicestershire Bank acting as Treasurer and Mr. Stephen Pilgrim as Honorary Secretary. In organisation the Show was largely a male preserve.
The events themselves were divided into numerous classes which recall an earlier age of labour-intensive horse-powered farming. Class 1 awarded a prize of £4 to the Member or Son of a Member who shall Plough in the straightest and best manner with a pair of horses abreast, without a driver, one-third of an acre of land, not less than five inches deep, within three hours'. Those competing were, ‘1. Mr. Joseph Grewcock of Stapleton; 2. Mr. John Webster of Peckleton; 3 Mr. John Mayne of Kirkby-Mallory; 4 Mr. Wm. Sheepy of Sketchley; 5 Mr. John Choyce of Harris Bridge.’ Other ploughing classes included ploughboys under fifteen years of age.
The competition for the 'Straightest Ridge of Two Furrows with a prize of ten shillings, was either too small or too difficult for there were no entries. Hedge cutting attracted fourteen entries for the prize of £2, ‘to the Labourer or Servant of a Member, who shall cut ten yards of Hedge and Ditch it in the best manner’.
In order to encourage sober and faithful service, various premiums were awarded to 'Labourers and Servants in Husbandry’. The first prize in Class 1, ‘to a male agricultural weekly servant or labourer who had worked without intermission on the same farm’ was awarded ‘to Richard Wallbank, Dordon; labourer to Messrs. Mallabey and Alkin for 43 years 9 months’. This period of time had seen the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the passing of the Great Reform Bill in 1832 and the coming of the Railway Age for the people of the 1850s were living at a time of unprecedented and rapid change.
Of particular interest were the awards made to men whose families had been raised without recourse to parish relief (the workhouse). It is interesting to see the encouragement given to the labourers to increase their progeny to provide yet more labour and also to note that it was husbands and not wives who received the award. At this point, the particular power of male chauvinism in the last century might spring to the mind of the reader! His Grace the Duke of Rutland gave a prize of £3 to John Moore of Barwell who had brought up a family of ‘six children under 12 years of age'!.
Certificates indicated that John Moore had not received poor relief and that he was not, nor had been, in debt. The Society itself awarded £2 to Joseph Bennett of Aston Flamville who had * eight children under 12 years of age, all born in wedlock and regularly sent to school where the authorised version of the scriptures is read’. This form of 'selective breeding' of the better type of labourer also extended to 'the Frame work-knitter, Ribbon weaver or Hatter, receiving weekly wages, and not occupying any land except a garden or gardens, together not exceeding one-third of an acre'’. The first prize of £3 was awarded to 'Charles Harrison, Nun eat on with 7 children, born in wedlock'. Needless to say with his numerous progeny Mr. Harrison to receive the prize had managed to remain free from the workhouse.
It is interesting to note that these records of human virtue, thrift and fruitfulness are directly followed by awards made 'To the Shepherd who shall... rear the greatest number of lambs from Leicester Ewes". The winner, in Class 8, was 'John Ceaney of Ibstock' for having reared 151 lambs from 101 ewes.
Against these premiums the list of exhibitors of ‘Live Stock and Produce appears in some ways less remarkable. The prizes are faithfully recorded class by class with particular mention being given to the feeding of stock on the latest nutritional supplies of linseed cake and bean meal. 'The best Fat Beast' would win a £5 prize, greater than the premiums awarded to human breeds already mentioned’. The list was headed by Right Hon. the Earl Howe of Gopsall Hall. His,' best Fat Beast, age 3 years and 4 months' had duly been carefully raised on his estate on Tin seed cake and bean meal. The aristocracy were certainly maintaining the standards of the landed interest. Other awards were for "'best Fat Cow, best Milch Cow, best Bull’. Mr. S.C. Pilgrim of Burbage figured most prominently in the entries as his post of Honorary Secretary warranted, being followed by names such as H.W.Des Voeux Esq. of Drakelow, and inevitably the Right Hon. the Earl Howe, Gopsall. Sheep and pigs were exhibited in Classes 10-20 and 21-15 with prizes between £3 and £1. Most of the exhibitors were local farmers but one animal listed in the entries for best Ram'. came from Bridgnorth in Shropshire. Mr .J. H. Ward of Hinckley was the exhibitor of three rams in this class. Pigs were less popular beasts but the exhibitors included the Baroness de Clifford of Kirkby Mallory with an entry in 'the best Boar, Class 22’. Horses of all varieties, some of which might later figure in the Horsefair, were exhibited with breeders sometimes listed and otherwise classed as unknown. The nobility were prominent sponsors of the horse classes. The Earl of Chesterfield, Earl Howe and Sir John Harpur Crewe all being noted as awarding prizes amounting up to five guineas. The Earl Howe also awarded a £3 prize for ‘the best 1 cwt. of cheese".
Male chauvinism was not complete in its entirety in the patronage of the Hinckley Show. 'Poultry, Pigeons, Rabbits, Corn, Roots, Vegetables, Fruit and Flowers ' were under the patronage of /The Countess Howe, The Countess Chesterfield, The Countess Ferrers, The Baroness de Clifford, Lady Curzon, Lady Dixie and the Ladies of the Neighbourhood’. A formidable array of feminine force'. Many of the entries were from the estates of these ladies and their husbands. The Rev. J. Fisher of Higham-on-the-Hill also showed a special aptitude for the breeding of poultry with five entries. The aristocratic ladies dominated the entry in Class 17, the Turkeys. 'Labourers Poultry' was predictably in a separate class with a first prize of ten shillings as opposed to £1 for the more elevated class of bird. Doubtless they were fed on a superior diet to 'Labouring birds’.
Corn, ten years after the effective repeal of the Corn Laws, was a flourishing aspect of the Show with twenty-three entries listed in the samples of 'the best Red Wheat’. Other categories of produce varied from, 'Class 42, six Parsnips, prize ten shillings’ to the last entry 'Class 59. For the best Bouquet exhibited by a Lady, a Prize for the value of 2 guineas’. Remarkably this last glittering prize in a golden age only claimed one entry, Mrs.Browell of Foleshill. One cannot but help feeling a certain nostalgia for the agrarian past of Hinckley with its aristocratic, class-conscious patrons, who stamped their image of excellence on an agricultural age which would soon be eclipsed by modern industry.
Author: Hugh Beavin
Written for: Hinckley Historian Magazine