A Big Crowd Today Is Trifling In Comparison (26 July 1974)
Today, when I read there has been a “big crowd” at this or that local event, I wonder if it is generally realised what a big crowd really is in local terms. I have never seen a figure actually stated for a local event in recent years. I guess, however, that a figure of 5,000 would be considered high. And, as all old Bletchley people know, that would be trifling compared with many of the attendances at the former Bletchley August Monday shows.
Several times the attendances at that annual event topped 10,000, culminating in 1937 with a record of 16,000 admission tickets sold. Today the population of Bletchley is about 40,000. In 1937 it was only about 7,500. Clearly the big majority of show visitors were attracted from outside the town. So how were those remarkable results achieved?
The origins of the show are lost in the mists of time. It is known that from the 1860’s combined sports meetings and produce shows were held annually on August Bank Holiday Mondays. In those days the venue was the long-since built-over Fenny Stratford vicarage paddock. Later the venue was changed to the Leon recreation ground.
It was not until 1910, however, that a real effort was made to establish the show as something more than a small-town affair. On April 10 of that year a meeting was held “by invitation” at the Bletchley Council Offices. Dr. C.J. Deynes presided, about 50 people attended, and it was unanimously resolved “that in the opinion of this meeting the time has arrived when a determined effort should be made to establish a Horticultural Society in the district.”
It was also decided that, if possible, the new society should hold a show on the following August Monday and that Mr. Robert(sic) S. Leon should be asked for the use of Bletchley Park.
Mr Leon allowed the use of the park. He gave the committee a free hand concerning the running of a horticultural show, athletics and horse-riding. Furthermore, he undertook to be responsible for any loss sustained in the show’s first year. The only thing he barred was the sale of intoxicating liquor. The already-existing Bletchley Allotments Society also co-operated.
The show could hardly have had a more promising beginning, for although it was then confined to horticulture, athletics and horses, the beautiful grounds alone were a great attraction.
The first show made a very small two-figure loss, but £375 was taken at the gate and subscriptions and special prizes brought the total income to £572. The idea seemed to have caught on.
The following year resulted in a credit balance of £9 11s 5d. Then, in 1912, Mr Herbert Leon became Sir Henry(sic) Leon, Bart, more guarantors were obtained, over £415 was taken at the gate, a profit of £110 was achieved and the show was on its feet.
In 1913 gate money soared to £516, with a profit of £126. The 1914 show, however, was held in the shadow of the beginning of the 1914-18 war. Gate money fell to £316 and a loss of £101 was sustained.
The show was resumed in 1920 and almost immediately its greatest days – the days when it became the “finest one-day show in the Midlands” began.
The show grew rapidly in variety and stature. To horticulture, athletics and horse-riding, sections for sheep dog trials, fur and feather exhibitions, fire brigade contests, tennis tournaments, etc., were added one by one.
The 1926 show attracted 7,000 people: profit £81. In 1927 about 12,000 paid at the gate: profit £415.
By 1926, the society’s capital assets topped £1,000 for the first time. Sir Herbert died, but Lady Leon assured the society of her continued interest.
In 1929 over 14,000 attended, but in 1932 and 1933, in spite of record “gates,” there were losses of £154 and £155 respectively and the balance was down to £641.
During the whole of that era between the wars the organisers lived in the shadow of the two bogies that were to lead to the eventual and final collapse of the shows. One was wet days. The other was a surprising lack of support from the mass of the purely local population.
Thus in 1935 there were only 169 local subscribers in a population of 7,000. It was agreed that the show was giving more than the public could absorb in a single day. Classes were cut. Yet 1935 made £382 and 1936 £393.
In 1936, Lady Leon died and Sir George Leon had to be persuaded at a fairly late hour to allow the 1937 show to continue at the park. That year saw the all-time record of 16,000 admission tickets sold.
Few could have expected that that would be the last August Show the horticultural society would ever hold. Such was the case, however. In 1938 the park passed into other ownership and the society agreed it could not carry on with a show that year. Then came the upheaval of the 1939-45 war.
Meanwhile, the new Bletchley Town Sports Club had been formed and hoped to take over the new but as yet undeveloped Manor Fields sports ground as tenants of the council and also to run an August Show in the event of no action by the horticultural society.
To cut a long story short, the sports club held what they called an August Monday Gala at the park cricket field in 1947 which attracted 4,000 people. Eventually the club began to hold shows at Manor Fields. The society closed down and left the residue of their balance to the club after making certain disbursements.
In 1951 only bad weather insurance saved the club from making a big loss on its show. In 1953 over 8,000 people attended. But that was the peak of the post-war shows. In 1954 the attendance was down to 3,500 and in 1956 bad weather brought it down to 2,000. The end of the shows was in sight.
The club were (sic) in financial straits. It was decided that the financial returns from the shows were not worth the risks and the enormous amount of work entailed. What had been the finest one-day show in the Midlands ingloriously fizzled out. But Its attendance records remain unapproached to this day.