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Down at the country show: Farming photography in the 20th century

Published: 28 May 2021

Delve into the agricultural achievements of the past and discover innovations in farming as you explore a rural corner of the Daily Herald Archive, filled with beautiful and intriguing photographs.

The Daily Herald Archive is a treasure trove of 20th-century photojournalism, and a fascinating record of both major events and daily life in decades past.

Here, our curators have delved into the section that deals with farming: the images show all aspects of farm life and work, with lots of surprises too! Some of our favourites were taken at agricultural shows. From beautiful bulls to charming chickens—down at the agricultural show, there’s plenty to see.

Large group of cows in a circle at a country show © TopFoto/SMG Images

What is the Daily Herald Archive?

The Daily Herald was a British national newspaper published between 1912 and 1964. At one point, it was the top-selling newspaper in the world, with a monthly circulation of more than 2 million.

Every photograph and negative taken for the newspaper was stored in a picture library, categorised and filed for easy access should they ever be needed again. This amazing collection—comprising 3.5 million photographs, contact sheets and glass negatives—is the Daily Herald Archive, which we now care for at the National Science and Media Museum here in Bradford.

This story is based on a selection of images from the archive.

The greatest show

The agricultural show has long been a key date in the country calendar. The earliest show, staged by the Salford Agricultural Society, was recorded in 1768. Today, agricultural, horticultural and country shows are held throughout the UK, drawing spectators in their thousands.

In both the past and the present, shows have brought rural communities together, providing what can be a rare opportunity for farmers to socialise and celebrate their achievements. Shows are a chance to swap news and ideas and see the latest technical and scientific innovations. Even city-dwellers can join the fun—country shows are the perfect place to learn more about rural life and food production.

The greatest show - gallery

The Daily Herald’s photographers didn’t just capture images of the goings-on at country shows—the archive also contains some surprising images showing how attendees, both human and animal, made their way there!

In it to win it

Competition has always been a major feature of any agricultural show. From ‘best ploughing’ to ‘heaviest cabbage’, winning that coveted rosette means an incredible amount for the winner, as well as their friends, family and wider community.

The competitions are wide-ranging, with categories open to children and amateur enthusiasts as well as the seasoned professional. You’re sure to see homemade goods such as jam, cheese and even quilts.

In it to win it - gallery

However, it’s the prized and beloved animals that take star billing. The country show is where the best pigs, horses and cows, along with their proud owners, really get to strut their stuff.

Aerial view of country show, showing a line of horses and carts © TopFoto/SMG Images

Raising a champion sow or steer takes years of hard work and expertise. Winning ‘best in show’ can be financially rewarding, with the finest livestock fetching high prices. However, even those born to near perfection require those final flourishes...

We are the champions!

During the lifespan of the Daily Herald, prizewinning animals would often be immortalised in photographs and news reports; the Daily Herald Archive contains plenty of examples. Some winners were pictured with their owners, while celebrities posed alongside others. Reports often concentrated on animals with a particularly remarkable achievement or unusual trait.

We are the champions - gallery

It’s the taking part that counts

The Herald’s photographers didn’t just capture winners. The image below shows 10-year-old Ashley Paine with his much-loved pet, ‘Phantom of Prinkwash’. Unfortunately, the pair didn’t win any prizes at the 1948 Three Counties Show, Gloucester—but at just six months old, the imaginatively-named pooch would have plenty of time to try again.

A young boy sitting on grass with a small white dog © Mirrorpix/SMG Images
Ashley Paine and ‘Phantom of Prinkwash’ at the 1948 Three Counties Show, Gloucester

Science on show

As well as homemade produce and exceptional examples of livestock, country shows are also places where farmers can see and try out new scientific and technological developments designed to make agricultural processes easier.

When the Daily Herald reported on the 1963 Smithfield Show, the headline ran: ‘Science and Fluffy steal the show’. ‘Fluffy’, whose official name was ‘Everest Perthshire Queen’, was the Shorthorn heifer to win the accolade of ‘prettiest beef’. Alongside Fluffy, the latest farming innovations were on display.

The technological wonders included a tractor with a coupe hood and a machine that simultaneously picked and topped carrots. There was also a ‘mechanical sow’ to feed piglets, allowing the mother to breed again as soon as possible. These new inventions heralded a time of further mechanisation to meet changing demands on food production.

Daily Herald report on country show titled 'Science and Fluffy steal the show' Image © Reach PLC. Image created courtesy of the British Library Board
Article from page 10 of the Daily Herald, Tuesday 3 December 1963

The factory, the university and the stock exchange have taken over... Judging rings where white-coated stockmen and carefully brushed cattle kicked up the sawdust were forsaken for the wonders of the trade stands.

Daily Herald (23 December 1963)

Young woman plaiting cow's tail © Mirrorpix/SMG Images
Peggy Gooch plaiting the tail of Jersey cow ‘Stumble Georgina’ the night before judging at the 1949 Olympia Dairy Show

The annual Dairy Show was established by the Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers (RADBF) in 1876 and was held at Olympia until 1974. Today the RADBF continues to support and promote the dairy industry through a number of events held throughout the year—including ‘Dairy-Tech’, which focuses on scientific innovations.

The images on this page are taken from the ‘Industry’ section of the Daily Herald Archive, which includes other subtopics like farming and agriculture. Country shows—huge events with many potentially newsworthy stories to be told—were naturally well-represented. However, the archive includes many other types of farming photography, representing areas including country life, animals at work and lesser-seen aspects of farming.

The agricultural show must go on

Through the amazing photographs in the Daily Herald Archive we can appreciate the agricultural achievements of the past—but country shows continue to be extremely important. Bringing rural and urban communities together, they are an opportunity to learn about an industry that affects us all.

Food production, both animal- and plant-based, is a feature of our daily lives; how it is produced and where it comes from is more important today than ever. As we try to lead greener, healthier lives, the agricultural show is perhaps an event to add to all our diaries.

Young woman feeding pig © TopFoto/SMG Images
Land Settlement Association: ‘Joan also helps feed the pigs’. Photo by Saidman, 1944

Further reading