History/Looking back at Frome’s greatest show

The Frome Cheese Show has its roots in a quieter, bygone age

EVERY second Saturday in September Frome residents — and those from further afield —have a very special agricultural and cheese show to enjoy. The fixture never fails to create a buzz — offering myriad attractions, classes, tradestands and opportunities for a fantastic day out for friends, families and business people. What makes the show particularly special, though, is its history. For more than a century and a half, local people have been exhibiting their home-made cheese at the Frome Cheese Show. Almost every year since its inception (apart from the war years) the show has expanded, moved, changed and adapted itself to the changing needs of its audience and valued customers. Today it is an almost unrecognisable leviathan, compared to its foundation in a slower and more gentle age, as its former chairman Philip Cary reports. 

THE EARLY YEARS (1861-1920)

Sadly very few details from the early years of the Frome Agricultural & Cheese Show survive, but, according to local historian Michael MacGarvie, an agricultural society existed in 1835. We do know that on 21 January 1861, H Crees placed an advert in the Somerset & Wilts Journal calling for a meeting. A society was subsequently formed and a show was held that autumn. Despite drenching storms, a vast crowd of 2,000-3,000 people attended. After the fair, 230 sat down to dinner at 4.30pm in the Mechanics’ Hall.

From these happy beginnings, and doubtless building on the success of the weekly Wednesday market, Frome Show quickly became popular and almost as swiftly diversified to include elements other than Cheddar cheese and dairy products, although these have always been at the heart of the show.

The show’s early success was probably due in no small part to the rise in the number of dairy cows, coupled with the need to sell a large amount of cheese, the encouragement by the landlords (such as Lord Bath) because high cheese prices meant higher rents, plus, of course, the coming of the railways in the 1850s. These new lines of communication opened up opportunities to sell fresh milk in London, while the excess milk produced in the summer months was converted and made into farmhouse Cheddar cheese. Small farmers were able to deal with the hand milking of a few cows and the selling of liquid milk produced a cash income for them. The butter and cream also provided by-products for pigs and poultry. 

The cheesemaker was usually the lady of the household, and her skills and knowledge were important to the farmer. Most of these farmers were tenants of local landlords, including the Marquis of Bath, Duke of Somerset, Earl of Cork and Orrery, Earl of Oxford at Mells, Lord Hilton of Ammerdown and the Duckworths (who had recently acquired Orchardleigh), all of whom realised the importance of the revenue from farm produce. Of course they had considerable clout and were very happy to be involved in helping to organise the Frome Show. They anticipated the prestige (and higher prices) that came with winning a first prize.

One document that does remain tells us about the prizes and awards on offer at the 1864 show. This now hangs in the Show Office, but it was originally displayed in the window of local auctioneer Coles & Bastin. C Harding, the show secretary back then, was an auctioneer with them. The show was then called the ‘Annual Exhibition of Frome Agricultural Society’. It illustrates just how quickly it had diversified to include livestock, cows, bulls, sheep, horse and pigs, as well as roots and poultry. There were even awards to servants for various farm duties.

A photograph of the Old Market Place Show, taken from the new Frome to Radstock railway line, shows the way the show had expanded to include Singers Field. It clearly shows West End. In relatively recent times this was the site of the Singer factory, but today there are houses on the site. 

Following on from the success of the Frome Show and Livestock Market, the Frome Market Company was formed. It decided to build a market hall in 1875, and this is now the Cheese and Grain building, home to a fantastic array of events today. 

Returning to the late 1800s, business was booming in Frome, but then importation from the colonies began and a recession started. Lives and finances were further destroyed by the onset of World War 1 in 1914. 

Things started well, too, in the Market Hall. The idea of farmers bringing their cheese in at ground floor level using wagons and after the produce had been sold using the lift to move the cheeses up to the railway at the rear of the building worked well. This lasted until the building was commandeered for munitions during World War I. It would never be returned to its original use.

THE MIDDLE YEARS (1920-1998)

All festivities ceased during the cataclysmic years of World War I, while in 1920 the society, due to its show’s continued expansion, decided to purchase its own land between Frome and Clink. The money was raised by Debenture holders who acted as a sort of benevolent landlord. The society continued to purchase more land as the years went by.

When World War II broke out in 1939, the Cheese Show once again found itself cancelled and no fixtures were held during the war years. It was revived again in 1946 with Arthur Duckworth as the first president. The Debenture holders were paid off in 1947. Gradually the skills of hedging, thatching, ploughing and root growing, all of which had been so encouraged before the war, were fazed out, or, as in the case of ploughing, taken over by another society (Frome Ploughing Society). The post war years must have proved very popular and profitable as the debts were all paid off and a reserve built up.

The next major event came in 1972 — the year event rider Bridget Parker paraded with her Munich Olympic team gold medal hanging around her neck — when the grandstand burnt down. It had survived the move from Singers Field in the old market area and had lasted another 52 years. 

The Society, together with Frome Cricket Club and Frome Rugby Club, drew up a grand plan to replace the old wooden pavilion with a fine grandstand with a pavilion and club room and show offices below. While this proved too costly in reality, the current pavilion/function room and show office were built in 1975, almost 100 years after the first Market Hall. 

Concerned that the show field might be compulsorily purchased, developed and built on, the committee decided to lease it to Mendip District Council for 11 months of each year, for 40 years, the society taking back the field for the month of September.

THE PRESENT DAY (1999-2016)

For many years, the Cheese Show carried such clout that all schools and factories in the town would shut their doors for Wednesday show day. This would always be followed by Frome Carnival on the Saturday, giving the town a fantastically festive week. 

There were many successful shows on Wednesdays, but the problems of traffic and parking space getting ever tighter began to emerge. These issues, coupled with the problems of vandalism to tents and people entering without paying, led the committee to consider an out of town site. 

When 50 acres of land at Bunns Lane came up for auction in April 1999 the society was quick to seize the opportunity to buy it, and thanks to a very kind bank manager a mortgage was arranged. 

Many local residents were upset that the show was no longer on their doorstep. On the new site, the society quickly had to install entrances, roads, power and water supplies. Looking back, there is no doubt that some of those early Bunns Lane shows were a bit chaotic.  

After several years of delicate negotiation, seven acres of the Rodden Road site were sold off in 2006, relieving the acute financial position of the show. This area now houses Frome Hospital.

The sale of the land enabled further investment in the new show field and a new office and store were built, while more land was purchased. 

The society now owns 70 acres at Bunns Lane, but such is the size of the show today that further land still needs to be rented on show day for parking. 

Two further big changes were moving show day from the Wednesday to the Saturday and bringing the date forward to the second Saturday in September, with its likely better weather. The emphasis of the show has also changed. It is now very much a ‘country meets town’ type of event and while many people enjoy competing in the various sections, the message of educating and entertaining the wider public has been taken on board. That the show has now reached a plateau of excellence for the 21st century, is demonstrated by its incredible diversity — the huge cheese marquee, the Livestock Village, the largest one-day cattle show in the country, food halls, the home & handicraft and horticulture marquees, the Village Green, with its incredible entertainment, rural pursuits area, the main ring with its day long programme of mainly equestrian classes, plus a huge and diverse range of quality tradestands. What more could anyone want?

The cheese section has now even gone Global, with the Global Cheese Awards trade show taking place on the Thursday prior to the Saturday show and showcasing  myriad varieties of cheese from all over the world. Those 19th century Somerset cheesemakers would be amazed.  

A final note from Philip Cary 

“I am proud of my family’s association with the Frome Agricultural & Cheese Show. A poster for the 1864 show shows a Mr Hill, Mr White and Mr Cary as cheese judges and I would maintain that Mr Cary was a relation. He could have been my grandfather’s great grandfather, John Cary.. My grandfather Edwin Cary was chairman of the show from 1927-1947. My father was chairman from 1958-1977, while I have been associated with the show for 60 years, as my father had me helping to bolt pig pens together in the 1950s. I took on the chairmanship for five years in 2001, just after the big move to Bunns Lane. Paul Cary, my nephew, is now chairman of the Fodder & Grain section and vice-chairman of the executive committee. Looking to the future, he may one day follow in my footsteps.”