The Show that Hitler couldn’t close

1936 was quite a year for our country. A King died, his successor abdicated and a third King took the throne. Jesse Owens showed Hitler that ‘Black Lives Matter’ in the Olympics in Berlin. Crystal Palace was destroyed by fire and, overseas, Franklin Roosevelt was re-elected as President of the USA.

Quite a year

But in Long Marston, momentous events were also taking place that were to impact the lives of local people for many years to come. A meeting was held to launch what was to become the Long Marston Village Show.

On Friday 21st of February, 29 citizens met in the Parish Hall and agreed to join together and run the ‘Long Marston and Puttenham Flower and Vegetable Show’.

Quite a book

I found this out when interviewing Alan and David Winfield who I thought might be able to share some of their village show memories. It was a bonus when they brought along a small exercise book in which was recorded the minutes of that first meeting and every meeting held until the last entry in February 1946. David found the book among a number of old documents and thinks that it must have been kept by his late grandfather Joe Chandler.

Chandler is one of a number of local families that are featured in those first few years of the show’s development; Southernwood (Chairman), Chapman (Treasurer), Gregory, Mead, Reed, Rodwell are among the names that feature, some with multiple family members.

That first meeting was rather ambitious in its nomination (in their absence) of vice-presidents including Lord Rosebery and Lord Rothschild who seemed later to fail to respond to the call. But local MP Sir John Davison and local vicar the Reverend Anthony did accept.

Quite a prize

That first event was held in Long Marston School and the committee was charged seven shillings and sixpence (37.5p) for rent. It had many of the features of the shows that we have come to love and quite a few that we are unlikely to see.

The feature that we are (hopefully) most unlikely to see – and which caused the Winfields and me much amusement – was the special prize donated by John Chapman for the person who gained most points in the flower displays, a FREE LOAD OF MANURE.

Less generous prizes for specific displays were donated by Tring businesses – Freemans Chemists donated 5 shillings and Johnsons Hardware 3 shillings (25p and 15p). However you had to pay for the privilege of competing and the entry fee was one old penny (0.4p)

The funding for the show was not mainly through entry fees; from the minutes of the meetings it seems that Whist Drives were the main source of finance to get things going.

Quite a competition

Right from the beginning, this was intended to be more than just a flower and vegetable show. There were to be sports events and there were attempts to provide more generous prizes. The minutes contain a fierce battle of motions between Southernwood and Chandler, pushing down Chandler’s attempt to provide a prize fund of £5 and limiting it to only £4.

Even more innovative was the proposal for a ‘Carnival Parade’ with special prizes for the ‘most humorous walker’ and the ‘most original walker’. And until now we thought that John Cleese invented the silly walks!

Let’s mention the war

My assumption when I picked up the book was that there would be a pause for the war years but no way. Hitler could not stop the development of the show once it had gathered momentum in the late 1930s. In 1940, the minutes record a specific decision to keep calm and carry on. The Chairman William Southernwood continued to preside and the minutes reported successful shows every year until 1945 despite the reduction of entrants due to ‘call-ups’; the main change was that the Sports and Carnival Parade were discontinued and profits were sent to the Local Nursing Association.

Childhood Memories

Alan and David Winfield made it clear that they were not around in 1936 so our discussion moved on to their first memories as schoolchildren in the 1950s. Alan remembers the competitions for children, particularly his triumph in the miniature garden competition.

There were also events that would not be allowed today, like the picking of wild flowers and pressing them into a book. David also remembers the annual football match between gentlemen (who had to wear fancy dress) and ladies in football shirts.

They recall that new events were added every year and the show steadily gained momentum. The tug of war was introduced around this time and its popularity ensured that it became a permanent feature.

David also remembers a local character called Ray Pheasant who is mentioned in the wartime minutes as a key member of the Committee. David’s memory is of him being a one man band, playing the drums as he marched along with children behind him, the ‘Pied Piper’ of Long Marston. (In the minutes he declined to become Secretary because of his ‘capacity as head of the Amusements Section’).

Memories of Responsibility

The Winfields’ other vivid memories of the Village Show are during the years when they both became Committee members during the 1980s. David was Secretary for five years; intriguingly he told us that he had to resign because of the lure of ‘other attractions’. He also told us that one year he had trouble with the Committee because, after doing most of the organizing, he went on holiday on the morning of the show. Maybe to enjoy more of the ‘other attractions?

Alan Winfield was on the Committee for more than twenty years but seems not to have had such problems. A lot of his and David’s memories were about that great character Tom Chapman of Folly Farm who was President and the driving force of the Show for much of this time. His watchword was ‘it’ll all work out on the day’ and it usually did.

Tom’s capacity for alcohol was legendary; he regarded the first four pints as just starters and it was only when the whisky chasers came out that things really got going.
Being a judge around that time was a big deal and required some stamina to keep up with Tom. A long lunch at the Boot was followed by liquid supplements, which may not have contributed to considered judgments in the competitions!

Dancing the Night Away

The innovations and extensions of the Show continued during this period. David Winfield recalled that for a few years, there was a marquee on the recreation ground where the drinking continued and there was even the opportunity to dance the night away to the music of the time.

This innovation was eventually discontinued in the interests of economy and the competitions were moved into the Village Hall and the marquee was replaced by a tea tent.

Outside Intervention

Right from the beginning, the Show seems to have attracted visitors and competitors from outside the Village. It says something about the spirit of the show that these contributions were accepted as a benefit and a compliment, rather than unfair competition for villagers. An example was the man who arrived in a taxi from Kings Langley each year, carrying his onions in the back seat. He would lunch at the Queens Head and take another taxi back to Cheddington station. Even though this reduced villagers’ chances of winning the onion prizes, his contribution was welcomed, everyone seeing it as confirmation of the prestige of the Show.

This prestige was confirmed by the visits of a number of celebrity judges, most notably John Branham of the Vegetable Society. He was not only a judge but also a competitor and Alan Winfield joyfully recalls his triumph in the Beetroot competition of 2018 when he consigned John to second place.

New Kid on the Block

To bring in some of the more recent history, I turned to Martin Winship who has been involved in later developments. Martin describes himself as a ‘newcomer’ to the village, with ‘only’ 30 years experience of the Show.

It was interesting that one of Martin’s first references was to Tom Chapman, even though he was no longer involved during Martin’s time. Tom’s past contributions are recognized by the Chapman Award – in the appropriate form of a model tractor – which is presented each year for outstanding contributions to the life of the community.

Martin described how the pattern of enhancing the Show with new features has continued, while keeping the old favourites like pony rides and tug of war. One year the tug of war involved villagers competing against a traction engine from a local firm with predictable results!

Competitions have been expanded to include artwork, cake baking and wine making (most popular with the judges!). One year there was an error in the cake recipe and the winner had to produce an inedible mess. Those who changed the recipe and produced an edible cake were disqualified amid much dispute.

Outsiders continue to contribute and I have to confess that my own family is partly responsible. We invited a friend from Manchester to enter the cake competition and she was beaten into second place by a superb entry from someone in Carshalton. And our granddaughter who lives in the USA likes to time her visits with Village Shows so that she can make her entries into art competitions.

Recent innovations have included the creation of a different theme each year – Mary Poppins, Long Marston on Sea – and the use of a roving reporter and compere in the form of Phil Buchi. The races are now mainly for children and such delights as the three legged and spacehopper races provide hilarious entertainment for spectators. Music is still a feature and is much appreciated; except one year when a marching band took a wrong turn and disappeared from sight at the other end of the recreation ground.

More Powerful than Hitler

So to 2020, the first year that the Village Show has failed to take place since that momentous meeting in 1936. Covid has succeeded where Hitler failed. Even though everyone understands the reasons why this had to be, it is still a bitter blow for the village.

During our conversation, the Winfields raised concerns that the Show might not happen again, that the momentum has been lost, that people in the village in future may not be so willing to put in the hours of hard work that are necessary to make the show a success. On the other hand they admitted that maybe the lockdown has increased people’s interest in growing things and their appreciation of nature. Certainly the allotments in our area seem to be more active than ever.

I recall talking to Chris Hodges at the show two years ago when, in addition to running the children’s games, he also found time to talk to me about his role of Show Manager. He described to me how much it now all depends on the work of a small team from the Horticultural Society, which was down to six in that particular year. The extraordinary time and effort they put into setting up, running and – particularly – clearing up afterwards – is often not recognized and it needs a regular supply of willing volunteers. A key issue for the future is whether new villagers coming in will be as willing to put in the necessary hours and the same commitment that was shown by those 29 citizens who started it all off on February 21st 1936.

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