How the CLA Game Fair became the biggest event of its kind, complete with photos dating back to the 1950s and memories of some of the CLA Game Fair's biggest characters

Throughout the first decade after World War II, the second day of Crufts invariably featured gundogs. As a result, it became an annual get-together for gamekeepers. It was an occasion when they could exchange news, ideas and discover how other shoots and estates were faring.

In those days, the ICI Game Research Station (later to become the Game Conservancy Trust and now the Game & Wildlife Conservancy Trust) had a stand at Crufts where staff dispensed advice on practical game management. This quickly became another focal point for keepers.

As a result of the Crufts experience, it became clear to the Game Research Station staff that there was a genuine need for more direct communication with the shooting world. They decided to hold keepers’ courses at Burgate Manor in Fordingbridge, Hampshire, where the Research Station’s headquarters were located. The popularity of these courses grew to such an extent that they were extended to three or four days and staged around the country.

In July 1956, Nigel Gray, senior advisory consultant at the Game Research Station, had an inspired idea. Why not, he suggested, create an occasion, perhaps over two days, where keepers and the shooting public could get together to discuss ideas, explore aspects of the sport and, at the same time, help to promote it. A year later, the CLA council agreed to sponsor the Game Fair.

Photos: The first CLA Game Fair

The first CLA Game Fair

The summer of 1958 was made dismal by almost continuous rain and the Game Fair organisers were nearing despair as they contemplated desperately wet conditions in the weeks leading up to the opening day, 25 July. Then, by a minor miracle, at 9am on the Friday morning, the weather cleared up, the sun shone and all seemed well. “Game Fair weather” saved the day.

The gates opened on time, but hardly a soul arrived and then, after a long, anxious wait, the public suddenly appeared in droves. By 11am, nearly 3,000 visitors had arrived at Stetchworth and it quickly became clear that the organisers had a major success on their hands. In fact, it was almost an overwhelming success. The estimate for attendance had been a maximum of 2,000 over the two days, but the end result was more than 8,000 visitors. The team was, to say the least, a trifle pushed to cater for such numbers.

The entrance charges were modest. Cars were 5/6d (271⁄2p), motorbikes 2/6d (121⁄2p) and bicycles were free. The public were asked to fork out half a crown to enter and children under 14 years were charged 1/3d. Members of the CLA had free admission.

As for exhibitions and demonstrations, the British Falconers’ Club did a display of peregrines flying, vintage horse-drawn and mechanical vehicles used to carry game and Guns were on show plus a game rearing field displaying the latest equipment. There was a clay pigeon shoot organised by the Eastern Counties CPA, a small-bore rifle competition and archery. A mobile post office provided a coin phone box and banking facilities, and there was a Gamekeepers’ Club organised by the Gamekeepers’ Association. The band of the 1st Battalion the Cambridgeshire Regiment (TA) provided music. The entire concept of the Game Fair was based almost entirely on shooting and its associated activities.

After totting up income and expenditure, Raymond Elkerton, who had performed such a splendid job as secretary, reported with great embarrassment, that the budget had overrun by £300. So the first CLA Game Fair had cost £800. The CLA committee almost laughed. After such an outstanding success they were far more interested in long-term plans for the future.