Sixty years of The Game Fair – so how did it all start?
As The Game Fair marks its diamond jubilee, Tony Jackson looks at its history, beginning with the very first show in 1958
Sixty-two years ago Nigel Gray, senior game adviser at the then Game Research Station — now the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust — had an inspired idea: to create a national event where gamekeepers and landowners could gather in order to discuss game shooting and how the sport could be promoted. He put the idea to Charles Coles, who was to become director of the Game Conservancy — now the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust.
The proposal met with sufficient enthusiasm to persuade the duo to risk a trial event in 1958. It was estimated that the event might attract around 500 people and parking would be needed for 200 cars. Hall Farm was chosen, a shooting estate at Stetchworth near Newmarket, enhanced by enthusiastic farm staff and admirable buildings.
Sponsorship was snapped up by the Country Landowners’ Association (CLA). The Game Fair was on.
Rain didn’t stop play
The summer of 1958 was a never-ending saga of non-stop rain and with only a few days to go before the Game Fair opened it was still pouring. The organisers were prepared for the worst. However, the rain ceased on the day before the show opened and a trickle of cars arrived. By noon a thousand visitors had passed through the gate and by close of day the final attendance was 8,500.
Entrance costs were two shillings and sixpence and the 32-page programme with a two-colour cover cost two shillings. The event set the organisers back by £800, an overrun of £300, but it didn’t matter — the first Game Fair was a major success and the CLA was delighted.
Some 55 exhibitors took part, including
- Holland & Holland,
- James Purdey,
- Cogswell & Harrison
Game farmers took stands or appeared on the rearing field, gamekeepers had their own tent, the Game Research Station volunteered advice and there was a clay pigeon shoot, a falconry display and gundogs, but no inclusion of angling.
The following year, in 1959, the Game Fair took place at Hackwood Park, near Basingstoke in Hampshire. Now there was a Fisherman’s Row, support from 15 leading game farms and gundog working tests, while aspects of game rearing were given a prominent role. In addition, the Duke of Gloucester attended the fair, having agreed to become its patron.
A major sporting event
The Hackwood Park Game Fair was a great success and confirmed its place as an annual sporting event.
In 1960 the Game Fair travelled to Castle Howard in North Yorkshire. Grouse shooting featured strongly with an exhibition of grouse butt designs and a pen of live grouse. Trade stands increased to 120. More than 20,000 visitors attended.
Over the next three years the Game Fair took place at Weston Park, Shropshire, and Longleat, near Warminster, and then, in 1963, at Burghley in Lincolnshire, and on each occasion the attendance set a new record.
HM the Queen attended in 1974, accompanied by HRH the Duke of Edinburgh and HRH Prince Edward.
In 1990 the Game Fair set up camp at Margam Park, West Glamorgan. It was not a happy fair. The sun blazed down, temperatures reaching 38°C, a steady wind drifted a smell from the factories at Port Talbot, the tarmac on the Severn Bridge was melting and the queues for the lavatories were endless.
Over the ensuing years it became apparent that new blood was required and this came in the form of David Hough, a man with many years’ experience of organising and running the Boat Show and who brought to the Game Fair fresh and imaginative thinking, supported by an enthusiastic and thoroughly professional team.
David’s first fair was opened by HRH the Princess Royal in 1997. Trade stands increased from 285 the previous year to 482, Gunmakers’ Row saw a resurgence of interest from leading gunmakers and there was a general air of enthusiasm.
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For a few years the Game Fair did well and then spiralling costs forced the CLA to throw in the towel.
But waiting in the wings was the National Game Fair Ltd, poised with new contracts for the existing team and show director James Gower, who had experience of organising the Boat Show, Ski Show and Ideal Home Show.
A fresh ticket price was introduced, glamping and celebrity chefs were brought in.
Now The Game Fair 2018 returns to Ragley Hall from 27-29 July 2018 to mark its diamond jubilee, 60 years on from that first Game Fair at Stetchworth.