167 years in show catalogues

Tom Rogers, Honorary Librarian for the Royal Bath and West of England Society

Royal Bath & West Show catalogues, 1852-2019.
Royal Bath & West Show catalogues, 1852-2019.

Tom Rogers introduces a set of rich historical sources held in the Royal Bath and West of England Library.

As Honorary Librarian for the Royal Bath and West of England Society, I look after historical print materials, of significance to the Society, and more recent works related to the rural history of the West of England. The collection also includes a set of catalogues for the annual Bath & West show, beginning with the first show in 1852.

At their time of publication, each catalogue could almost be seen as a throwaway item. However, with the vantage of time, the assembled set of catalogues provides a fascinating view of the shows, their participants, and the times that they happened in. Perhaps the most eye-catching parts of the catalogues are the advertisements from show exhibitors and sponsors. One of the most elegant and desirable of these is the Sutton’s advert from the 1880 Worcestershire show.

As much as I enjoy the artistry and visual impact of illustrations and photographs, there is much more to be found in the descriptions of livestock competitions and trade stands. When reviewing the catalogues across the years, it is possible to see how the shows, exhibitors, competitions and other attractions reflect changing times in agriculture and wider society.

Sometimes, the catalogues can offer individual items of interest. At the back of the 1855 Tiverton show catalogue there is an advertisement for concerts in the town during show week. I became curious about the people on the bill. A little research can reveal some interesting facts and information, and in this case create more questions than answers.

The Allied British & French Juvenile Military Band, advertised here, was made up of boys preparing for or already members of the armed forces. The ‘British Paganini’ referred to may have been a Mr Collins given good reviews in the 1830s in the Edinburgh Literary Journal. La Petite Jenny Lind was the stage name used by operatic prodigy Adelina Patti, who was about 12 at this time, and performing in America. It is thought she first performed on an English stage, at Covent Garden, in 1861. Coincidentally, Jenny Lind, an extremely well-known opera singer with a long career behind her, did move to England at around this time. However, it is uncertain who was performing in Tiverton. Alas, I have not been able to find any further references to ‘Jack the celebrated castonet player’.

Discovering the real stories behind the performers and the concerts in this advertisement will require some further research, but it has certainly sparked my curiosity and placed the 1855 show in a historical context that, otherwise, I would never have appreciated.