The Early History of GDAS

Looking Even Further Back

The Early History of Agricultural Societies

in Great Gransden

Recent research has been pushing back the origins of the Gransdens and District Agricultural Society (GDAS). As long ago as 1816 there was a Great Gransden Farmers’ Book Society, which provided a lending and reference library for local farmers. At least two volumes that belonged to this book club have survived. Copies of their title pages are shown to the left of this text. The books are:

      Every Man His Own Farrier by Francis Clater (22nd Edition, published 1813).

      Even then it cost nine shillings, so an expensive purchase in its day.

      A General Treatise on Cattle by John Lawrence (2nd Edition, published 1809).

Dr. William Webb

Almost certainly the moving spirit in this society was Dr. William Webb, Master of Clare College, Cambridge. William Webb is a very interesting figure. By all accounts he was not an outstanding academic as a Fellow of Clare College, but he was deeply interested in agriculture and agricultural innovation, so that he was appointed Bursar. The college depended on its widespread agricultural holdings for its revenue, and Webb proved to be an outstanding Estate Manager. In 1815 he was made Master of the College, a post he held for over 40 years until his death in 1856.

In 1822/23 he took his turn as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, giving rise to a story by which he is particularly remembered. University ceremonies frequently took place in Great St. Mary’s Church, with the congregation standing in respectful silence when the Vice-Chancellor’s procession entered the church. Webb entered the church with a distinguished guest (possibly slightly deaf), but continued the conversation they had been having in a loud voice, so everyone was informed of the special merits of the “blue-arsed boar”, which Webb had acquired.

Clare College owned a sizeable estate in Great Gransden, and another was owned by the Barnabas Oley Trustees (again based in Clare College) and from about 1815 onward William Webb, and later his son, accumulated and farmed their own large agricultural holding in the village. Eventually this included Rippington Manor and Gransden Hall, and the son initially developed North Farm. Father and son promoted an act of parliament for the enclosure of Great Gransden parish in an1843, and after enclosure in 1851 built other farms, particularly Moor Farm and Hardwick Farm, while the Oley Trust built Common Farm.

Theodore Vincent Webb

T V Webb was, by the 1860s, the largest landowner in Great Gransden and, in the style of a wealthy Victorian squire, a great benefactor to the village, rebuilding the school, setting up a Reading Room, and footing much of the bill for the restoration of the church.

He was certainly the founder of the Gransden and District Agricultural Society as we know it today, probably in 1860, although the earliest record that we have is a newspaper account in the St. Neots Chronicle, of the Society’s Annual Competitions and Dinner on Tuesday 14th October 1884. Competitions were held for ploughing and draining, for stacking and thatching, and what we would now call long service awards were made. The nearest approach to our current show was the award of prizes for exhibits of root crops - mangold wortzels, turnips and potatoes. Amongst the prize-winners were familiar Gransden names such as Millard and Christmas! A full account of the dinner, toasts and speeches is recorded in the newspaper, and similarly for 1889 and 1890.

T V Webb died in 1885, and in 1891 it was decided that the “Show” should be reorganised, with “extended leave” given to labourers so that they could attend, and new classes for cattle, sheep, pigs, corn, as well as root crops and the ploughing and draining competitions. Instead of dinner for just the farmers, a public luncheon was provided, with 200 people sitting down to enjoy it. The caterer was Mr Plum - older residents may still remember Plum’s Cafe in St. Neots! The newspaper again reported the toasts and speeches. This 1891 Show set the pattern for the future, with a steadily increasing number of exhibition classes, as can be seen in subsequent newspaper reports of later shows.