Wednesday, December 16, 2009

This week in New Zealand history: Our First A & P Show

On 14 December 1843, an Agricultural and Pastoral Show was held in Auckland, the first in New Zealand. The idea of such shows was at first slow to spread, but from the 1860s onwards they were held in more and more areas of the country.

Agricultural and Pastoral Shows still take place every year in many parts of New Zealand, but in the 19th Century, when rural communities were isolated, they were an eagerly anticipated event. The original aim of these shows was to improve stock breeding and husbandry, but from the early days they also had an important social function.

A & P Shows did not come to the Bay of Plenty until the early 1890s. My fictional version of one of these early shows is in Chapter 30 of Mud and Gold, set in March 1893. Here's an extract:

There was some good-natured grumbling over Frank’s cheek when he was awarded a ribbon for the best Jersey bull in the show; as the only Jersey bull, Duke William had not had to face competition to win his prize. But after Orange Blossom had been awarded her own ribbon as the best Jersey cow of any age in the show, again having been paraded around the ring in solitary splendour as the sole example of her breed, she was involved in a more genuine contest.

A small group of cows were arranged in a ring, with their owners crouched beside them on stools to milk them. When the buckets were full they were passed over to the judges....

In terms of quantity there was not much in it. Orange Blossom was much smaller than any of the Shorthorns, and by rights a good Shorthorn should have had the edge over her in sheer volume produced. But when the contents of the buckets were carefully measured, Orange Blossom’s production was found to be second only to one huge Shorthorn.

That would have been enough to make Frank prouder than ever of the dainty Jersey, but there was better to come. With elaborate care, milk from each cow had been poured into graduated glass cylinders and left to stand in the shade of the judges’ tent while other competitions went on in the ring. When the milk had stood long enough for a clearly discernible layer of cream to have formed, the percentage of cream was measured and the winner announced.

Frank knew well enough that his Jerseys produced creamier milk than any other cows in the area; the payments he was getting from the factory showed that more tangibly than any afternoon competition could do. But to have it loudly announced in front of everyone he knew made his chest swell with pride. He owned the cow that produced the best quality milk in the whole district.

Lizzie squeezed his hand so tightly at the announcement that he knew she was almost as excited as he was himself. She gave him a little push to start him on his way over to the tent to collect his prize: a small silver cup and five shillings.

‘Congratulations, Mr Kelly,’ the Dairy Advisor said, fixing Frank with a friendly smile. ‘Even for a Jersey that cow of yours is producing impressive milk. You must have a fine herd.’

‘They’re not bad,’ Frank said, then he plucked up the courage to express his true thoughts. ‘I haven’t got many Jerseys yet, but the ones I’ve got are really good. I’m going to have a really special herd.’

‘I’m sure you are,’ the advisor said. ‘Perhaps I should pay you a visit while I’m in the area, have a look at these fine cows of yours and talk over your plans?’

‘That’d be good,’ said Frank. ‘Come out for lunch one day, my wife’s a great cook.’

The advisor laughed. ‘You’re obviously a very fortunate man, Mr Kelly.’ And Frank silently but wholeheartedly agreed.

Frank was not used to attention. Elation had carried him over to the tent, but when he stepped back clutching his prizes and looked around at what seemed a sea of faces all staring at him, his courage nearly failed. It was only when he picked Lizzie’s face out of the anonymous mass that he found the strength to make his way back past his applauding audience, fixing his eyes on Lizzie like a beacon to safe harbour. He hugged each of the children in turn, then gave Lizzie the biggest hug of all despite the baby in her arms, heedless of the amused looks turned on them.

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