The Cheshire Agricultural Society (CAS) was founded in 1838 by the landowning gentry of the county.

The inspiration came from the founder President; Field Marshall Viscount Combermere, who was one of The Duke of Wellington’s generals at Waterloo. He later received his Field Marshall’s baton through his successful campaigns in Asia. Born Stapleton Cotton into a landowning family, he had travelled much in England and had observed better farming practice in the drier region of England than in his native Cheshire.

At the age of 65, the Field Marshall persuaded his fellow Cheshire landowners to set into motion a whole series of competitions to encourage better farming methods. This spirit was also transferred to competitions for rural people to ‘improve the moral and industrious way of life’. All this was to be incorporated into the CAS, which organised an elaborate system of competitions for farms of all sizes, all kind of crops, for livestock health and improvement, and for the wellbeing of the rural people. In fact, the social conscious of the Field Marshall was to group together into one organisation (CAS) all that the modern world expects from a whole variety of organisations that provide these services today viz National Farmers Union, Young Farmers Club, Churches, Parish Councils, government and Social Services etc. The CAS is fortunate to have written evidence of this period, as each selected judge had to submit a written report of the competition.

Why was the CAS important or popular enough to attract so many outside landowners when it already consisted of powerful estate owner, like Grosvenor, Wilbraham, Cholmondeley, Legh, Warburton, Davenport, Leycester, Edgerton etc? I do not know the answer to this question. Perhaps Cheshire being a County Palintine gave it a certain standing and no doubt, our renowned cheese also helped. However there seems little doubt that the CAS became a kind of role model for other agricultural societies in England. The noted ‘Cheshire Farming Ladder’ was copied in many counties, as were our competitions. I guess not as successfully as Cheshire because of our unique farming structure. Cheshire was a county of hundreds of ”cottage farms” and ”small holdings”. This policy was still continued by the Cheshire County Council after the First World War. Sadly today the economic climate and modern pressure from commuters to live in rural Cheshire has changed all this. From around 20,000 farmers 100 years ago the county has only some 2000 today with just 25% of those producing milk.

The Prestige of Winning is Sufficient

The mission statement of The CAS for over 100 years read ”To promote agriculture and encourage the industrious and moral habits of the labouring portion of the community”. The series of competitions for farms, crops and livestock are unchanged basically to this day. There is of course more variety but the big difference is that no prize is given to encourage betterment; today the prestige of winning is sufficient! What is of supreme importance and interest is the series of competitions for the rural community.

Firstly there seemed a need to increase the population for one of the most vigorously supported was for ”those families raising the highest number of children without seeking Parish Relief of either 1pence or 2 pence per week’’ The annual winners received a 1st prize of £5, 2nd £4, 3rd £3 etc. The winner always had in the mid to late teens of children and in one year a 20 child family appeared. There was a duplicate of this competition with the added condition ”if an old or infirm relative was also looked after without seeking Parish Relief”.
Another popular competition was ” £100 per year, with a certificate, for the best 100 female servants, bearing the best written reference by her master”. There are pages upon pages of these winning ladies receiving £1 with a certificate. In the main, the winners were ladies with 20 to 40 years’ service to the same household or farm. However in 1859 a young lady aged 19 unexpectedly received this award because of an exceptional reference by her master after only 9 months service.

This was quite unusual. Her master was Thomas Shaw, Hatton Heath Farm, Tattenhall (former home of Lord Woolley). Some years later when I was researching Champion Cheshire Farms, I saw an enlightening factor by chance. It was contained in a judge’s written report. This said the champion farm of Cheshire in1859 was the same Thomas Shaw and the judge wrote, ”I also gave Mr Shaw a special prize for breeding foxes for the Cheshire Hunt. He is also doing improvements to his house and it seems to me he is going to start breeding in other directions”. We have no record of Mr Shaw getting married.

The last illustration of a personnel competition was ”for those servants male or female age 25 and still working on the same farm, having left school at the age of 12”. This illustrates that the large family soon had the older children at work, with most of them ‘apprenticed to live in’.

Prizes for the neatest and cleanest cottage

There were many other competitions for the families to be involved with. Prizes for ‘the neatest and cleanest cottage,” including the thatch and lime wash both inside and out”; ” the neatest and most productive cottage garden” – (a) under 1acre, (b) under 2 acre, (c) under 5 acres; ”the best fatted cottage pig”, ”best pair of cottage heifer calves”. Then similar competitions repeated again for smallholdings – (a) under 20acres, (b) under 30 acres, (c) under 50 acres.

Farms were grouped: small 100acres and under, medium150acres and large over 150 acres. This series of competitions formed the basis of the ”Cheshire Farming Ladder”. A candidate for a smallholding emerged from the winners of the cottage farms competition and a candidate for a small farm emerged from the smallholders class and so ”up the ladder”.

There were competitions to encourage the better use of manures, including ‘bones’ and ‘marl’; and especially for drainage and also for building works. In 1850 Mr John Ralphs of Saighton won a special prize for building a new house. The judge wrote, ”Mr Ralphs built his new house with his best rooms facing the farm yard; when I asked why he had sacrificed the views of his meadows to the front of the house, he replied for 2 good reasons. Firstly I can sit in my best rooms and watch the men working, while the females work at the back away from the men!”