‘Unpredictable’ Princess Margaret spurns ‘ugly’ Suffolk punches on visit to show

Princess Margaret with John Kerr and Philip Woodward Picture: KERR FAMILY

Princess Margaret with John Kerr and Philip Woodward Picture: KERR FAMILY - Credit: Archant

Suffolk Show was due to take place this week, but was cancelled due to the coronavirus lockdown. So with the help of past show directors, we thought we’d take a trip down memory lane and look at shows of the past.

Princess Anne at The Suffolk Show Day in 1982 Picture: ARCHANT

Princess Anne at The Suffolk Show Day in 1982 Picture: ARCHANT

John Kerr, John Thurlow, Derek Scott and David Barker take us through the 1980s and 1990s – including a visit by Princess Margaret who was less than enthusiastic about the county’s very own heavy horse breed, known as the Suffolk Punch.

John Kerr: 1982 - 1984 My term of duty as show director is now approaching 40 years ago when things were very different both as a show and in Suffolk farming and country life in general.

The show itself was a celebration, albeit smaller than today, of all that is good about rural life in Suffolk, and farming in particular.

Princess Margaret at the Suffolk Show 1995 Picture: ARCHANT

Princess Margaret at the Suffolk Show 1995 Picture: ARCHANT

We enjoyed three wonderful presidents. Firstly there was Henrietta, Lady Greenwell, a daredevil president who insisted on ‘having a go’ on the helter skelter in the children’s area. In 1983, I had to be on my toes as our president was Philip Woodward who himself had been show director on seven occasions between 1946 and 1966 and in 1984, it was the turn of former soldier Colonel Mike Tomkin MC DL, a landowner from north Suffolk.

Each year saw changes at the core of the organisation. Long-serving secretary, Harry Byford, retired and was succeeded by John Hargreaves. This accelerated the introduction and implementation of new ideas and innovations. The key marquees housing the president, vice presidents, members and judges and stewards we relocated to be adjacent to the grand ring, freeing up half a mile of avenue frontage for trade stand lettings, at the same time very much enhancing the offering to both members and vice presidents.

During this three year period, attempts were made to improve the financial position of the show. The major opportunity was being invited by the local authority to surrender a piece of land to the west at the Ipswich end of the showground to facilitate the developments that now stand between Sainsbury’s Superstore and the showground. Some of the proceeds were used to construct much needed and improved cloakroom facilities across the site, and the balance invested to create and start a reserve fund that has stabilised the SAA ever since.

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We welcomed royal visitors, including Princess Anne in 1982 at the height of the Falklands War which was raging in the South Atlantic. I personally recall enquiring of HRH on her arrival how her younger brother Prince Andrew, a Royal Navy helicopter pilot aged 22 and in the thick of it, was. Her memorable reply was: “He’s fine, Her Majesty spoke to him this morning.” Official records show that we lost 24 helicopters in the 10 week conflict.

The 1983 show coincided with Derby Day and a visit from Princess Margaret. We had arranged a TV set in the president’s marquee and her private detective was able to provide a list of the runners and riders in a copy of the Daily Mirror retrieved from a police escort car. Traffic congestion had always been a constant problem prior to 1983 when the opening of the new Orwell Bridge in December 1982 made a huge improvement in both arriving and leaving traffic flows and led on to enabling growing show attendances in the decades to follow.

John Thurlow: 1988 - 1990

My family company has been showing at the Suffolk show since the late 1800s. In those days, our stand would be dominated by steam engines for agricultural use.

The first show I attended was when I was at Framlingham College. A local director of the Ford Dealer in Framlingham, Potter’s, took me to the show at Long Melford. Apart from when I was on 2 years’ National Service, I have attended every show since. In those days the show moved to a different location every year.

We were fortunate to have a member of staff who was very keen on the show: he and his wife used to stay in their caravan on the showground for a couple of weeks prior to the show.

One year, I remember the show as at Shrubland Park and he was not happy with the grass, so he re-turfed the whole stand in time for the show. I have been fortunate to hold most of the senior offices at the show and in this capacity I have met some very interesting people.

I remember well the late Princess Margaret’s visit. Having taken her to a number of stands, I then explained our next stop would be the heavy horses. I told her enthusiastically about the majestic Suffolk Punch breed that we are particularly proud of in Suffolk. HRH interrupted me with: “I do not need to visit the heavy horses, as I am not keen to view them.”

My memories of the show are generally positive but of course the Suffolk show being cancelled fifteen minutes after the gates were opened in 2012 was probably one of the lowest moments. All that hard work gone in a gust of wind! I felt so sorry for all of the organisers and for the visitors looking forward to a special day out.

Derek Scott: 1991 - 1993

I can still remember how very privileged I felt when I was asked to take on the job of show Director. With this, however, came a feeling of pride and some trepidation! As it turned out the one thing I need not have worried about was the weather, for each of the three years it provided two glorious days.

Every director has something different to add to the success of the show, and in 1991 we introduced a stage coach and marathon class which we had previously seen and been much impressed with, at the Royal Cornwall show. It made a very spectacular grand ring event.

I believe that we also started a farriery competition that same year, and I am pleased to note now that both events have gone from strength to strength.

One of my many highlights was that I was able to arrange for the (then retired) famous grey racehorse Desert Orchid to visit the show, due to my contact with his owner. He had already been down to Suffolk to be treated at Newmarket for a severe colic, and had made a miraculous recovery. He was very popular and everybody loved him!

That same year we were delighted to welcome the Duchess of Kent to the Suffolk Show. She was interested, amusing and gracious and I was pleased to see that her joy at meeting the famous grey ‘Dessie’ was as great as mine.

The President that year was Jack Kemball and I can’t help but reflect on how proud he would have been to see the strong involvement his family have now with the show. My first job with the Suffolk Show was that of car park steward for a year or two, never dreaming then that I might one day be director, or even having much idea of what that might entail.

A big job, yes. But I found friends and became part of a huge team all working together. I was backed by a very loyal and competent staff, and an equally loyal and competent crowd of stewards. Then of course there were the senior stewards, all of whom I could rely on, my three deputy directors, Nigel Holland, David Howe and David Barker, and many others too numerous to mention.

The years as Suffolk Show director take up an inordinate amount of time, but my, what a learning curve.

David Barker MBE: 1994 - 1997

It was in 1992 my good friend Derek Scott invited me to be deputy director with a view to following him as show director. It was a pretty daunting task as I had limited experience of the show and was surrounded by an amazing group of senior stewards many legends of the show in their own right.

Robert Long was my deputy for the 1994 show, and he supported me in an amazing way apart from being widely experienced in the show world he had the knowledge and experience I lacked. The 1994 show was John Hargreaves final show as show secretary with Princess Alexandra in attendance and we ensured the two days was a fitting tribute to his remarkable time during which he led a team that had transformed the Suffolk Show. More than 93,000 attended which was a record.

Russell Faulds joined me as deputy for 1995 he had been a long term friend and we much enjoyed working together. My memory of 1995 has to be the visit of Princess Margaret. Viewers of the recent series The Crown will realise she was an unpredictable lady and so it proved. She was great meeting the many long service award recipients but had a habit of not keeping to the selected programme, hence when in the president’s box she pulled a face and said: “Those Suffolk Horses are ugly,” which did not go down well with the president Rowley Miles.

When ridden hunters appeared on the big screen she said: “I like ridden hunters – can we go and see them?” “Yes ma’am of course,” I said.

As we left, Tony Coe, the chief constable, gave me a blank stare and said: “Where the hell are you going?” I said: “Off to see the ridden hunters.” His reply was unrepeatable, but he did say he had not done security checks and as we arrived at the light horse ring we were met by stunned stewards. I grabbed one and said: “Talk to HRH about ridden hunters as they meant nothing to me.”

At the end of the day as she left Princess Margaret said: “I think I have given you a hard time.” To which I replied: “Ma’am, it has been a great pleasure.”

I only wish she had lived longer so I might meet her again and say: “Do you remember giving me a hard time at the 1995 Suffolk show?”

1996 was more relaxed. Lord Belstead was president and a delightful man. Stephen Miles was deputy director. It was a show remembered for the Kings Troop Royal Horse Artillery which gave a terrific grand ring display.

1997 was my final show with Mike Hollingsworth supporting me to take on the role. It was a very memorable year with the Duchess of Gloucester as a royal visitor. There was a big crowd in excess of 93,000, and good weather – as indeed had been the case in each of the four years.

My abiding memory was the most superb period of my life much enjoyed by Claire and the boys who were all at school at the time, and my parents being with me.

My father in particular loved making a video record of the time. I worked with a terrific team of senior stewards and staff. Harold Chrystal said to me in 1992: “You have joined the best club in the world, and he was right.”