As the final Balmoral Show at the King’s Hall gets under way, Linda Stewart takes a look at 20 milestones from Ulster’s most famous agricultural exhibition
1: 1896 The first annual show at Balmoral (and the 41st organised by the North East Agricultural Association) offered prizes totalling nearly £1,000.
2: 1903 King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra visited Balmoral and were received by the Marquis of Londonderry, Lord Mayor Sir Daniel Dixon and Colonel Sharman Crawford. The King said he had received “the biggest outburst of cheering and applause ever heard in Belfast”.
3: 1904 The show’s annual report noted a big drop in takings due to bad weather and in 1910 Balmoral’s Londonderry Hall was blown down by a hurricane. Two apprentice painters at work inside felt the structure trembling and only escaped in the nick of time.
4: 1912 The first aviation accident in Ireland took place at the Balmoral Show when an airman was killed during a flying exhibition. Mr HJD Astley died of a fractured skull and brain lacerations after coming to disaster following a sharp turn.
5: In 1932, 97,974 people attended the show — a UK record — and in 1933 this rose to 105,602. The Duke of Abercorn inaugurated a new Exhibition Hall which was to become the King’s Hall. Work began in June 1933 and the hall was opened by the Duke of Gloucester in May 1934.
6: October 1934 saw the Belfast Radio Exhibition — the first non-agricultural commercial event at the King’s Hall — followed by the Jubilee Celebrations of the Ulster Youth Organisation in May 1935, an Ulster Boy Scouts Bazaar in November that year, the Coronation celebrations in July 1937 and a tennis exhibition in 1939.
7: In 1937, 25,000 children from all over Ulster greeted King George VI and Queen Elizabeth after the showgrounds were chosen by the Government as the venue for the uniformed organisations of Ulster to greet the Royals on their Coronation visit.
8: In the late 1930s four of the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society’s (RUAS) buildings were placed at the disposal of the Air Raid Precautions Committee of Belfast Corporation for the storage of gas masks. During WWII the grounds hosted anti-aircraft gunners, an infantry regiment and Army lorry drivers in training. The Air Ministry later converted all the main premises into an aircraft factory to build the chassis for Short Stirling bombers.
9: In 1957 the traditional white-washed Ulster country cottage was one of the most popular attractions with show visitors. The Belfast Telegraph said: “Many people watched Mrs Gertrude Hall and her sister Mrs Ethel Picton baking oat cakes, soda farls and bannocks of wheaten bread. Many younger generations of farming families find the open turf fires and ovens ... as strange as the city children.”
10: The new Members Room — known as the three-penny bit for its distinctive octagonal shape — was launched in 1965. The total cost, including furnishings, was estimated at £150,000, twice the original estimate.
11: In 1966 a six-man Red Devils parachute team made a perfect four-point landing in the main arena but some spectators feared that a seventh had met with disaster. It turned out, however, to be an unopened reserve parachute which had fallen onto ground north of the enclosures — it had been released by one of the skydivers as he carried out a freefall from 1,000 feet up.
12: In 1974 the 107th annual show was postponed on the eve of the opening after the Ulster Workers Council Strike brought Northern Ireland to a standstill. Interviewed on the radio, the President of the Ulster Farmers Union was asked if the agricultural industry was virtually on its knees because of the power strike. “On its knees? Sure it’s lying on the flat o’ its back!” he replied.
13: In 1981 urgent work was launched to repair the roof of the King’s Hall, removing the existing reinforced concrete roof and replacing it with a blue and grey profiled steel covering. The total cost of building the King’s Hall in 1935 was £61,000, but the cost of replacing the roof 46 years later was £750,000.
14: In 1988 the IRA exploded a bomb without warning at the RUC stand during the show. There were reports that 12 people had been injured including two brothers aged nine and 13, and three policemen were among the casualties. The RUAS said that it was a miracle that the casualty list was not higher.
15: Notable visitors over the years have included Grand National winner Red Rum, Cossacks and the Musical Ride of the Household Cavalry.
16: From 1991 the show was reduced from four days to three due to a noticeable decline in the depression-hit agricultural industry.
17: In 2007 the show went ahead despite the discovery of a pipe-bomb in the front garden of a house yards from the venue on Balmoral Avenue.
18: In 2009 the First and Deputy First Ministers were immortalised in the medium of sculpted cheese as part of Dale Farm’s Dromona exhibit.
19: Visitors to the Balmoral Show in 2010 included one Royal and one Irish President — Prince Charles attended on Wednesday and the President of Ireland Mary McAleese was the guest of the Department of Agriculture at its traditional Balmoral breakfast on Thursday.
20: In 2012 the RUAS announced that members will vote on whether it will move to new 65-acre grounds at the Maze prison site. It is understood that £4m has been earmarked for the project which would see much of the Balmoral Showgrounds sold off for housing to fund the move.