175th Year | Stalham Farmers' Club | Leading speakers from the agricultural industry.

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When a group of progressive east Norfolk farmers met in Stalham early in Queen Victoria's reign to discuss new ideas and developments for their industry, their legacy has survived today, writes club secretary and former EDP agricultural editor MICHAEL POLLITT.

It was exactly 175 years to the day that the country’s oldest surviving farmers’ club was founded.

Stalham Farmers’ Club dates from December 17, 1841 when there was a spate of enthusiasm for starting such gatherings – and it was five years before the Corn Laws were repealed.

Today, the club, which coincidentally has about 175 members, is thriving under the chairmanship of Jonathan Deane, of Manor Farm, Ingham. His grandfather was the first member of his family to be elected to the club in 1930.

And successive generations of farming families have been club members. In 1877, it lists among the 90 members, George Beck, aged 33, of Briggate, Worstead, who was formally elected on July 17. Today, his great grandson, Alan and his son, Geoffrey, are members and farm at Brumstead, near Stalham.

Sadly, the original minute book has been lost but it is thought that about 30 farmers from around the east Norfolk market town met for tea at the Maid’s Head. The early members included the vicar, the Rev James White, who also farmed, and Robert Cooke, of nearby Church Farm.

The club was progressive with topical talks – with a discussion on April 1876 whether using superphosphate every four years would supercede the use of marl.

A 1916 meeting heard that sowing mustard could prevent wireworm and the following year, another suggested rolling crops, preferably twice, as a means of controlled diamond-backed moth infestations in root crops.

Crop competitions were popular. Awards were presented for the best globe mangold, long mangold and Swedes and turnips were also judged. Mr Beck was nominated on July 23 as one of three judges for the 1878 root competitions.

In 1917, there was a record entry of 27 fields of mangolds and 20 of Swedes and the judges took almost three days walking the crops. Mr John Love, of Walcott, won the best root award.

A sugar beet competition started in 1927 and then the first barley trophy was awarded in 1937.

A long-standing president, Mr Edward George Cubitt, was another pioneer on the family’s Honing estate, near North Walsham . He gave a talk in 1898 on the "Cultivation of Sugar Beet" and that November, members inspected his sugar beet trial. It was another 14 years before the country’s first modern beet sugar factory was to be built at Cantley.

It was influential too. Squire Cubitt president for more than 40 years, played a crucial role in the launch of the Norfolk Agricultural Station. Speaking on March 21, 1908 at the Agricultural Hall, Norwich , he formally proposed a motion to form the independent station – later Morley Research Centre and now NIAB TAG. And incidentally, his great nephew, Sir William Cubitt, of Honing, High Sheriff of Norfolk, is now a member.

In the days before the National Farmers’ Union became a major political force, Stalham lobbied at the highest level.

On January 9, 1917, meeting at the town’s Railway Hotel (under military occupation), its 37 members sent two resolutions to the Minister of Agriculture and urged that “a large number of military” should be allowed to help farmers in an emergency. “We ask for a sufficient supply of skilled labour,” it added.

And it elected a number of MPs to membership over the years, which raised the club’s profile at Westminster and in Whitehall . This helped to secure top-quality speakers, which  encouraged more members to attend its four meetings each year. These always started with tea – and from 1930, the club met at 7.30pm.

Before the Norfolk branch of the National Farmers’ Union was established in November 1918, it lobbied hard for the industry. At the July 25, 1916 meeting when Britain has been at war for almost two years, the acting secretary and farmer, the Rev M C H Bird voiced the club’s concerns to the President of the Board of Agriculture. He wrote: “Legislation is needed to prevent a non-pedigree and uncertificated bull being kept for breeding purposes.” It was another two decades before Whitehall acted.

And in 1919, when the government proposed to shorten the working week to 48 hours, Stalham members were enraged. A senior member, Mr William Wright, urged all 150 members immediately to join the Norfolk NFU.

While politics has given way to more social activities, the club’s membership has always been open to all in farming. Another first was on October 6, 1915, when Miss F N Burton, spoke on Women and Farm Work. The club has women members for more than 100 years and in 1947, it elected Helen Flack as secretary, who served for 17 years before standing down.

In its 175 years, the club has only had 11 presidents and 16 secretaries.