John Purling | Stalham Farmers' Club | Leading speakers from the agricultural industry.


A leader of the country’s agricultural show industry, Norfolk born and raised John Purling, died suddenly at home on Friday last week (April 28) aged 69.

The former chief executive of the Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association implemented major changes in his 18 years at the Costessey showground.

Mr Purling was a former chairman of the Association of Show and Agricultural Organisations.

He was surprised and delighted to be invited to serve as president for the 2018 Aylsham Show in January.

As the RNAA’s general manager, he began the process to make optimum use of the 375-acre showground and to generate sustainable income from more events throughout the year.

Running what he always described as “the country’s best two-day agricultural show” was a challenge he relished. As reported at the RNAA’s half-yearly council the day before he died, it now earns a significant six-figure income from non-Royal Norfolk Show activities.

This has enabled the charity, established in 1847, to support other sectors - from the Norfolk Young Farmers’ Clubs to the Nuffield Farming Scholarships Trust.

When an emergency RNAA executive was held in late March 2001 during what was to become the world’s worst epidemic of foot-and-mouth disease, his leadership was to the fore. At that two-hour meeting, he urged cancellation of the show for the first time in its 150-year history. It was courageous and, in hindsight, the right decision.

Under his leadership, the RNAA was transformed. It forged closer links with its immediate neighbour, Easton College, funding the new Food, Farming and Education Service. It was one of many RNAA initiatives, which was to help Easton & Otley College become a major force again in farming, rural skills and training.

This close relationship with former college principal David Lawrence, show president in 2012, was a fitting end to his final year.

He promoted agricultural shows – and not just the Royal Norfolk. He said that six million visitors a year – about one-tenth of the country’s population – visited 532 agricultural shows from the smallest to the big four-day events.

And as a showman, always with an eye to promote the best in Norfolk, he said that the county had Britain’s best and biggest two-day show. He had the figures to prove it. In his first year, 1995, there were a record 105,126 visitors in the late Earl of Leicester’s presidency.

In his 18 years at the Norfolk showground, six shows had more than 100,000 visitors, with a record 105,629 gate during the 2006 presidency of Anthony Duckworth-Chad.

His appointment as general manager was announced in January 1994 by his first chairman, Sir Timothy Colman. He succeeded show director Gavin Alston, who retired in June that year. Chief executive in 1996, he served his second chairman Henry Cator until 2009 and then finally Sir Nicholas Bacon.

Sir Nicholas, said: “He was widely respected by his peers in the industry, his colleagues and the wider agricultural community. His way of getting things done was with charm and a healthy dose of good humour.”

Mr Cator, RNAA president in 2009, added: “I was incredibly lucky to have John as CEO during my time as chairman. Not only was he efficient and good with people, he was also a man of huge integrity. The RNAA flourished under his direction.”

He retired in 2012 alongside show manager Sarah de Chair, who stepped down after 12 years. A final grand ring spectacle with the Household Cavalry and parade of show stewards was staged in their honour.

He went to Duncan Hall School, Scratby, and then Shuttleworth agricultural college before a career in the animal feed industry. He joined Ipswich-based Pauls and latterly Harrison & Crosfield, in the Far East and spent 10 years abroad including three years in South Africa, four years in Hong Kong and in Papua New Guinea.

In 1992, he returned to the UK becoming sales director of specialist food flavourings firm, Edlong Company.

He was a keen golfer, playing at Bawburgh, just yards from his office. And for 17 years, he was a Norfolk committee member of farming’s charity, the RABI (Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution). Sally Mitchell, secretary, said that he threw himself into fund-raising annual golf days for the charity.

A non-executive director of the Thursford Spectacular, he was president of the Strangers’ Club in Norwich in 2015. He enjoyed his year in office, which was an opportunity to combine hospitality, business and friendship.

He supported the Emmaus homeless charity, based at Ditchingham.

He liked music, again playing his grand piano when time allowed at his Witton home, near Norwich. But he also devoted time to his grandchildren, who loved to listen to his stories or share his love of shooting and fishing.

He is survived by his widow, Ena, two sons, Matt and Tom and daughter Catherine and six grandchildren.

A private funeral will be followed by a service of thanksgiving at Norwich Cathedral on Monday, May 15 at 1.30pm.