2,000 exhibits, 200 tonnes of steam coal, 600 acres! These are huge statistics by anybody’s standards. Statistics that Michael Oliver and his pioneering colleagues in the Dorset Steam & Historical Vehicle Club surely could never have imagined would apply to their own ‘little show’. But that was 52 years ago when the show was in its formative days. How things have moved on in the time since!
Martin Oliver (now Managing Director) was a small boy in short trousers then, but he can remember certain things about the early shows, with his father very much at the helm. He too can not have imagined then that one day he would preside over the biggest steam and vintage show in the World. Michael retired from an active role in running the show in 2002 and sadly died in 2009 at the age of 75. Martin is now charged with the task of leading the show through the early part of the 21st century. Regulars at the Great Dorset Steam Fair will know why it is sometimes still called ‘Stourpaine’, but how many of the many thousands of exhibitors and visitors really know how it all began?
Photo: Michael Oliver in 1974
Believe it or not it is railways that we have to thank for the spark that got it all going, not the traction engine as many might expect. For it was Michael’s love affair with the legendary Somerset & Dorset Joint Railway, which ran close to the family home, that was the catalyst for what we take for granted so much today.
As a boy, Michael used to catch the train from nearby Shillingstone Station to Blandford Forum to get to the grammar school, and then later in his teenage years, he would continue through to Bournemouth on a Friday or a Saturday, getting the last train home after a night on the dance floor, Beetle Crushers, drainpipe trousers and all!
He wasn’t slow to notice the downturn in railway traffic and had the foresight to record on cine film, some of the last train movements on the line before closure in 1966. With the sad passing of the railway from the rural Dorset communities that it had provided such a lifeline for, there was a great deal of local sadness and anger, not to mention a growing appreciation and affection too.
But isn’t it often the case that you only really miss something when it’s gone and it’s too late to do anything about it. The skittle alley at the Royal Oak pub at nearby Okeford Fitzpaine was booked to show Michael’s film and such was the level of interest that there had to be five sittings to accommodate everyone who wanted a last glimpse of trains on the old Somerset & Dorset line.
Ted Hines from Shaftesbury remarked that there was enough interest in the area in old steam and vintage tackle to form a small club for enthusiasts and supporters. Ted had a small museum at Shaftesbury with seven fair organs and was also home of Burrell showman’s engine No.3938 ‘Quo Vadis’. Subsequently, this engine would become the show’s mascot and to this day is still held in high regard, given pride of place as steam exhibit number one in the catalogue every year.
Michael thought about what Ted had said and suggested putting on a small gathering on a patch of land adjacent to his museum. Between them they got local enthusiasts to bring along their engines and tackle with the aim of having a silver collection to raise money for a cancer charity.
Things went well, but it was obvious that more land was required, so in 1968 Ingram Spencer, a local landowner, was approached to see if he would let them use some land. He offered some fields near the village of Stourpaine. And so it was, that the first rally proper, took place in 1969 in fields close to the River Stour near to Stourpaine about 3 miles from Blandford.
Michael persuaded Percy Cole to bring his magnificent Gondola ride over from Somerset (it now resides at Thursford Museum in Norfolk) and Bill Dorman from Nottingham to bring along his roundabout. Everything that could be worked was worked – steam engines, tractors, machinery – an ethos which is still adhered to up to this day and is the formula for the show’s success.
By 1971 the show had moved up the road to the immortal “Stourpaine Bushes” site and steadily began to grow in popularity and size, then, after many trouble-free years, disaster! With just three weeks to go to the 1985 show, the site was lost following a dispute with the landowner. Miraculously Michael found a new site just a mile away at Everley Hill and arrangements were hastily made to re-house the show there. The site served the show well for three years, but Michael knew that a bigger, more permanent site was needed.
Michael went to see Keith Hooper, another local farmer and a deal was agreed to hold the Steam Fair on his land at Tarrant Hinton. Michael thought the site at Tarrant Hinton was fabulous, the natural undulating Dorset landscape lending itself brilliantly to the features and attractions of the show. Since moving there in 1988 the show has seen massive growth and is now held on over 600 acres.
The amount of administration and organisation mushroomed too. Yet the show is still run from the Oliver family home in Child Okeford, which is perhaps appropriate as the family name very much has its roots in the village, going back over one thousand years to the year 1007- even the village church has a stained glass window bearing the family name.
The Child Okeford based Olivers were dairy farmers with Michael’s father Tom running his own dairy and milk round from Gold Hill Farm. They also owned Dairy House Farm in the village and this is where the family home still remains.
In 2004 Martin had plans passed to build an office for the Steam Fair at Dairy House Farm and the building work was completed in January 2005. The move into the new office enabled Mum and Dad to have their front room back in the house at long last after 37 or so years! Martin as Executive Managing Director fronts up the show of what is formally the Great Dorset Steam Fair Ltd. There are three non executive Directors, several part time staff members and all the main administration of the show is dealt with from here.
Meanwhile over at Tarrant Hinton much work has gone on over the years to improve the showground, with a number of hardcore roads laid and water pipes connected up. When part of the nearby Blandford Army Camp was being demolished Michael invited them to deliver the rubble down to the show site so that it could be broken up as hardcore for the roads.
It’s a sobering thought that these days the show has 25,000 people camping on site at any one time – that’s the population of a sizeable town! Back at Shaftesbury in 1968 the show enjoyed 2,000 visitors. At Everley Hill this had grown to 50,000, whilst today the show regularly attracts over 100,000 people. Michael was once told that the Western Daily Press newspaper had dismissed the show’s apparent success by saying; “It’s a passing phase, like pushbike speedway”. Michael retorted by saying that one day there would be 100,000 visitors and within a few years it happened!
Originally, like most steam and country shows, the Steam Fair opened just at weekends, but in the mid 1970s Michael experimented with opening on the Friday. It was a huge success. So much so that it moved on to four days in the 1980s and then five days from 1988.
The other major change has been the dates. It used to be held on the third weekend in September but it always seemed to rain. Then one day whilst on the quayside in Poole a fisherman told Michael that the Steam Fair was held on the “wrong” weekend and that he wouldn’t even go out Mackerel fishing that weekend. Apparently this was the time of the Autumnal equinox when the weather is often very unsettled. Harry Lee had told Michael after nine consecutive years of bad weather to “Stick it out, one day it’s bound to come good”, but there seemed to be more to what the fisherman said than an old wives’ tale, so it was decided to bring the show forward to the week after the August bank holiday. Sometimes it is still wet of course, but there have been plenty of gloriously dry shows since. Michael said the weather used to be so wet that Frisby’s Shoe Shop in Blandford used to look forward each year to staging a huge welly boot promotion! In 2016 the dates of the show were moved forward again as a result of school autumn term time beginning earlier and the show now runs over the August Bank Holiday weekend.
During an interview several years ago about the bad weather, Michael recalled “One year at Stourpaine Bushes we couldn’t get some of the ploughing tackle out of the fields until Boxing Day”. And it wasn’t just the rain that brought the show problems; “We’ve had the beer tent blow down” he continued, “And we always used to have this portable bell tower supplied by Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London. They used to leave it to us to build the frame, which took three days, and one year we built it the wrong way round. So we had to dismantle it and start all over again. Another year the tower actually blew over! And then another year the Wall of Death tilt blew off and the timber supports splintered”.
One of the highlights for Michael during his hey day years of running the show was when he organised four sets of carousel galloping horses to attend in one year. There was James Horton from Chichester, Jim Noyce from Aldershot, David Downes from Witham and John Forrest who came over from Kent. Everyone agreed that it was quite a sight, even if it did spread takings a bit thinly for each operator. George Cushing from The Thursford Collection commented that “I never thought I’d see four sets of gallopers on one site”. Another favourite year for Michael was when he had the 100 showman’s engines in the line up in 1993. Although he had to “cheat” a bit with a few miniatures it was still an incredible sight. Another year the Seaton Tramway people laid some track and ran trams through the woods at Stourpaine Bushes.
Martin’s highlights have been The Burrell year in 2000, the 40th Anniversary show in 2008, the Roller Special Section in 2013 and last year’s 50th Anniversary show in 2018 which resulted in gaining a Guinness World Record which officially certified that “The largest display of steam powered vehicles was achieved at the Great Dorset Steam Fair (UK) on Saturday 26th August 2018”. A record breaking number of 472 steam vehicles met the GWR guidelines with GWR acknowledging that there were in fact a total of 520 full size steam engines on site. Martin says “the 50th Anniversary show was an incredible event, one which truly did the Great Dorset Steam Fair justice in such a milestone year. To be an official World Record Holder is something all the team here are very proud of. The 50th Anniversary show was a moment in time in the preservation movement which may not be surpassed.”
There have been many other themes over the years including portables, Fowlers, pre-1930s tractors and the Mclaren Special held in 2010. Martin says there are plans for similar gatherings in the future and to take the show even further forward. “There’s not a lot that hasn’t been done but we always need to be mindful to keep the show strong with quality attractions and exhibits. This was something Dad always used to do and say and it is so important. We are always looking to develop areas of the show to make it more appealing to both existing and new customers”.
Running the Steam Fair wasn’t something Martin had envisaged doing when he was growing up. “I left school in 1982 and went to work for Dorset County Council in their offices for about ten years. In 1992, with the show getting noticeably bigger, Dad needed more admin help. I didn’t fancy staying at County Hall for 40 years, so I packed the job in and went full time with the show and I have to say I’ve enjoyed it. I try to run it the old way, like Dad did, very informally, although you do have to be very business minded these days and there is a huge amount more regulation, legislation and Health and Safety to worry about and a lot more dealings with the authorities. It’s sad, but I think a lot of shows will go under because of all the red tape. Organisers simply don’t need all the extra hassle and with costs shooting up – ours have gone up by £100,000 a year over the last 7/8 years – for some it simply won’t be worth their while carrying on”.
The show, which this year will cost around £3 million to stage, couldn’t run without its section leaders, site managers, employees, contractors and helpers, all of whom do a brilliant job. In total there are about 300 people working at the event including the casual labour that collects litter and man campsites etc.“It gets crazy at times” Martin says, “especially in the spring and summer months when we are flat out in the office with admin work but we all enjoy it and its wonderful to see the fruits of our labour when the show opens on that first day each year”. Martin definitely intends to keep running the show in the way that his father did, but is the show’s long-term future safe? Martin has three children, Robert (27) & Tom (24) who are already Directors and Holly (22) who is the show’s Public Advance Booking Manager. “They’re all into it” Martin says. Just like that small boy in the late 1960s when it all began, it is quite possible this new generation of young Olivers might just be ‘taking it all in’ ready for the call to family duty.