The origins of the Group go back to a meeting held in February 1955 to arrange for a display at the Great Yorkshire Show.
When the show moved to a permanent site in Harrogate, two organic growers in Yorkshire – Arthur Ball a market gardener from Masham and Michael Thompson, a farmer from Raywell, suggested to the Soil Association that it should be represented at this major event, to spread the organic message in this part of the country.
The response was to put them in touch with each other and to supply a list of members in Yorkshire and to challenge them to organise it.
They called a meeting and 15 to 20 people met in February 1955 to take up the challenge and to start the group. A committee was elected and Col. Bob Coates (later Sir Robert) Coates became chairman.
They were allocated an awkward triangular site, subject to water logging on the showground, but they got a bell tent and had a display arranged for the Show that July. Thus began an association that has run continuously to the present day. The ground round the tent was used to grow farm and garden crops, with members coming in regularly to tend it, from as far away as Raywell, near Hull. During the Show composting methods were displayed and literature was sold from the tent.
After a few years a better site near the fifth entrance was negotiated, where we had two good fenced plots flanking a decent rented tent in which display boards, literature and bread baking demonstrations were sited. The latter was always extremely popular and the product sold as fast as it was ready, like, well, hot cakes.
The Show Society moved us eventually to the educational area, but rent kept rising. To ease the burden of hiring a tent each year the Chairman started an appeal to buy one. In 1976 the national association had it 30th annual general meeting at York and the local society arranged all the catering for the two-day event and the profits from this effort finally provided enough money for a tent to be bought.
The farm and garden crops grew well and attracted considerable attention before the time when organic methods were generally known and accepted. The national Soil Association supplied posters and literature and in the early years, help from their personnel, including more than once, Lady Eve Balfour – a leading founder figure.
Three sub-groups formed
In 1975 the group was becoming stronger and had enough members throughout Yorkshire to divide into three: for Mid Yorkshire, West Yorkshire and Sheffield areas. The West Yorkshire section was first called the Kirklees Branch of the Soil Association, being especially strong in the Cleckheaton area, but as people joined from the surrounding area it changed its name to the West Yorkshire Group of the Soil Association.
The three groups continued to cooperate, in running an information stand at the Great Yorkshire Show – retaining a coordinating committee to do so. This committee formed itself into formal body, to register as a charity (for benefit of tax relief) on 5th November 1991, with the official name of “Soil Association – Yorkshire Groups”.
However at the annual general meeting held on 20th November 2007, it was agreed that the coordinating group had served its purpose as the Soil Association headquarters in Bristol was now regularly running a stall at the Yorkshire Show and staffing it with professionals. It was therefore agreed that the group would wind up and donate its remaining funds equally to the HDRA and the Soil Association.
The West Yorkshire Soil Association continued the tradition of local activities.
An account survives of one event, in a programme of a Festival of “Life and Tradition in West Yorkshire” held in Spenborough, the borough then around Cleckheaton, in 1977.
” Talks and demonstrations [were given] on composting and growing a year’s vegetables without using chemical fertilisers; preparation of whole-food and baking whole-wheat bread; food from the hedgerow for salads, cooking, preserving and bottling… We went as a party to York to the national AGM when [National President] Dr Schumacher and Lady Eve Balfour addressed a packed lecture hall.”
The Soil Association was well recorded in the programme, as the Festival Director was Miss Chris Sumner, who had become chair of the Kirklees Soil Association when it came into existence. She was also a very active member of the Bronte Society.
At our AGM in October 1988 it was agreed to invite local members of the Henry Doubleday Research Association to join, and several responded. Following this we visited their new National Centre for Organic Gardening at Ryton, near Coventry on 13th August 1989. We were the first coach party to visit the site, and were met, as we descended, by Jackie and Alan Gear. Lawrence Hills, the founder and Grand Old Man of the Association, had moved into his bungalow on the site and came and chatted with us while we had lunch at the cafe (already producing excellent whole-food menus).
On 7th October 1989 we broke new ground again, by running an all organic vegetable show. It was a great success with plenty of good quality produce submitted and it was clear that we must continue it in later years and that something bigger than the small church hall taken that time, would be needed.
We struggled on with the name West Yorkshire Group – Soil Association / HDRA until the AGM of 4th December 1992, when we agreed to the new name of West Yorkshire Organic Group (WYOG)
In 1998, for the first time, the Show Society formed an Organic Area near the Brown Entrance. This persuaded the national office of the Soil Association to bring a mobile display unit to the Show in 1999. Their professional staff talked to farmers interested in converting to organic methods.
Our joint groups tent (shown above) stayed in the more central site it had used for many years, and catered for the general public, as consumers of organic produce and potential members of the Association.
In 2000 we moved our tent to a position alongside the mobile display unit,and the following year the new Gold Gate was opened – immediately to the side of the Organic Area.