John Gordon Purling – an appreciation

A leader of the country’s agricultural show industry, Norfolk born John Purling, has died suddenly on Friday last week (April 28, 2017) aged 69.

The former chief executive of the Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association implemented major changes during his 18 years at the Costessey showground. He retired from the RNAA in 2012 and continued to serve as an honorary vice-president and member of council, writes Michael Pollitt.

After his appointment as the RNAA’s general manager in January 1994, John began the process of making optimum use of the 375-acre showground and surrounding land invaluable work which would be essential to its long-term survival. Running what he always described as “the country’s best two-day agricultural show” was a challenge he relished but his wider goal was to generate sustainable income from the showground throughout the year.

As reported at the annual general meeting on the day before he died, the RNAA now generates a significant six-figure income from non-Royal Norfolk Show activities. And this has enabled the charity, established in 1847, to support wide range of other bodies engaged in food, farming and education – from the Norfolk Young Farmers’ Clubs to the Nuffield Farming Scholarships Trust.

Under John’s leadership, the RNAA forged closer links with its immediate neighbour, Easton College, and especially by funding the new Food, Farming and Education Service. It was one of many initiatives to help the now Easton & Otley College again become a major force in land-based education and skills training.

The drive to bring younger visitors to the Royal Norfolk Show by working with schools was another of John’s successes. Soon many thousands of children were taking part in the schools’ trails. And the Spring Fling, which started with about 500 children and their parents in 2000, has now become an annual sell-out with more than 5000 visitors – and another flagship event had been established, thanks to his support. Incidentally, most major shows in the UK have now started similar events – all modelled on the Norfolk Spring Fling.

When an emergency gathering of the RNAA executive was held in late March 2001 during what was to become the world’s worst epidemic of foot-and-mouth disease, John’s leadership was to the fore. At the two-hour meeting, he urged cancellation of the Royal Norfolk Show for the first time in its 150-year history. It was a courageous move and, in hindsight, absolutely right. But not to be defeated that year, John set about organising an ‘autumn’ edition of the Spring Fling – keeping stewards, exhibitors, supporters and, importantly, the public, engaged with the RNAA during a difficult time. The whole RNAA threw its full weight behind the chief executive’s drive to welcome back visitors for the re-launched Royal Norfolk Show in 2002.

In terms of broadening support from beyond the traditional farming sector, and always keen to help others, he encouraged organisations and charities to take advantage of the showground’s facilities. The showground, which hosted a succession of charity balls on the eve of the show, became the “fun” destination for a new audience of visitors. Although initially for RNAA members, charities were soon knocking on his door to use the showground facilities. John supported a fund-raising ball for the newly-established YANA (You Are Not Alone) Project in 2009, which raised more than £50,000 to help increase awareness of mental health issues in the food and farming community.

The on-going investment in new and better facilities on the showground had included, for example, the MacGregor Building, opened in 1988, and improvements to the St Walstan Hall. He began the start of the long-term transformation of what has become the successful Showground Arena, which all helped to generate the additional revenues for the RNAA. (And no mention, please, in his hearing, of its former use as “The Sheep Shed.”)

His enthusiasm for golf may have helped too – but there was also the recognition that a well-run golf course nearby, on part of the RNAA’s land, was a sensible way to manage car parking areas in readiness for the Royal Norfolk Show. The creation of the new golf-driving range was another example of a revenue-earning asset, which has come into its own.

More widely, John Purling was a former chairman of the Association of Show and Agricultural Organisations – recognition of his leadership by the 532-strong membership of fellow professionals from throughout the United Kingdom and Ireland. In retirement, he was frequently invited to judge at other shows or consulted by organisers for advice. A frequent contributor to industry conferences, he was very proud to maintain the RNAA’s connections with the Royal Agricultural Society of the Commonwealth – itself launched in Norfolk by HRH The Duke of Edinburgh.

He was enormously proud to be invited to serve as president of the Aylsham Agricultural Show Association in 2018. “Aylsham Show is hugely respected in the show world and I’m really looking forward to the honour of serving the association,” he said at its annual meeting in January.

John had always promoted the importance of agricultural shows – and not just the Royal Norfolk. Tirelessly, he emphasised 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. His enthusiasm for promoting food and drink, especially from local producers, was given a major boost and presence on the showground.

It was to become a particular interest as he and his wife, Ena, helped with the judging of the Aylsham Show’s ‘Food Heroes’ Awards for several years.

And as a showman, always with an eye to promote the best in Norfolk, he said that the county had the best and biggest two-day show. He had the figures to prove it too. In his first year as general manager, the 1995 show attracted a record 105,126 visitors in the presidency of the late Earl of Leicester. In his 18 years at the Norfolk Showground, six shows had more than 100,000 visitors, which included a record 105,629 gate during Anthony Duckworth-Chad’s 2006 presidency.

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

Sir Nicholas, said of John Purling: “Throughout his time at the RNAA, 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, added: “The smooth running of any successful organisation relies on a close relationship between the chairman and chief executive. 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 tackled the challenge of the association’s 150th anniversary in 1997 with typical enthusiasm. And the association’s distinctive tie was born out of those celebrations, which were certainly eye-catching. John entered into the spirit even joining colleagues and the former chief of administration, the late Diane Akers, by dressing up in the costume of the mid-Victorian era, to promote the 1997 show.

Greg Smith, CEO of the RNAA said: “I was enormously honoured to succeed John at the Norfolk Showground. While leaving the organisation that he had nurtured for almost two decades was difficult for him, he was generous with his support and advice. He became a good friend who could always be relied on for wisdom and experience, delivered with his characteristic good humour.”

Alongside his long-serving colleague, Sarah de Chair, John retired after the 2012 Royal Norfolk Show and to mark this occasion the association staged a final grand ring spectacle involving the Household Cavalry and parade of show stewards. The close relationship with Easton and Otley College’s former principal David Lawrence, who was show president, was a fitting end to John’s distinguished career at the RNAA.

John Purling was educated at Duncan Hall School, Scratby, and Shuttleworth agricultural college before embarking on a career in the animal feed industry. He worked for Ipswich-based Pauls and latterly Harrison & Crosfield, working in the Far East, South Africa, Hong Kong and Papua New Guinea.

In 1992, he returned to UK becoming European sales director of specialist food flavourings firm, Edlong Company, based at Ipswich.

Outside work, John was a keen golfer and a member of the Bawburgh club, just yards from his showground office. And for 17 years, he was a Norfolk committee member of farming charity, the RABI (Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution). Sally Mitchell, branch secretary, said that he threw himself into organising a highly-successful annual golf day to raise funds for the charity.

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

He supported the Emmaus homeless charity, based at Ditchingham, and was a long-standing member of Stalham Farmers’ Club.

He enjoyed music, 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.

John Purling 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, 15th May at 1.30pm.