When the County of Salop Steam Engine Society first started its life, steam-powered vehicles were still being used in the fields and even on the roads of Shropshire.
In the early 1950s some agricultural and road engineering contractors were reluctant to give up on steam because they loved it so much – and that is where the roots of the Society lie.
Among them was Dick Woolley of Bucknell, near Craven Arms, who took a few friends along to a new event at Appleford in Oxfordshire – a rally for preserved steam engines. Their transport for the day was a Sentinel S4 Steam Waggon Tipper, with just a frame and a tarpaulin cover for those who couldn’t fit in the cab.
The following year – 1955 – preserved steam engines appeared in the procession of the Church Stretton Carnival, on the August Bank Holiday, and within a few years the event had become the Church Stretton Carnival and Steam Engine Meet, with up to 5,000 spectators lining the streets to see the procession.
The birth of the Society
In 1961 with preparations well under way for the carnival, the main event was cancelled due to a lack of floats, and the steam enthusiasts decided they would go it alone. Legend has it that Dennis Smith, who became our first chairman, went straight to Arty Williams, a local printer, on hearing of the cancellation, and asked if he would print the programme and posters.
Arty agreed but as Dennis left Arty shouted after him: “What are you going to call it? It must have a name, you know.”
Dennis thought for a second and said: “The County of Salop Steam Engine Society.”
And so the society was born.
Church Stretton days
That first rally went ahead with 18 steam engines and 17 veteran cars, with entry charges running at 2 shillings. Luckily it made a profit, and the beginnings of the event we see today were cemented.
Despite disaster the following year, when Percy Bishop, one of the key members, was killed in a tragic farm accident, the rally continued at Church Stretton, growing each year. By 1968 it was forced to look for another site, but the following year’s event fell through due to a problem with the new location near Craven Arms.
On to Bishop’s Castle
A new home close to the old railway station in Bishop’s Castle was found, and, thanks in part to ever growing visitor numbers and a lot more space, the rally became a two day show for the first time.
1970 saw commercial vehicles added for the first time, and following years saw new classes for old cars, miniature traction engines and even heavy horses, and the evening events were livened up as the brightly lit showman’s engines and fairground organs parked outside each of the town’s pubs – a tradition included to this day at the rally, except these days they line up outside the beer tent at night.
Bishop’s Castle remained the rally’s home through the years of expanding and new landmarks, including a few road runs for the engines and trade stands at the show for the first time, but as sites in the town began to be built on or face other problems, it was, unfortunately, time to move once again.
Next: Walcot Park, then Shrewsbury
Home for the next three years was Walcot Park, Lydbury North, where the boating lake allowed for a Steam Boats Section. But the nature of the ground made it quite vulnerable if there was heavy rain. So the next move was to our current home at Onslow Park, west of Shrewsbury.
Since then we have added the Working Field, as well as all sections of the rally having now expanded to the point where each year’s Rally has more than 1,000 exhibits.
Barring cancellation in 2001 due to foot and mouth, we’ve gone from strength to strength to become one of Shropshire’s must-see summer events.