A service of thanksgiving for the life of John Purling, former RNAA chief executive and president-elect of the Aylsham Show, will be held at Norwich Cathedral on Monday, May 15 at 1.30pm.

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.

He had been elected at the Aylsham Agricultural Show Association’s annual meeting in January as president for the 2018 show.

In accepting the honour, president-elect John Purling had praised the vision of the founders and said that Aylsham Show was highly regarded.

A former chairman of Britain’s 532-strong Association of Shows and Agricultural Organisations, Mr Purling said that Aylsham was noted as one of the most generous to local charities. And it had managed to attract show sponsorship too of more than £26,000, he added.

Mr Purling, who lived at Witton, near Norwich was chief executive of the RNAA between 1994 and 2012. He and his wife, Ena, had also judged many of Aylsham Show’s food hero awards in the past couple of years.

In his 18-year career as the RNAA’s general manager, he began the process to make optimum use of the 375-acre Norfolk 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. 

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. 

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 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. 

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 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.

Michael Pollitt

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