Book review by Steve Matthews.
John Thomson knows the auction ring inside out. He's been in the business, man and boy, for most of his ninety years. He's had a ringside seat at the commercial heart of the farming community.
He remembers the days when rails were added to the auctioneer's box to protect him from "wild cattle and wild bidders. The latter would strike the legs of the auctioneers with their sticks to make sure he got their bid without their friends or the opposition knowing that they were bidding."
One man who would have had his legs rapped a few times was Richard Harrison. He bought Thornborrows Auction Mart in Penrith in 1870 and then sold it for £17000 six years later. Within a year, he opened a new mart in Botchergate. He faced competition from Telford's in Earl Street - they later became Hetherington's - and the cattle mart on The Sands. Harrison and his son John were intent on expansion. In 1890 they ousted Thomson and Laurie, the firm run by John Thomson's father, from their mart in Annan. Then they bought the fields next to the mart in Lockerbie. John Dalgeish, the auctioneer, had just died and, by frightening off competitors, they got the mart at a knock-down price.
Messrs Harrison were "not men for weans to play with". Twenty years later they bought land in Earl Street and forestalled expansion plans by Hetheringtons. The "unpredictable and rather excitable" Hetheringtons had been expanding too. They had marts in Brampton, Bolton Fell and Haltwhistle. In 1924, these fierce rivals amalgamated.
Fifty years later, Harrison and Hetherington left the city streets and moved to the vast, purpose-built Borderway Mart at Rosehill. Today, "Borderway has become the centre of choice for most breed societies to hold their annual special sales." It achieves record high prices. A Limousin heifer sold earlier this year for 125,000 guineas. The sale of Blue-faced Leicesters lasted non-stop in a single ring for a full twelve hours. Trevor Hebden was chief executive for many years. He diversified the business and "led it to an annual profit of over a million pounds, a milestone in the auctioneering business".
Jonathan Hope held his first sale in Wigton in 1865. Within fifteen years they moved to the large site on the edge of the town where they remained for well over a century, until they moved to Syke Road in 2013. They built up a substantial horse trade which culminates in the great three-day sale every October. In 1928 Hopes bought back the mart in Aspatria from Thomas Ostle - they'd sold it to him in 1906. In January, 1991, Stuart Robinson at Hopes broke the northern counties custom of selling fat sheep through the ring and started selling them in the pens. He sold 2,300 sheep on the first day.
Auction marts had developed in a similar way throughout the North, in Acklington, Alnwick, Alston, Berwick, Cockermouth, Darlington, Haswell, Kendal, Kelso, Longtown, Morpeth, Newcastle, Ponteland, Sedgefield, Sedbergh and Ulverston.
In recent years the marts were hit first by the outbreak of the foot and mouth disease and then the collapse in sheep prices. Harrison and Hetherington have "taken marts to a new horizon" with their specialist Expo shows.
Times have changed from the days when "the sale could not start until the main buyers had come up from the pub". "Some marts now say that they would like us to 'like' them on Facebook, follow them on Twitter and watch them on Youtube. Whatever next?"
It's a fair question to ask if you've been in the auction business since you were demobbed in 1946.