In a short series of articles, iNostalgia will be looking at how the use of allotments has grown and adapted over time—leading up to their massive popularity with the younger generation well into the 21st century.
When you think of an allotment, what picture comes into your mind? Gnarled older men leaning over their spades, examining their potato crop, cursing the caterpillars and slugs that have attacked their prized cabbages? Or maybe a young ‘eco-warrior’ attempting to create their own version of the Good Life? According to a recent freedom of information request by comparison website MyJobQuote, approximately 100,000 people, including this author, are currently on a local authority waiting list for an allotment. The worst wait times are in urban areas such as Greater London, where you could wait up to ten years to stake your claim. In which time you may have moved several times over.
So, the question is, where did this peculiarly British obsession come from, and how has it survived into the digital age? There is evidence in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that as areas of woodland were cleared by the local overlords, plots of ‘common land’ were allocated to members of the community to grow crops to sustain their families.
Post the Norman conquest of 1066 and the advent of the Domesday Book, much of this land was enclosed, and the ‘Villaines’ on the manorial lord’s land were given smaller plots of land attached to their properties to sustain their families. Much of what was previously common land was increasingly claimed by landowners, the crown and the church; this was the subject of several protests and rebellions. Even the dissolution of the monasteries did not re-balance land ownership as the crown sold off the former lands to raise revenue for their treasury. During the reign of Elizabeth I, the term allotments first came into use to describe the small plots of land attached to peasants’ cottages. This continued much in the same vein until the dawn of the industrial revolution.
The oldest protected allotments still in existence date to 1809 and are located in the Wiltshire Village of Great Somerford. The Great Somerford Free Gardens were created due to a grant of land in perpetuity from King George III at the request of the parish rector Steven Demainbray.
In the first half of the 19th century unrest in rural areas (Particularly the Swing riots of 1830-1831) at the lack of access to plots of cultivable land led to a country-wide campaign by the Labourer’s Friend Society (set up in 1932) which gained the support of notable landowners. The 1845 General Inclosure Act required that a maximum of a quarter of an acre field gardens be provided for the ‘landless poor’. A popular crop then, as now, was the humble spud. In practice, this was not followed; take-up was limited and was mainly only available to the rural poor. As the 19th century wore on, the demand for allotments in urban areas increased with the construction of overcrowded slums lacking any open space. The Allotments Act of 1887 obliged all local authorities to provide plots where there was a demand for them. In the minds of the Victorian authorities, access to allotments would keep working-class men away from alcohol and other ‘unsavoury’ pursuits and enable families to grow wholesome food for the table. A rare survivor of this late Victorian Allotment boom is Hill Close Gardens in Warwick, which has been lovingly restored by the local authorities and residents and includes eight unique summerhouses. The Gardens are open to the public all year round.
The next key step was the 1908 Smallholding and Allotments Act which consolidated previous Acts and solidified rights to community plots across the country. It also stipulated that allotments could not be run at a loss, so councils were obliged to recoup costs from allotment holders via rents. The start of the First World War brought about a surge in allotment creation from 600,000 to 1.5 million. With German U-boats attacking merchant shipping, civilians were encouraged to grow crops on allotments to help feed the nation. All sorts of vacant sites were used, from railway sidings to parks. Increases in food prices also encouraged families to ‘grow their own’. In addition to the Home Front, British and Belgian troops were encouraged to tend allotments set up around the camps to aid their wellbeing and morale when away from the front.
In the post-war period, demand declined again as parks and railway sidings were reclaimed for their original purpose. By 1939 they had reduced to 819,000 from their peak during the war. New diseases and the great depression also took their toll, despite government initiatives encouraging out-of-work people to tend allotments. Working-class people also turned their interest to general recreation grounds and sport, meaning that interest in crop cultivation waned. The demand for allotments did not rebound until the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939. We will look back at the Dig for Victory campaign for our next article in the series.
If you enjoyed reading about the history of allotments, then we suggest reading The Allotment – ‘originally published in 1988, is the classic study of allotments. Encompassing the oral recordings of plot-holders alongside descriptions of regional variations on the plot itself, such as pigeon-fancying, seed collecting or leek competitions, it looks at British society and history through the prism of allotments. With a new introduction by Olivia Laing, this is a story that is just as relevant today, and is essential for those interested in social history, land ownership and gardening in twenty-first century Britain.’ You can buy it now on Amazon.