History of Allotments
A Brief History of Allotments in England & Wales
In the early and high Middle Ages villagers shared pieces of land around the village to eke out an existence by growing crops and grazing livestock. However, rises in the population and improvements in agriculture put pressure on the “shared” approach, leading to moves to privatise this common land.
Land Enclosure, as it was called, occurred principally in the 18th and 19th centuries, benefiting a relatively small minority (landowners and farmers) while disenfranchising the majority. Fortunately, some members of the landed gentry, politicians and the clergy had social consciences, and they commenced in the 1760s what turned out to be a long struggle to provide allotments for the poor and unemployed by means of individual initiatives and lobbying for legislation.
Members of the nobility who were early providers of allotments in the late 18th century included Lords Carrington, Winchilsea and Egremont. Some providers set rules: Cranfield Church in Bedfordshire required regular attendance at church, the bringing up of the family in a decent and orderly manner, and specified forfeiture of the allotment for any criminal conviction.
The first attempts to legislate for the provision of allotments occurred in the 1790s, but they were easily rebuffed by the landowners’ lobby which was strongly against the idea.
Life became even harder for the poor in the early part of the 19th century for reasons which included: a surplus of labour with the return of soldiers after the Napoleonic Wars; automation in the form of the threshing machine; and somewhat perversely gradual improvements in health which meant more mouths to feed. These factors, coupled with bad harvests in 1829 and 1830, led to the Swing Riots of 1830 and 1831. The rioters were harshly dealt with: 19 people were executed, and over 1,000 were either jailed or transported to Australia.
Lobbying subsequently became more fruitful, in part due to concerns about social unrest after the Swing Riots, and some initial pieces of legislation were enacted. Unfortunately, the effects of many of the acts which related to allotments (right through to the end of the 19th century) were diluted for the simple reason that they tended to rely on voluntary action.
By the middle of the 19th century a modest level of progress was beginning to be achieved, helped by a gradual decrease in the opposition from landowners and farmers. The increase in the number of allotments was far from uniform across the country, Wiltshire and Lincolnshire being particular hotbeds of activity. Potato fields were also popular around this time; this was a mechanism whereby land was let by a farmer for growing the crop which had become a staple part of the poor's diet by the start of the 19th century.
By 1873 there were around 243,000 plots according to one estimate. It was from this point onwards that an explosion in the growth of the allotments occurred, continuing right through to 1945. There were a number of reasons for this growth:
- The movement, which had been predominantly rural in nature up to this point, quickly became urban in the latter part of the 19th century, as increasing numbers of town-dwellers sought the means to reconnect with the soil and to supplement their wages. Town gardens (places for both decoration and cultivation) had in fact predated the allotment movement in places such as Birmingham and Nottingham but they were often for people of some means, e.g. shopkeepers and artesans, rather than the ordinary working man.
- changes in local government organisation, coupled with more effective allotment legislation in the period from 1880 through to 1908, led to the public provision of allotments. One estimate puts the number of allotments at around 600,000 just prior to the First World War
- and the food situation during the two World Wars led to purple patches with the number of allotments peaking at around 1.5m during both conflicts.
Unfortunately, the second half of the 20th century saw a rapid descent from these dizzying heights, as the general standard of living gradually increased. The financial requirement of individuals to grow crops diminished, leading to a pronounced waning in the levels of enthusiasm across the nation. By the end of the 20th century there were estimated to be in the region of 250,000 allotments in England. The last 35 years has seen a number of gentle surges in interest, the latest being the significant appeal among young women, particularly mothers, to grow tasty food, free of pesticides.
The enemies of the allotment movement have been, and remain, the insatiable needs of property developers and the apathy of many plot holders. There will undoubtedly be continuing pressures on allotments everywhere, requiring vigilance and goodwill in equal measures if a right that many people struggled hard to win over a period of around a century, and even harder to maintain over the last 100+ years, is to be protected.
Further Reading (Books)
There are a number of interesting books which cover the history of allotments in the UK.
- Poole, S., The Allotment Chronicles: A Social History of Allotment Gardening, Silver Link Publishing, Kettering, 2006. This well-written book by an obvious allotment lover is the result of 20 years research. It is a historical account which is liberally laced with individual stories.
- Crouch, D., Ward, C., The Allotment: Its Landscape and Culture, Five Leafs Publications, Nottingham, 1997. The two authors obtained their material by travelling all over the country, searching out people’s recollections from their youth and their more recent experiences. It is less historical, more social in content. It includes a chapter on the allotment movement in other countries.
- Burchardt, J., The Allotment Movement in England 1793-1873, London: The Royal Historical Society, 2002. This is a professional historian’s view, and as such it provides a more dispassionate, though nonetheless sympathetic, view of the allotment movement during its formative years.
- Burchardt, J., Cooper, J., Breaking New Ground, FACHRS Publications, Milton Keynes, 2010. This is the result of work by the Family and Community Historical Research Society. The project's aim was to discover more about allotments and their use across the country in the 19th century. Burchardt and Cooper acted as editors for the book with Burchardt producing a summary. The period covered is 1793-1873, matching the period covered by his work The Allotment Movement in England 1793-1873. It is not what you would call "an easy read" but it is a rewarding read for those who are interested in the history of allotments.
- Moran, D.M, The Allotment Movement in Britain, New York: P. Lang, 1990. This concentrates on allotments in the Swindon area, but it includes a very useful general historical introduction.
Further Reading (Web-based Material)
Some useful articles can be found on the Internet, including:
- Allotment Gardens: A Reflection of History, Heritage, Community and Self is a short paper by Lesley Acton who completed a PhD on allotments
- Wikipedia article – this has a more international flavour, covering the allotment movement in Germany, Sweden and the Philippines, as well as the UK
- a brief history of allotments in England - is a stepping stone between this article and the books that are mentioned above.
- a brief history of UK cultivation prior to the Allotment Movement - is a useful article if you are interested in understanding how cultivation techniques had progressed by the time that the allotment movement got started.
Local Allotment Site Histories
If there is an obvious gap in the history of allotments it is the relative lack of local histories which might help to give us a greater understanding of the movement as a whole.
Links to Allotment Site Histories is an attempt to catalogue those that do exist. It currently contains around 50 entries. The most recent additions are:
- Joel Street Allotments (in the London Borough of Hillingdon)
- and a website which is dedicated to the history of Reading Allotments.
Further links will be added over time, whether they are to electronic histories that are available on the web or to paper articles.
A Call for More Local Allotment Histories
Why not consider writing a history of your own site? The majority of sites usually have one or two individuals who are interested in local history. It can make for a useful and interesting winter project when there is not much to do on the plot.
It does not necessarily have to be "War and Peace". One or two pages of A4 paper can often be more than enough to provide useful information on the formation of your site and its subsequent experiences.
Possible sources of material in the UK include:
- Council Records
- Council Minutes
- Church Records
- Access to Archives - an electronic archive of some local material.
Older Council or Church material may be held in your Local County Record Office. The location of diocesan records, which may also be helpful, varies. Check on the web where they may be found for your area.