Allotments: the people's gardens

by frankbeswick

The British allotment movement grew out of the agricultural and industrial revolutions and brought about a major improvement in the lives of the British people.

The agricultural and industrial revolutions in Britain produced an increase in wealth, for some, but they also produced victims, of whom many were the common people of the country. Allotments, areas allocated to the community as spaces for small vegetable gardens arose out of the need for people to improve their lives by growing their own food. Though rooted in an earlier period of time, they are still as relevant as ever.

The Origins of Allotments

"I only know that once I had a cow and an act of parliament took it from me." said a labourer to the journalist Arthur Young in the late eighteenth century. Young, an advocate of the enclosure of common land for the supposed economic improvement that it brought, was stunned into realization that the cause for which he had crusaded had left a trail of misery and hunger in its wake. But while he had no answer, others did, and there arose a movement to allocate land to the poor, and so the British allotment was born, not without resistance from vested interests, but it has survived, and as the chairman of an allotment society I am working to ensure that it  continues into the distant future.

There was once an England where peasants tilled the lands allocated to them by custom and practice, but often they had no legal documentation to support their claim, so when the lands were enclosed for efficiency, their lands were lost. But enlightened people saw that hunger and poverty were stalking Britain because of the social and economic  reforms that had taken place. In 1796  Lord Winchelsea founded the Society for Bettering the Conditions of Labourers which advocated providing the poor  with  small plots of land for growing food. In the same year Thomas Estcourt, the father of allotments, set aside land from his estates to be divided into small plots for the labourers. Enlightened people quickly took on the cause. One of Estcourt's neighbours, in Gloucestershire,  the Reverend Demainbray in 1806 set aside 8 acres of land for the benefit of the poor when the parish of Great Somerford was being enclosed. Powerful people got aboard. For example the Bishop Bath and Wells generously set aside land, as did the Dukes of Northumberland, Bedford and Richmond. By 1836 an apothecary  noted that 100 acres of land were tenanted by four to five hundred people happy and not poor,working to enjoy the fruits of their labours. It was not cash alone that made them richer, but the food that they grew, the most ancient and truest source of wealth.

Lord Winchelsea had stumbled on a truth only recently acknowledged by agronomists . When he said, "Land cultivated as a garden will produce a greater quantity of food for a man than land cultivated in  any other way" he anticipated the discovery that the garden is a way of producing food more productive than farms or market gardens, a fact revealed in Patrick Whitefield's The Earthcare Manual. Yet while landowners were often benign, farmers were more hostile, for they wanted their workforce totally dependent on them and threatened not to employ rural workers who had allotments, and there was much social unrest in the country because of this.

However, the allotment movement spread to the towns, where farmers had no influence,  and by 1908 the Smallholding and Allotment Act enshrined in law that town councils have a responsibility to provide land for allotments, and this has been the basis for allotments since then. It gave rise to the concept  of the statutory allotment, of which mine is one. This is an allotment site protected by act of parliament, so that the council cannot take it away without an act of Parliament. Not all allotments are statutory, for some are voluntary and therefore dependent upon a private owner, so they can and have been lost.

The source of information for this section is The Gardens of the British Working Class, by Margarete Willes.

Subsequent Years

Allotments settled happily into British life, and they were a good source of food during the depressed years of the 1920s and 30s. My mother remembered old men long past working age and into retirement following horses and carts around with sacks in their hands waiting to  collect  horse droppings for their allotments. But there was little progress during the interwar years. But during the Second World War with the Dig For Victory campaign in which Britain grew much of its own food to outwit the U.Boat menace allotments thrived again  and were a major contributor to the nation's victory.

After the war there was something of a  decline in self-reliance, as cheap food flooded in during the era in which we had never had it so good. Suddenly the great advances in agriculture made during the war years promised abundance for all, allotments drifted to the fringes of the national consciousness, the preserve of eccentric old guys living in  bygone age. In the 1960s Professor Thorpe wrote a report for the new Labour government on allotments and reported among many other things that they were tenanted by old men and had few ethnic minority plot holders. This was somewhat unfair, as the black population was composed of recent immigrants and was still finding its feet. 

But as the years have rolled on there has been a yearning for allotment plots, as people long to grow their own food and as  food security seems to be declining in an ever changing and dangerous world. Yes, allotments are often worked by old men,but in modern years there are plenty of women plot holders, many of whom are doing great job of working the land. Black and ethnic minorities are better represented now. On my own site we now have British and Irish, Caribbeans, Thais  and people from the Indian subcontinent. We have a plot for the handicapped, and next plot but one to me are a pair of gay males who  garden together. This is not the result of any positive discrimination, but merely of the fact that we simply ask plot applicants for their name, address and age. Age is relevant because at the lower end they have to be old enough to sign a contract and at the other end they might be entitled to an age discount. As I am over sixty I get my plot for half rent. 

Do not think of allotments as being solely for fruit and vegetables, for along with the wide range of products grown there,many grow flowers, and there are some expertly grown flower borders. I know someone who only grows flowers, which she submits to shows and has won prizes. There are varying levels of expertise, and expertise will grow over time, if you put in the thought and effort.

The Future

I am chair of UAGS, Urmston Allotment and Garden Society, a federation of eight allotment sites, seven of which are council owned and the eighth is one that we own ourselves. Founded in 1916 we are now in our centenary year. Being the chair in the centenary year is an honour, but I must steer the society into the future, and this poses challenges. 

What are the challenges that I face. Britain has massive pressures on land and there are developers eying allotment sites  for house building. Our sites are not under major threat for they are statutory allotments that require an act of parliament to change their use. Voluntary sites have fallen into the hands of developers, but  that's not been a problem with us, and our local council, Trafford Metropolitan Borough Council, is friendly and has designated all allotments as protected green space. In my related role as chair of Trafford Allotment Federation, a political body that aims to represent allotments, I have written to candidates for the powerful new role of Greater Manchester mayor,to enlist their support for the protection and development of allotments in our conurbation. Those that I have contacted have written back positively and I hope to be working with the successful candidate to enhance the position of allotments in the city.

Yet we face problems not only of land pressure, but of climate change. One of my eight sites has had a serious problem with flooding and three plots have had to be taken out of action, having been flooded for a year, and on that prize winning site this is just the tip of the iceberg.  Our area, North West England, was historically swampy and wet, and much land was reclaimed from the water, but with climate change I  fear that nature is taking some back. The seasons have been strange in the last few years, and this summer, 2016, has been very poor, though as September has come we are having better weather than we had in the previous few months. We cannot rely on traditional weather patterns any longer, and the future is uncertain.

But for me allotments are a mission. I see self-reliance as the best guarantee of food security for the ordinary people, so I would like to see allotments and community gardening schemes blossom and thrive across  our isle. I want to see cities that have productive green spaces that will feed their people and act as a bulwark against the enormous pressures of the modern world. But as an individual, what I want is that when the time comes for me to move on I will be able to hand on my plot to Andrew,  the son who has helped me to cultivate it.


Updated: 09/09/2016, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 09/17/2016

That's interesting, so the pollination was going from lime to lemon,but not vice versa?I wonder how farmers of citrus orchards solve this problem.

blackspanielgallery on 09/16/2016

I once knew a person who had a lime tree, and enjoyed the limes it produced, but his neighbors had very sour lemons due to cross pollination.

frankbeswick on 09/15/2016

Even on small allotments crops could cross pollinate with those from adjoining plots. So we cannot avoid it, and it is part of nature.

frankbeswick on 09/15/2016

Size varies. Mine is large at 250 square yards, but there are smaller ones, and some people have half plots. The site where we have the flooding problems has plots smaller than mine.

Those sites unprotected by law cannot be just snatched away, as planning processes take time and anyway, tenants have still rights to the property that they have rented for the year. But I agree that fruit trees are a risky investment on an insecure plot.

blackspanielgallery on 09/14/2016

About how large is an allotment? It must be large enough for some crops to not cross pollinate, or the result would be a problem. As for those not protected by aw, it could be difficult to justify planting fruit trees, for they might be taken before the first harvest.

frankbeswick on 09/09/2016

Swapping is what gardening is about. For example, I grow pumpkins, more than I need, so I share them with my son's extended family. Better than going to waste

katiem2 on 09/09/2016

Thank you, as I am sure you know gardening is a positive aspect of life for a multitude of reasons.

frankbeswick on 09/09/2016

That sounds lovely, Katie.

katiem2 on 09/09/2016

Westerville Ohio Tree City U.S.A. potatoes, dwarf and heirloom tomatoes with trellises, jalapeno peppers and rhubarb is a big favorite, my daughter planted a goose berry bush in a large container, folks like to get creative and challenge themselves.

frankbeswick on 09/08/2016

Wonderful, Katie! Which city is that? What do people grow in barrels: potatoes, dwarf trees?

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