The Gardens of the British Working Class: a review

by frankbeswick

This comprehensive tome is a work of thorough scholarship, which is well worth reading.

There are great gardens about which much has been written. There are famous garden designers, such as Capability Brown or Paxton, and there are the more elaborate gardens that are tended by people who can afford to commit much time to them,but most gardens are small and tended by people who cannot afford much land, and anyway have to struggle against pressures of work to tend their land. This book deals with the gardens of the ordinary folk and their struggle to get and keep them.

Margaret Willes has several gardening books to her credit, and this one must have taken much time and commitment. It is a comprehensive tome that investigates the allotments, potato plots and cottage gardens of the working class in Britain over several centuries. It is not merely a book about plants, but about the politics and economics of gardening and its role in the lives of working class people. As such it is a work of social history intended to complement works that emphasise the role of large gardens and the famous designers. Willes does deal with some famous gardeners, such as Joseph Paxton, who was a working class man who rose to eminence and riches through grasp of his trade, but mainly she speaks of the ordinary folk.

This book has changed my view of the agricultural revolution and alerted me to the often neglected leadership role played by working class gardeners in the process. At school I studied Social and Economic History, and I took from it the idea that farmers, such as Townsend, led the process of agricultural development that fed the burgeoning British population. Willes shows that gardeners were vital in the process of development. We are told that Townsend invented crop rotation, but gardeners had been doing it for years.

We are also informed of the negative role played by some landowners in the development of allotments, and how they tried to squash the opportunities for working class people to produce their own food. This was, of course, to ensure that they would ahve a monopoly on food production. Yet we are also shown the role of horticultural pioneers, enlightened landownerswho provided plots for the people. We learn of self-help movements in which working class people, inpsired by the memory of the Diggers, tried to develop co-operative plots.

The Gardens of the British Working Class.

The Gardens of the British Working Class

This magnificently illustrated people’s history celebrates the extraordinary feats of cultivation by the working class in Britain, even if the land they toiled, planted, and lov...

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The book is highly socially relevant. Its emphasis on the role of gardens in feeding the underpaid working class chimes in with modern social conditions. As wages are kept  depressed, while executives feast on massive salaries, many working class people are turning to food banks, a national disgrace and a scandal. It demonstrates how allotments and gardens were a bulwark against starvation for many people and this fact shows  the need for ordinary people to have access to land for growing their own food, and for schools to enable children to develop the arts and love of cultivation. The book demonstrates the vast appetite for gardening displayed by the British people, and this should support the demand for more allotment land to be provided.

Yet the book also casts new light on the Dig For Victory campaign of World War Two. We often get the idea that the government thought up this campaign, and this mistaken belief may due to the efforts of those who wish to promote a centralized state in which government always takes the lead.But while the campaign may have been initiated by the government, it grew out of working class culture and could not have thrived without it.

The struggle of ordinary people to cultivate land against the wish of farmers who wanted a monopoly on food production is echoed today by claims by certain big farmers that small producers should get off the land and leave it to the big ones, and these people have the ear of certain Conservative politicians. This is a timely reminder that the struggle for ordinary people's rights never ends.

Margaret Willes' Books

The Making of the English Gardener: Plants, Books and Inspiration, 1560-1660

In the century between the accession of Elizabeth I and the restoration of Charles II, a horticultural revolution took place in England. Ideas were exchanged across networks of ...

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The book is well written and informative. Every chapter is dense with facts, and it would repay careful, steady reading. This is a book to be kept in one's library and read steadily over a period of time, for it is not light reading. It is an ideal reference book for anyone interested in gardening history, and social and economic historians will find it a useful source.

Updated: 04/29/2014, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 04/05/2024

After the war people were exhausted, some subjects meriting research might have been neglected.

DerdriuMarriner on 04/05/2024

Thank you!

A Dig for Victory Unitedstatesian equivalent nowadays might involve government employees noticing particularly economical, efficacious farming and plant-growing.

Might there have been some attention on that order for the Dig for Victory campaign or might strained budgets and people and resources have precluded such attention?

Or might there have been some investigation, research or study postwar to note why some Victory diggers were less or more successful than, or successfully the same as, others?

frankbeswick on 04/05/2024


DerdriuMarriner on 04/05/2024

Thank you!

A Unitedstatesian counterpart might tend toward required classes, required certification, required inspections.

That arrangement seems cost-, personnel-, resource-intensive for wartime efforts even as it tends toward such a configuration nowadays, for instance in organic farming.

Would the government advice have been a recommendation or a requirement in the Dig for Victory campaign?

frankbeswick on 04/05/2024

In the dig for victory campaign government advice was offered to gardeners.

DerdriuMarriner on 04/04/2024

How the working class inspired the Dig for Victory campaign intrigues me.

Might the British government have offered planting, irrigating, fertilizing guidelines and standards?

Or were the working-class gardeners working their gardens their way?

frankbeswick on 03/10/2023

My grandfather never wrote anything.

DerdriuMarriner on 03/09/2023

It's reassuring to hear about experiences such as your grandfather's. It must have been a nice way of the Salvation Army staff thanking him for his military service.

Would your grandfather by chance have written about his wartime experiences and about that post-service experience?

frankbeswick on 03/09/2023

Jack London is well known over here.

frankbeswick on 03/09/2023

This is a thought stimulating account, but I do not know why he did not write about America.

Interestingly, my grandfather once had to use a soup kitchen. He arrived in London after World War One with just the clothes he was wearing, a travel pass home and six pence in pocket. Having missed the last train home he looked for a doorway to sleep in, then he saw a Salvation Army soup kitchen. The staff refused his offer of money and gave him a small meal. The payment they asked for was for him to go away and do for another person what had been done for him.

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