By Ian Andrew Perry
The dawn of the allotment in Britain far pre-dates WW1. It is steeped in a history of food provision and the labouring poor’s right to feed themselves. In the Middle Ages, William the Conqueror gave rights to all classes of a feudal society, including peasants or ‘serfs’ (or ‘the labouring poor’) the right to own a strip of land to grow food. The land given was called ‘commons’ and in return, peasants gave one-tenth of grown produce to the state. A small patch of land gave serfs independence to provide for their families, as well as a respectable standing in a society reliant on cultivated land. However, over the centuries the manor lords focused on their own greedy pursuits. They enclosed the common fields (transforming land from arable to pasture for profitable sheep farming) and shared the land between them, frequently breaking the common law, knowing they would not pay too severely. This land had previously kept the agricultural labourer in work and fed throughout the year.
These processes cultivated social unrest between labourers and landowners. Steadily unbalancing the scales between the rights of landowners, who obtained greater control over their fields, and the rights of labourers, whose ancient common rights were consequently destroyed. Agriculture was more efficient, but the living conditions of labouring poor had withered, making them increasingly reliant on the state. Enclosures drastically came into effect during the period 1750-1830 after parliamentary laws enforced the division of entire parishes, breaking up ancient landscapes with new hedges and evicting tenants. The suffering of rural labourers was eventually acknowledged in parliament after Arthur Young, the pro-enclosure Secretary of the Board of Agriculture, in 1801, admitted that “the fact is that by nineteen out of twenty enclosures the poor are injured”. The growth in agricultural machinery (e.g. threshing machines) during the Napoleonic Wars of 1803-1815, as farmers sought a replacement for absent workers, further worsened their plight. A decline in living standards as falling wages, seasonal work and mass unemployment ensued.
To keep the peace between landowners and landless labourers, numerable private schemes were thought up, alongside the many government poor reliefs, which allowed labourers to provide for themselves. The “cow and cott” scheme, first mentioned in 1765, aimed to provide the landless poor around the parishes of England with a small cottage (cott), a cow or a pig, and a ¼ acre for a small productive garden. This instantly improved the living conditions of labourers, giving them self-respect and benefiting both the moral and practical landscape in return. In 1796, the Annals of Agriculture magazine reported “no idle hand[s] in his family, and the man himself would often go to work in his root yard instead of the alehouse”. Unfortunately, these ground-breaking schemes collected many critics and did not become widespread. Some clergy thought married labourers with allotted land would breed more offspring and demand higher wages to feed them, whilst farmers complained allotments would keep labourers from seeking employment in their fields. Concerns over labourers having a bountiful crop of their own brought in restrictions on allotment sizes. Allotments were only favoured when seen to improve a labourer’s morality, rather than their purse. Many employers belittled the need for allotments, especially if their harvest was plentiful enough to supplement a labourer’s income or they paid them a fair wage to buy food.
The Enclosure Act in 1806 outlined that a portion of land should be set aside for allotments, but support was slow. Labourers’ discontentment rose and climaxed with the Swing Riots of 1830, when threshing machines were destroyed in protest at the mechanisation of farming and working conditions. Out of the riots sprung the Allotment Acts of 1831 and 1832 – the rural allotment garden had officially landed with around 100,000 popping up between 1830-1842.
The second half of the nineteenth century witnessed varied success between supporters and opponents of the allotment. In 1872, the newly formed National Agricultural Labourers’ Union fought successfully for the provision of plots. The following year, 242,000 plots were officially recorded in England. The earliest known allotment site in Glasgow is at Cowlairs Works in Springburn for the workers of Edinburgh-Glasgow Railway in 1858. This was followed by the New Victoria Gardens in Pollokshields, in 1870, created by the Stirling Maxwell family of Pollok House so workers could grow crops as supplementary income. Despite there being movements who rallied for allotted land being set aside for labourers, such as the Allotments Act of 1887, detractors repeatedly voted against them. Until a ray of hope appeared after the county council elections of 1889 (coined the ‘allotment elections’) with the ‘allotment party’ winning by a small majority. By 1890, just over 440,000 plots started to spread into urban areas.
Unlike their rural counterpart, urban allotments trod a different path. There is evidence of several early urban allotments surrounding big towns from as early as 1700, although they had short life-spans as towns and the price of land grew. In the Victorian era, scarce agricultural work forced the skilled working classes to take in root in the cities of Birmingham, Nottingham, Coventry and Sheffield, with land space being the issue here. The desire for rented gardens to grow food of their own was sought once more. For them to escape to the country and feed their appetite for the nineteenth century pastime of gardening, rural landowners rented out plots to them on the outskirts of the newly formed suburbs.The ‘Guinea Garden’, named for their relatively high yearly rent of 1 guinea, resembled gardens used for family leisure time rather than for livelihood. They often included a lawn, flower beds, brick-built summerhouses and a small space for vegetables and fruit trees – unique personalised features which gave the impression of permanence. Sadly, the life of the Victorian middle-class suburban villas did not last long as demand for regular allotments to fulfil food shortages rose in urban areas. Councils in the early twentieth century often found quick temporary measures to fulfil this need, but they often lacked secure tenure.
As the agricultural landscape changed again, the Allotment Act of 1887 provided 200,000 allotments to ease the flow of rural labourers moving to the cities for work. However, many of them were not fruitful enough to sustain a steady income, except one or two success stories who were able to sell their vegetables, fruit, flowers and pot plants at the local market. The 1887 Act also made it compulsory for local councils to acquire land for allotments, to purchase if required. Many councils complained of not having the funds to meet demand, until the Small Holdings and Allotment Acts of 1907 and 1908 (which also kickstarted an ‘allotment craze’ among the middle classes) gave them extra powers and the means to borrow more money to purchase land for allotments. In 1902, to stop the decline in rural allotments the government started to fund horticultural education in elementary state schools, known as ‘garden’ grants. They were intended to encourage children to want to work on the land and in the process save ‘rural England’. Children in Epping, Essex would spend the morning learning to read, write and do maths and spend the afternoon tending to their allotments, learning about geography, botany and vegetable physiology. These schemes grew from 387 in 1902, 1,138 in 1907, to 3,100 in 1915.
As WW1 broke out in 1914, the allotment movement’s chequered past had prepared it to feed the starving mouths on the home front and the disputes between labourers and landowners were long put to rest as the nation began to “Dig for Dora” (Dora = Defence of the Realm Act 1914)!
Acton, Lesley, Growing Space: a history of the allotment movement (Nottingham: Five Leaves Publications, 2015)
Crouch, David and Ward, Colin, The Allotment: Its Landscape and Culture (Nottingham: Five Leaves Publications, 1997)
Foley, Caroline, Of Cabbages and Kings: The History of Allotments (London: Frances Lincoln Limited, 2014)
Way, Twig, Allotments (Oxford: Shire Publications, 2010)