Allotment gardens are wonderful liminal places. Small islands of rural life tucked away within or at the edges of a town. They are wonderful examples of co-operative living and community spirit. Allotments are generally run by a committee of members, families work together, older allotment holders mentor newcomers, tools and surplus crops are shared, when it works it is a truly collective, almost utopian, way of living.
Allotments are also great places to see how innovative recycling methods can be applied, pretty much anything can and is reused, for example, plastic water piping is commonly used as the ribs of polytunnels, old baths and sinks become raised beds for strawberries etc. They are also great places to discover outsider art, although I’m sure that in most cases, it is unintentional.
The history of allotments is a reflection of the social changes working people have undergone over the past two hundred years, a history that charts the dispossession and exploitation of the working people of Britain.
The origins of allotments lie in acts of enclosure of the 18th and 19th century. Prior to the enclosures, commoners had a share in a common field; they were able to keep a few animals. Their animals would provide for the needs of their families with food and any surplus could provide a small income. A commoner only needed part-time work to supplement the family income. This was not in line with the thinking at the time. The industrial revolution was underway and people were required to work in the new factories and mills in the towns and cities.
During the late 18th eighteenth century, the landed gentry began a movement to subdivide and enclose the common land. This was brought about by radical improvements in the way farming took place in Britain, the so-called agricultural revolution, a movement that ran in parallel with the industrial revolution.
The results of this agricultural revolution were wide ranging. The introduction of new root crops coupled with crop rotation and the selective breeding of livestock resulted in fatter animals and a plentiful supply of winter feed. Prior to these changes, only the brood stock would be kept alive through the winter, the rest of the animals would be killed off and salted down for winter meat. Larger flocks and herds required land, local landowners, keen to apply the new methods of farming, applied political and economic pressure resulting in the enclosure of the common fields.
Arthur Raistrick described the enclosures as a ‘tragedy for the small man; he lost his right of pasturage on the common, lost his bit of land, and was compelled to become a wage labourer in a time of falling wages and rising cost of living. It secured the enslavement of the working classes.’ (Pennine Walls 1961).
The word ‘allotment’ originates from land being allotted to an individual under an enclosure award. The small holders were gradually pressured off the land by the large landowners and life got progressively worse for the rural working class. The end of the Napoleonic wars meant there was a surplus of labour and wages were reduced, the introduction of the threshing machine meant that fewer labourers were required. These hardships eventually led to widespread social unrest resulting in the Swing Riots of the early 1830s.
In 1832 Benjamin Wills formed the Labourer’s Friendly Society. The society promoted the purchase of small plots of land at reasonable rents for use at allotments. Also in 1832 the ‘Great Reform Act’ was passed into law, enfranchising approximately 20% of adult males. After its passing William Cobbett, probably the most influential radical activist in Britain at the time, stated that ‘the Reform Bill owed more to the country labourers than to all the rest of the nation put together’. In 1845 the General Enclosure Act 1845 required that provision should be made for the landless poor in the form of ‘field gardens’.
During this period, allotments were largely confined to rural areas. The Victorians promoted the spread of allotments into urban areas. They viewed allotments as a wholesome alternative to drink and other working class “degenerate” pursuits. The requirement for increased food production during world wars of the 20th century saw a boom in allotments, however allotments have gradually declined from the post war period. During the Second World War there were 1,400,000 plots, there are now only about 250,000, the number of allotments has halved since 1969.
The shortage of land coupled with a current increase in demand means that plots are getting smaller. Curiously allotments are measured in poles, the average allotment used to measure 10 poles but is gradually being reduced to 5 poles and even 2.5 poles in some areas. Councils have a legal obligation to provide land for allotments but they are also increasingly under financial pressure to sell land for building development. Hopefully enough people will hold their local councils to account and prevent the number of allotments from dwindling further.