A Brief History of Allotments.

What follows is a very simple history of allotments in (particularly) England. While other European countries have something akin to the English allotments, it appears that their evolution is significantly different.

It is possible to trace “allotted land” back to Saxon society and the usual “open-field system of producing food, when, put simplistically, villeins were given the right to work land, shared, “common land” grazing rights and a “house” in return for service to “the manor”. This was simply a snapshot of society and the political landscape of the times. This can be seen as a recurring theme in the continuing evolution of both society and allotments: things will change … it is their nature.
However, allotments as we perceive them in the twenty first century are more directly an evolution from contemporary pressures on later land use. This and government measures known now collectively as the Enclosure Acts (in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries).
On some scale or other enclosure of land was perhaps inevitable, because as agricultural methods changed, society at all levels changed along with it. The ways of life and livelihoods of those who had traditionally worked on the land was most under pressure. New crops and animal husbandry systems, especially the introduction of early machinery to replace man power, meant that the labourers and their families were consistently marginalised: suffering loss of rights and access to the land they had previously grown subsistence food on, grazed sheep on and, in some cases, pigs.
So called “rebellions” and widespread, popular demonstrations were dealt with. Among the most notable being the Midland Revolt (also known as the “Captain Pouch” riots), the “Diggers” movement (1649) and the Captain Swing riots (after the Napoleonic Wars, 1831). The “diggers movement, for example, began in Surrey and lead to more than eight “colonies” of poor people literally digging up ground and planting crops.
Despite this opposition, landowners enclosed increasing amounts of what had previously been “common” countryside. This lead to local landlords, the church and other organisations “allotting” pieces of land to deserving locals as acts of local charity.
In the 1845 General Enclosure Act “field gardens” were to be set aside for “the labouring population”. These were, of course, mostly in the rural areas.
However, following the agricultural revolution, came the Industrial revolution. As agriculture, animal husbandry, rural employment patterns and the face of the countryside had changed dramatically, so next did the townscapes; the production and transport of goods. Cities and towns in Victorian Britain expanded incredibly rapidly, taking in many of the disenfranchised country folk. Allotments started to spring up in these places from the 1850s.
So in 1906 it became law that local authorities must make allotment garden space available in and around towns and cities too. Some “model factory” owners planned and built such areas into the towns they had built to house their communities (locally Cadbury’s Bourneville is a great example of this social engineering experimentation).
National acceptance of allotments (in an evolving form) came during the two world wars; initially with people being concerned about the effects of rationing on their own families and later a wider concern about simply growing enough to feed the nation. Government departments got involved and the much celebrated Dig for Victory campaigns had local authorities and the Royal Family turning public and royal parks, playing fields and palace grounds into forms of allotment. Countless how-to manuals and pamphlets were released to pass on techniques and raise morale. Everyone was encouraged to play a part in the “war effort”.
By the end of the Second World War there were over one and a half million allotment plots recorded.
But increasing prosperity – and again change of lifestyles – meant a serious decline in numbers engaged in allotment gardening in the late 1950s and 1960s.
A TV comedy series The Good Life, in which a professional couple sort to lead organic, sustainable self-sufficient lives may have stirred some brief flash-in-the-pan resurgence in the 1970s but it was short-lived. Allotment gardening takes time and commitment and this is not always made clear on TV; certainly not in a comedy series (which was not about allotments per se in the first place)
In the 1990s gardening was recorded as Britain’s favourite pastime and TV programming reflected this.
Alongside this greater, more credible information about organic living and growing meant that a wider cross-section of the public wanted to take up allotments – if sites have not ceased to exist. Many have been sold off (conspiracy theories surround many of these closures), undergone changes of use or become seriously overgrown and- apparently – unmanageable.
Nevertheless local authorities remain bound by law (from 1908) to fund provision of local allotment land

Further reference/bibliography
Your Allotment, Clare Foster
The Allotment Source Book: Caroline Foley


3 responses to this post.

  1. Our own allotments were left to the common man by the Duke of Portland.. There is now a good waiting list to rent…. Good to read about the History of allotment land
    Many thanks


    • We believe our site has been allotments since 1892, but original documentation is hard to find.
      Just fascinated by the very real links between that little piece of land and national history:kind of humbling, kind of empowering eh?


  2. […] A Brief History of Allotments. (mucktwineandthinker.wordpress.com) […]


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