Social History of the Allotment – 17 March 2023
Dr Twigs Way
AT our March meeting we welcomed back Dr Twigs Way, consultant in garden history, giving us an extensive and witty history of the allotment.
Rural plots go back to earlier times. When over 5 million acres of land were enclosed during 1760-1818 the poor were deprived of their rights to common land and campaigns were launched for recompense. Various schemes were put forward, reliant on philanthropy and by the mid -1850s a general enclosure act provided for plots. Some parishes had no allotments, encouraging movement of labour and tenant farmers feared labourers would rely on their own produce instead of working, also promoting marriage and too many children, thus a burden on poor relief. In 1884 franchise was extended, councils having to provide allotments. There were many rules for tenants, with some threatened with the sack for working their plot on a Sunday or not attending church services. Also there was no poor relief if you had an allotment.
Urban allotments started in the 18th century with guinea gardens for the middle classes. They were used for leisure with summer houses etc. They had hedges, fencing etc. but fell out of favour when more houses had gardens. The early 20th century craze for allotments were tended by white collar workers, with many postcards issued. This had huge social consequences for families and was important to social structure. In WW1 allotments grew to 1.5 million or more, encouraging people to grow food to beat the U-boats, with many grounds dug up. We were shown images of two beautiful paintings of the Grays Globe Pit allotments in WW1 that have recently been cleaned and framed.
During the inter-war period there was a slump in take-up with some grounds being restored almost overnight. In WW2 Lord Woolton, Minister of Food, put forward the need to grow our own food with a Dig for Victory campaign aimed at one allotment plot for at least every five households. Allotments were created everywhere, including bomb sites. There were official war artists and photographers to capture the scene. Everyone joined in, including Boys Brigades, many being set up for children.
Allotment work was mostly a male preserve but in WW2 more women were involved. There was huge propaganda, creating a competing fervour, dubbed ‘the Allotment Army’. The BBC also had a radio show keeping up morale. After the war some were closed down, said to be for ‘boring old men’. The government needed land to be released for housing and open space. The Thorpe Report laid out a plan for identical sheds etc. on allotments, keeping to certain standards. Allotments were re-named Leisure Gardens (1979-82) where a family could relax and house their car. This plan for Identical plots was not successful.
In the 1980s Friends of the Earth got involved and tried to save allotments, citing ‘the good life’ and more campaigners joined in. There was a diverse population, with migrants used to growing their own generic food. This was helped by the wildlife cause and some waste areas were turned into wildlife areas. Flowers were allowed on sites with hens and other livestock, including bees, being introduced – worthy of being painted.
There is now a wider variety of people than ever before tending to plots. There is a press for community gardens with campaigns to save our allotments, getting children involved. If we know more of their history, they are more likely to be saved.
This was a very informative and entertaining lecture, opening our eyes to what is happening on our doorstep.
Our next meeting is at 8pm on Friday 21 April at St John’s Church hall, Victoria Avenue, Grays when Dr George Beccaloni will be giving a talk on Alfred Russel Wallace, after our AGM. All visitors are welcome.