THE HISTORY OF THE ALLOTMENT
The practical need to grow food is part of our common history, and as such we have always required small areas of land for food production. Unfortunately the history of allotments will show that this has resulted in an ongoing struggle between those who own the land and those who need the land.
The Saxons were able to clear land and hold it for common usage, but after the Norman conquests, land ownership was chiefly in the hands of the crown, nobility and the church. With various enclosure acts coming into place, problems with getting hold of land became increasingly acute. The first mentioned of allotted land arrived late in the reign of Elizabeth I when allotments of land were attached to tenant cottages in compensation for the repossession of common land.
In 1649, a certain Gerrard Winstanley led a group of hungry men to take over common land in St. George’s Hill in Surrey. This was done in protest of the common people being robbed of their land by the Normans. At this time, food prices were at an all time high and scandalously, Winstanley’s men began to cultivate it. He claimed that all men had the ‘right to dig’ and argued that if the common people of England formed themselves into self-supporting communities there would be no place in society for the ruling class. Although Winstanley’s stand captured the common mans imagination, the protest was eventually subdued by the authorities. However the spirit of ‘right to dig’ is still with many of us today.
During the Industrial revolution, thousands abandoned the subsistence way of life and relocated to the cities to work in the factories. Unfortunately poor pay and conditions meant that many families were facing starvation with no land to grow food on.
However there was change in the air with the General Enclosure Act of 1845 which recognised that provision should be made for the landless poor in the form of field gardens. These were to be limited in size of no more that ¼ of an acre, but in reality little land was made available, and any land that was converted into field gardens was largely confined to the rural areas – no use at all to the starving city folk. Nevertheless, this act marks the beginning of the Allotment movement.
In 1887, the Allotments and Cottage Gardens Compensation for crops Act forced local authorities to provide land for allotments so long as there was a demand for them. The Small Holding and Allotments Act of 1908 further imposed responsibilities on the parish and local councils to provide land - if required – a principle that still holds true to this day!
Significantly, the Victorians introduced a small levy to be charged annually to allotment holders to avoid the stigma that such land was only for the poor The popular view was that allotments were to be encouraged: not only did they prevent starvation, they kept people bust and out of the ale houses!
Food shortages during World War I saw the demand for allotments increase. Councils were finally made to make proper land provision where none previously existed. The railway companies – who held small pockets of wasteland alongside their trackside’s, allotted this to railway workers so that it could be put to productive use. Many still remain – a legacy of those years, when the number of working plots increased from 600,000 to 1,500,000. After the Great War the demand for allotments fell and many of these parcels of land were clawed back and used for housing.
This pattern was to be repeated during the Second World War when German blockades effectively hit food imports. The Dig for Victory campaign encouraged everyone to turn their gardens over to food production – no matter how small. Once again council allotments became fully utilised and - for a while – even public parks were turned over for use in food production! The nation rose to the challenge and it was estimated that 1.4 million allotments were being used to produce 1.3 tonnes of produce per years – one fifth of the nation’s food!
Demand for land after the war resulted in the Allotment Act of 1950 which recommended a provision of 4 acres of land per 1000 head of population. Food rationing continued until 1954 which ensured that allotments remained a valued resource but after this time there was a decline in interest which continued to decline until the mid 1990’s.
Today, demand for allotments have never been higher – a combination of rising food priced, a genuine concern for food quality and a reduction in the availability of plots. However, throughout the history of allotments one thing has never changed, and that is the continuing struggle between those who own the land and those who need the land.
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