The British have had an on-off love affair with allotments for as long as most people can remember. Particularly over the last hundred years or so the humble allotment with its shed and intensely grown vegetables has been on a roller-coaster ride. Food shortages during the war years and renewed interest in leisure gardening in the 1970s saw allotment numbers to rise, while they declined again during the interwar years and the 50s and 60s, as the end of rationing and mass production of food saw a reduced need for home-grown food and self-sufficiency.

The story of allotments, however, goes back hundreds of years and, in some ways, is the story of the struggle between the rich and powerful and the ordinary man.

Historical beginnings

Like much of medieval Europe, England was an agrarian society that operated an open field system whereby villages were surrounded by fields that were allocated to the residents, with each getting a mix of good and poorer land. Other land was considered common and was used by everyone for grazing, hunting and collecting fuel.

As early as Norman times, however, some landowners grew hedges around their land to prevent general access. But it was not until the 18th century that land enclosure, as it became known, really removed huge tracks of land from public use as the aristocracy and successful farmers privatised the land and closed it off. The move was almost inevitable as the increasing population and new crops rendered the old system impracticable. From 1700 to 1860, over 3,500 Acts of Parliament allowed the enclosure of more than five million acres of common fields and land, with less than 0.5% of the enclosed land being reserved for the poor. The result was that the vast majority of the land being held by a few prosperous members of the landed gentry and successful farmers and widespread poverty.

Provision for allotments

Enclosure was a cause of social unrest. Even at the time of the English Civil War, a group known as The Diggers, or True Levellers, seized land for common ownership. Led by a former soldier in the New Model Army, William Everard, members of The Diggers occupied land in St George’s Hill and Cobham in Surrey, growing their own crops. Small and lacking significant influence, the movement defied the authorities for over a year before being suppressed by Cromwell.

Some landowners, however, were more enlightened and recognised the need to allow land for the poor to provide for themselves, one of the earliest experiments in setting land aside for the poor being carried out in 1770 in Tewkesbury. Overall, at this time however, moves to promote the allocation of land for allotments were too uncoordinated to be able to combat resistance from councils and landowners. So, it was not until 1845 that the provision of ‘field gardens’ for the poor was legislated in the General Enclosure Act of 1845, the pre-cursor to several Acts relating to allotments. The Allotment Extension Act of 1887 was the most significant of these Acts and authorised councils to purchase land for allotments as well as making it a requirement for them to provide land for allotments if there was a demand. There has since been a swathe of amendments and other legislation relating to the responsibilities of councils and allotment holders.

Rural versus urban

By the late 19th century, allotments in rural areas began to lose popularity but there began to be a great demand for allotments in urban areas, driven not so much by the poor, but more by the middle classes who wanted not only to grow their own food but also a green space that allowed them some relief from crowded urban living. The development of urban allotments was also driven by the obsession with gardening of the time.

Wartime and after

During the 1st and 2nd World Wars, food shortages led to the rapid growth of allotments, as the governments of the day and the people sought to make up for the lack of supplies. The desperate need for food meant that plots were created everywhere including, in World War II, London’s Royal Parks.

After the wars, a good deal of the land given over to allotments was returned to its original use and allotments fell out of favour. Population growth also meant that much land was allocated for redevelopment. A brief revival of interest in the 1970s had tailed off again a decade or so later but new interest in fresh foods and organic practices is leading to another revival.

The future

In recent years, allotments have once again started to increase in popularity. It is estimated by the National Society for Allotment and Leisure Gardeners that there are some 300,000 people have allotment with a further 100,000 on waiting lists. But disappearing is the traditional image of the older working man in his flat cap; instead, modern allotment holders tend to be younger or middle-aged with a greater number of women involved.

Spurring this new interest are television programmes such as ‘River Cottage’ and the promotion of home grown food by celebrity chefs who espouse the benefits of fresh, natural produce. The increasing awareness and concern about the use of potentially harmful chemicals and genetically modified crops that are such a part of mass produced food is also having a significant influence. And the authorities are once again realising the value of allotments as a highly efficient use of land for food production as the population continues to rise dramatically.

It seems likely that for many years to come, Britain will be dotted with areas set aside for allotments and that vegetable plots interspersed with garden sheds will remain a part of the landscape for the foreseeable future.

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