To understand the history of allotments we have to go a long way back in history. In 1086, according to the Domesday Book, the basic economy of England was agrarian with 90% of the people living in the country and earning their food from the resources of the land. The Open Field system was practised meaning the fields surrounding a village were divided into strips allocated to the villagers.
Gradually over the next five centuries, manorial lords and the church acquired more land for themselves. With the dissolution of the monasteries the property owned by the church was seized by Henry VIII who gave it to those currently in his favour at court, creating an ever greater divide between rich and poor.
In what appears to be the very first reference to allotments, portions of land were allotted to tenant cottagers during the reign of Elizabeth 1, in an attempt to lessen public discontent.
But now farming methods were changing and it became more practical – and profitable for some – for larger holdings to be created. This led to more of a closed field system, which required commonly-held land to be privatised for the benefit of landowners and the aristocracy. Between 1700 and 1860, 5 million acres of common land were enclosed under General Enclosure Acts of parliament.
The result of the land enclosures combined with a growing population was a major increase in hunger and poverty. The Poor Laws, which included Poor Relief funded by ratepayers, were brought in as an early type of welfare system.
Robbed of the land on which to grow their food, many villagers moved into the large industrial towns and cities that were developing. This in turn led to an increasing number of poor living in the 18th century equivalent of inner city tenement blocks.
Social reformers began to put the case for land in every parish to be put aside for allotments arguing that land on which to grow food would not only provide an incentive for the poor, but it would also reduce the amount of Poor Relief that would have to be paid. They argued that the facility to grow their own food would give the poor self-respect, a sense of ownership – and it would keep them out of the public houses!
Various Lords of the Manor experimented setting aside land for allotments although some set rules as well, for example, regular attendance at church. But the opposition of the majority of the landed gentry was too strong and, apart from a few individual benefactors, for a long time little came of the movement to provide allotments. A few laws were passed but rather than being a statutory duty it was voluntary and optional.
But by the mid 1800s life was getting harder still for the rural poor and the Swing Riots of 1830-31, across the south of England, instilled a sense of fear into the prosperous and finally the allotment movement took off. Initially it was for the benefit of the rural poor but gradually gardens and then allotments were introduced into some of the major towns as well. By 1850 there were allotments in Southampton, Leeds and Bradford.
The 20th Century
The need for food during the First World War prompted the setting up of huge numbers of temporary allotment sites. Again during the Second World War the famous Dig for Victory campaign encouraged everyone to do their bit. In towns many parks and playing fields were turned over to the growing of vegetables.
Although the number of allotments has decreased greatly since its halcyon peak, we may be on the verge of a new revival of interest. More and more of today’s consumer want to be sure their food is fresh, organic, ethically sourced and not genetically modified, and many are looking to grow their own.
Major Dates in Allotment History
- 1782 An Act was passed allowing Guardians of the Poor to enclose 10 acres of land for the benefit of the poor
- 1819 Select Vestries Act allowed churchwardens to purchase or lease up to 20 acres of land that could be used by the poor.
- 1830 Swing riots frighten landowners into action and allotment movement takes off
- 1845 General Enclosure Act which stated that provision should be made for the landless poor. The provision took the form of ‘field gardens’ of a quarter of an acre
- 1887 Allotment Act requiring local councils to provide allotments if there were a demand
- 1908 Small holdings and Allotments Act imposing further, and strengthening, responsibilities of local councils
- 1950 Allotment Act ensuring provision of 4 acres of allotment land per 1,000 head of population
Number of Allotment Sites
- 1830 probably about 100
- 1873 243,000
- 1890 445,000
- 1913 600,000
- 1916 1.5 million
- 1945 1.75 million
- 1970 532,000
- 2000 250,00