British Culture & Expressions

British history of allotments

In the UK, allotments are small parcels of land rented to individuals for the purpose of growing food crops. The most common plot is 10 rods, an ancient measurement equivalent to 302 square yards or 253 square metres.

The history goes back over a thousand years. Land ownership became more concentrated in the hands of the manorial lords, monasteries and church. In the 11th and 12th centuries, England was largely an agrarian society based on feudal principles. In the Open Field System, that had first appeared in England in the Saxon period, a village was surrounded by several large fields that were split into long narrow sections. A furlong stretch was split into strips. Each villager had a number of strips that were allocated at a public meeting at the start of the year. Crop rotation was practised by field. A three-year rotation consisted of barley, wheat and fallow. As the population grew it was difficult to maintain the system. Aristocracy and farmers lobbied aggressively to privatise land by moving to a closed field system through Land Enclosure. In the 18th and 19th centuries Enclosure took two forms:

  • the division of large open fields into privately owned chunks of land.
  • the division and privatisation of common land and common wastes.

The Allotment Movement. The early struggles.

The allotment movement kicks off in the 1760s when some members of the landed gentry and the clergy support that allotments would reduce crime, immorality, reduce the amount of Poor Relief, and would provide incentives to people to have a stake of land. An early experiment was carried out in 1770 by a Lord of the Manor who set aside 25 acres of land for use by the poor near Tewkesbury. The successful outcome was that the poor rate was reduced.

The promotion of allotments was one of the objectives of the SBCP (Society for Bettering the Conditions and Increasing the Comfort of the Poor) which was formed in 1796. Unfortunately, attempts to provide a legal framework for allotment provision had the opposition from landowners and farmers who feared that they would lose land.

Although the emphasis of the allotment movement had been on the provision of land for the rural poor agricultural labourers were not the only plot holders. Craftsmen and industrial workers such as carpenters, masons, blacksmiths and miners accounted for around 34%. Tradesmen such as publicans, butchers and bakers amounted to 2%, and there was the occasional professional person.

The Explosion (1873-1945)

The number of allotments grew from 243,000 in 1873, to 445,000 in 1890, and on up to 600,000 in 1913 just prior to the First World War.

  • The Allotment Extension Act (1882) that required trustees holding charity land for the use of the poor to set aside part of that land for use as allotments.
  • The Allotment Extension Act (1885) which allowed allotments to be let at the same rate as surrounding farmland.
  • The Allotment Extension Act (1887), which was the first attempt at legislating for the public provision of allotments. It enabled Sanitary Districts to provide allotments, if necessary by the compulsory purchase of land.
  • The Allotment Act (1922) specified 40 rods (1/4 of an acre) as the maximum size of an allotment garden; it required 6 months notice to quit and compensation terms for plot holders.
  • The Allotment Act (1925) defined “statutory allotments”, land which had been purchased solely for use as allotments. Councils could not sell or reuse such land without the consent of the Secretary of State for Agriculture.
  • The Local Government Act (1929) agricultural and allotment land became non-rateable.

Between the end of the war in 1945 and 1947, 0.5m allotments disappeared as temporary plots reverted to their original use, and people gradually started to lose interest.

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