Friday, 27 November 2020

New Imperial College Report Sheds Light on London Allotments Today


London allotments are still reducing in number whilst the demand for them is exploding.

This is one of the major findings of a research paper into allotments in London by Imperial College, London’s Centre for Environmental Policy (Fletcher, Collins) and published in the ‘Urban Forestry and Urban Greening’, journal published by Elsevier. The paper highlights some interesting findings about the continued decline in the number of plots, the associated land occupied by allotments in London and the increase in demand and value of allotments.

Since the GLA report in 2006, demand for allotments has increased four-fold and this excludes the current further increase within the Covid pandemic. Based on the information from some 55% of London’s sites the paper estimates that the provision of allotments would need to increase by 77% to address current waiting lists. In 2006 the GLA report identified a waiting list across London of 4,300; today’s findings are that it has increased to 17,424. This is not uniform across London, with the average wait being some 4 – 5 years. However, there is a significant variation by borough and even sites within a borough. This must be viewed against the fact that the true latent demand is somewhat hidden with some 16.3% sites having closed their waiting lists. A survey by Brent asked all their 570 applicants on the waiting list to confirm they wished to be retained on the waiting list and only 268 or 50% did. However, this doesn’t take into account waiting time and its associated frustration and probable lack of communication since joining the waiting list. This is also currently compounded by the survey being performed in 2019 and prior to the current explosion of demand during the 2020 Covid pandemic and continued rise in applications today. From our own experience our waiting list has risen from some 160 in February 2020 to 270 plus today for a site of 100 plots.

It is also relevant to note the points made in the Thorpe report re people applying for plots in multiple sites and the report again raises the lack of centralised city wide planning , duplication of effort and poor communication between sites, sites and boroughs and boroughs. This lack of communication is viewed as exacerbating plot availability and waiting list lengths.

Interestingly, the Imperial report found that the rate of closure between 2006 and 2012 was 3.2% but over the last seven years there had been a net loss of 41 sites (5.73%) which would imply that the rate of closures increased in the more recent window. It states that five boroughs however had increased their site numbers; Harringay, Islington, Lewisham, Hounslow and Westminster.

The research only reviewed allotments on Local Authority land and identified some 682 sites which is below the overall numbers generally accepted in London which is around 750. The research received detailed responses from some 399 sites (58.5%) which totalled 24,883 plots and an area of 895 hectares. The inner London boroughs had some 16% of sites but only 7.9% of the land area. The boroughs with the highest numbers of sites were found to be, Bromley(51), Barnet (44), Ealing (44) whilst the boroughs with the highest number of allotments per head were per capita; Sutton, Bromley and Bexley. The report looks at the acreage covered by allotments but doesn’t identify the growing trend towards splitting plots and creating a two-tiered plot size environment. Using the measure of area of allotments per head the highest scoring good boroughs are Barnet, Enfield and Bromley, whilst the lowest  are Westminster, Lambeth and Hackney, with no sites in the City of London and Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

They calculated that based on the Brent council published estimates (2018) that 21% of allotment land is given over to infrastructure and by applying the scaling factor across London results in some 188 hectares are infrastructure, leaving 707 hectares as active growing space.

It also found that 52.8% of sites are managed by the authorities and 47.2% are classed as self-managed. 

London like most major cities has and continues to experience a population increase, (some 10% from 8.11 million in 2012 to 9.11 million at the time of this report). This obviously increases demand on; housing, land, local authority budgets and spending resulting in allotment land often viewed by some as prime site for housing development and a quick cash option for local authorities. This is not unique to London or England. There is a stark difference between inner and outer London Boroughs with the latter free of the statutory requirement to provide allotments where there is demand.

The report found that allotments are an invaluable part of the urban environment, promising many ecological, social and health benefits beyond their primary function as food growing areas. It surveyed some 317 individuals about the benefits associated with allotments with them ranking the benefits between 0 and 9. The results in descending order were:

1.       Relaxation

2.       Mental health

3.       Recreation

4.       Food production

5.       Physical health

6.       Lower environmental Impact

7.       Improving the local environment

8.       Learning new skills

9.       Socialising

10.   Saving money

It would be interesting to see what these would be post Covid.

We await the second report on Demographics and congratulate Imperial College on the report and effort expended and some great supporting maps.

Tuesday, 24 November 2020

The Thorpe Report Recommendations for Allotments in 1969


In August 1965, a formal government inquiry into allotments was initiated by the then Ministry of Land and Natural resources under the leadership of Professor H. Thorpe. Their report’s 350 pages was published 4 years later and is now often referred to by many as the ‘Thorpe Report’. It was never taken up and was left on the shelf until we dusted it down.

In the last 50 years more power has been decentralised and local government structure has radically changed with a general move towards localism and local decision making and away from the central approach of the day.

Today we review and summarise its 75 pages of findings and recommendations. Time and circumstances have moved on and predicting 50 years ahead is almost impossible and although we may disagree with many of the recommendations it is interesting to acknowledge the thinking of the day and wonder what its impact would have been if it had happened. The consensus on the day was, that unless the provision and administration of allotments changed and the wider concept of gardening as a recreation was adopted allotments would slowly disappear.

There are too many recommendations to cite in detail but there are some important changes that were advocated (our thoughts are included in italics):

Repealing the various Allotment Acts and creating a new ‘Leisure Garden Act’ which would charge local authorities into managing and providing leisure gardens under new leisure garden authorities. There is a clear shift in thinking from allotments as we know them to a wider view of leisure gardens similar to that we have when we look at community gardens today. This could be similar in its impact to that when rural smallholdings diverged from allotments at the beginning of the 20th century.

‘A leisure garden is one of a group of contiguous plots of land, each not exceeding twenty poles in extent and not attached to a rateable dwelling, provided by a leisure gardens authority for recreational gardening by the occupier and his family.’

The new Act should contain clear tenancy principles and ‘model’ rules issued by the Minister and be part of local authority planning. These included rules on; no livestock except bees, strict control on all structures in terms of size, materials, shape, location and even colour, security etc. The issue of cultivation and non-cultivation and the storing of unsightly or inappropriate material and equipment and fires are also covered. Authorities may amend these along the same lines with the minister’s consent. The same start point but variance inevitable so questionable. This clearly goes much further than the current situation in that encompasses these tenancy rules within the law.

That while the ultimate responsibility for the condition of the communal areas should rest with the leisure gardens authority, there should be local association which manage the day to day issues and the  part of which the association and its members play in the maintenance of the site should be reflected in the rent which is charged. This would change the rent from one based on land or usage to include contribution and rebates.

An interesting imposing of a fine on anyone convicted of causing damage to a leisure garden, its crops, fences, buildings. In principle laudable but questionable as this should be covered under standard law and fines aligned accordingly.

Leisure gardens should be designated ‘established’ or ‘non-established’. Established being owned by the authority and within its control for at least 21 years after establishment, viable within the current urban plan, and these definitions are similar in many ways to the current ‘statutory’ and ‘temporary’ definitions under the 1925 Act but include the provision of half an acre for each thousand of their population but it exempted the City of London and inner London boroughs and authorities with populations under 5,000. It did state that all sites must be correctly denoted on the town map. Existing statutory and temporary allotments would be divided into three categories; a. sites who qualify for establishment status with recommendation of potential contraction or expansion, b. sites worthy of retention for different periods as non-established sites, c. sites to be discarded. The recommendations to many simply changed the words but put every site under the microscope and the ratio of people to acreage would probably expand to exempt must major cities where the need and demand is greatest.

Authorities would be required to transmit to the Minister a full register of sites and classification with a map showing their distribution. Once registered the authority would be required to commence a full programme of improvement. Until site registration is complete sites protected under section 8 of the Allotments Act 1925 would still have the same protection as current. The statutory allotments committee should be abolished. The challenges over status both old and new would be significant, time consuming and potentially costly if contested.

Leisure gardens should be managed on a day to day basis by Parks department. Today we appreciate the far wider benefits and environmental and community and health and wellbeing associated with cultivation and it is very questionable if this is the appropriate department.

Applications for plots would try to establish the applicant’s preferences on use, location and cultivation planned. Once on an established site, the plotholder could swap to the other use and authorities replace structures (sheds) with ‘summerhouses’. The division of community (chalet) gardens and allotments would start to diverge under this and it is questionable if this discriminatory approach is correct and the whole ‘utopia’ envisaged would seem impracticable.

The twelve months’ notice would be applied to both the established status groups, but where a site, or part, was required for roads, or sewers this could be reduced to six months. If leased the maximum detailed in the lease would apply, and where a non-established site is required for the purpose for which the land was originally acquired, six months would be applied and if the tenant breach agreement without sufficient cause one moth’s warning would be followed by one month’s notice. Interestingly a tenant who moves outside the authority’s area would not automatically forfeit his right to retain his plot. These in some ways follow today’s practice but open up many ways in which and authority could foreclose.

If the loss of an area did not reduce the statutory half an acre per thousand population it would be able to decide on disposal and on replacement without reference to higher authority. If the loss reduces the requirement below the figure, a new site to cover this could be made available to displaced plotholders before old site is closed, and that decision would remain within the authority. However, if an authority can’t replace, or has been granted exception, an application can be made to the Minister. Again, the transparency of the registry in 1969 would have made this a potential nightmare to scrutinise and even today it is very questionable if it could be effectively managed.

There is a table (48, Page 320) which recommends rents for a 10 rod plot (sorry in old money and impossible to relate to today but raises a few interesting points, especially on supplementary items):

Basic rent for an unimproved site the same for both status sites 30s and with full amenities more than doubled to £5 for established sites. Provision of full amenities were not applicable for non-established sites.
There was a proposed supplementary charge of a £1 for a £20 shed, £3 for a £40 greenhouse and £9 for a £120 summerhouse. We can estimate these costs today and proportion accordingly.

Another table 49, page 322) gave 5 examples of methods of assessment of rent in 1969:

The first three are as above with (4) an established site with an association running its admin and maintenance estimated to save £50 with each tenant paying £5 basic rent and a rebate of £60 retained by the association.(5) Established fully equipped 100 plot site leased to an association, the estimated saving being £80 and with basic rent of some £500 and a rebate of £100 to the association.

The recommendations above are but a sample of that proposed to be included in the new statue. Personally, I feel the moves were far too ambitious and disruptive, but that some are worthy of note. What is interesting today is to witness the divide between allotments and community gardens, the disparity between rural and urban and inner-city allotments and the ambiguity that continues between statutory and temporary status and a lack of comprehensive registration. Thorpe clearly envisaged a move away from the traditional allotment and administration and need to have better definitions within statute. The question is how long it will be before another Thorpe Report is commissioned and whether the outcomes those will be radically different?

Monday, 23 November 2020

London Calling


The London Region of the National Allotment Society has only been established as a separate region of the National Allotment Society in the last few years. It has members in a wide diverse set of areas; inner city,  high density, deprived boroughs, suburban, semi-rural within some 27 boroughs and where each of the 750 London allotment sites may have its own unique ethnic and demographic mix, who all share one thing in common – a love of gardening and cultivation.

We are part of the National Allotment Society (NAS), the leading National Organisation upholding the interests and rights of the allotment community across England and Wales. Today we all face all sorts of pressures, uncertain times, increased land development pressures, tightening local authority spending and massive interest and waiting lists. Plots are often being halved and the perception of the value of allotments and the benefits they bring is changing. This has been heightened by the pandemic and its lockdowns and the need to maintain physical and mental health and wellbeing. Our vision is to be the campaigning voice and to be at the heart of a thriving allotment movement. We do this by promoting the values of allotment gardening, providing information, guidance, training and advice to Allotment Associations, Councils, Landowners and Individuals.  We endeavour to protect the existence of allotments and their good governance and to preserve the cultural and historical record of the allotment movement.

If, as a member of NAS and you have experience and time to help and wanting to become involved in the Region and our exciting program, we would like to hear from you. The key areas of focus are; Governance and promotion of best practice, Environment and supporting, sharing and creating models of good practice in the many topical areas and Community outreach supporting , sharing and creating initiatives which touch the many communities in which we all live.

To get involved in the London Region and it activities please contact Martyn Daniels, Regional Representative for London Region at

All National Allotment members in London are also invited to register for our virtual AGM which due to Covid will be on Zoom on 28th November at 1030am. Please contact

A Strange Day Clearing the Fruit Cage


The fruit cage is the last tidy up job that I do each year. It’s relatively easy but this year I found I had to first pick the last of the raspberries. Mid November and half a large yogurt pot of raspberries wanting to be picked! Maybe I tidied up a bit earlier in other years and so missed this last few, or maybe the mild weather has just tricked them into giving up a few more this year. Irrespective, they will top up the bowl of rhubarb crumble and custard tonight.

The cage itself had a major refit this year so both the netting and stakes in good order and only a couple of supports required a bit of gaffer tape.

It’s strange you weed and fork over any part of your plot and if on cue you get the wildlife that comes not to watch, but to sit like vultures and hunt down exposed worms and food. Robin always has a sixth sense of when soil is being broken and turned and food is exposed. He appears from nowhere. Often the next day the plot of turned soil is covered with little footprints from Freddie Fox and his gang, who either like dancing on the soft soil at midnight, or just want to examine your work. Sometimes they dig a little hole, just to check your work and how far down you have gone. So there is not only no dig and dig but also Fox dig.

I am awoken from my thoughts by, ’What do you think you are doing?’ It comes over my should as I am on my hands and knees weeding and forking the soil.

I turn and behind me are not one but a small troop of squirrels standing on their hindlegs, arms folded across their chest and staring at me with those little black eyes.

I reply, ‘what’s it to do with you? Which I thought was a responsible question to ask.

‘What’s it to do with us?’ exclaimed the big one at the front immediately. The others were clearly egging him on.

‘Iam just tidying up the plot for Winter.’ I reply.

‘You are disturbing all our hiding places,’ comes the response. ‘We love this area as it is free from that squadron of pigeons, is hardly disturbed and Freddie Fox and his gang can’t get in. It’s our larder cupboard and a bolt hole.’

I felt guilty for one minute and then remember that so far I haven’t seen any sunflower heads or stashes of hidden food or even signs of any. The second squirrel at that point starts to dig in the soil as if he is in search of a pot of gold, but on finding nothing lets out a audible tut and goes over and whispers into the leader’s ear.

‘Look we know we buried a load of your sunflower seeds here and they have gone,’ the leader declares.

‘Are you sure?’ I ask.

I remember squirrels have a ‘spread betting’ way of hiding food all over and forgetting where they put it, but safe in the knowledge that they will find some. The squirrels go into a huddle, arms around each other’s shoulders like a team about to go into extra time and listening to their captain’s words of wisdom.

Next minute one by one they scamper off and start to disappear their bushy tails going under the netting by the tree.

‘Ok we may have got the location wrong this time, but if you come across a pile of sunflowers seeds or the odd flowerhead can you mark it with a stick?’ the leader asks rather meekly.

Before I could answer he too has gone and his bushy tail scoots under the netting.

I look over towards Lottie, but remember he didn’t want to come today and complained it was too cold to sit out on the bench. Even with a dog bed and blanket whippets can be nesh. It’s a good job really as she may not be happy seeing me talking to her arch enemy the squirrels and especially whilst she would have been tied up and unable to chase them.

Time to go home and have those raspberries and leave the netting as is so they can enjoy the fruit cage and keep digging for food and turning the soil over for me.

Thursday, 19 November 2020

A Brief History of Allotments, Part 2: The Boom and Bust Years of 20th Century Allotments


Early 20th Century Allotments

In August 1965, a formal government inquiry into allotments was initiated by the then Ministry of Land and Natural resources under the leadership of Professor H. Thorpe. Their report’s 350 pages was published 4 years later and is now often referred to by many as the ‘Thorpe Report’.

The article below draws upon the comprehensive review of the twentieth century allotments and the statutes that were passed which affected them.

By 1900 allotments had come to be recognised as either ‘garden allotments’ of some quarter of an acre or below or larger ‘farm’ allotments. The distinction depended on whether they were cultivated by spade or plough. In 1900 almost two-thirds of all allotments were ‘garden’ in character.

In 1908 the Small Holdings and Allotments Act came into force, placing a duty on local authorities to provide sufficient allotments, according to demand. Central power was vested in the Board of Agriculture, reflecting the view that County Councils had not been effective. The Board of Agriculture was able to launch independent inquiries if it considered that a County Council was not doing its job. The Act tidied up the 1887, 1890 and 1907 acts and included a statement that councils could not run allotments as a loss-making activity; and it required that notice to quit had to be given to plot holders. This act is still on the statute book today.

A Board of Agriculture survey in 1912 showed that around 25% of councils supplied land for allotments, amounting to 31,000 acres of which approximately 23% was purchased and the remainder leased.  There were difficulties in getting land for urban allotments, principally due to development pressures and to address this The Vacant Land Cultivation Society was formed by Joseph Fels in 1907, but it had little early success in getting areas of waste land under cultivation.

In 1913 evidence given to a Land Inquiry Committee showed high demand for allotments in almost every urban area. At this time, a standard size of 300 square yards had been widely adopted.

The First World War gave allotments a massive boost especially in urban areas. In 1916, under the Defence of the Realm Act, local authorities were given powers to secure as much land for allotments as demanded, and parks, open space, playing fields were requisitioned and ‘wartime plots‘ appeared. Railway allotments increased from 27,680 to 93,473 plots between 1914 and 1918. In 1913 there had been 600,00 allotments in England and Wales and by 1918 this had increased to 1.5 million.

A Board of Agriculture report in 1916 found a great disparity between the rural and urban allotments with the urban ones producing more, and were maintained better whilst costing the user more. The rural allotments on the other hand, tended to be on poorer land, were poorly maintained, produced a lot less and costed a lot less.

Between Wars

At the end of the war there was a need to give up some 50,000 acres of allotment land but the returning servicemen fuelled a surge in demand, and it was estimated some 7,000 new applications were coming forward each week. In addition fresh food was in short supply and it’s price had risen sharply, and with a closing of the munitions factories and reduction in overtime many had more leisure time. The Land Settlement Act of 1919 was intended to help but it was the first time all references to the ‘labouring population’ was omitted and allotments were to be open to all, irrespective of status or occupation.

By 1922 the balance of the return of emergency requisitioned land and the provision of security of tenure for allotment holders was introduced in the 1922 Allotments Act. This introduced the concept of the allotment garden mainly to produce fruit and vegetables. It also required councils to set up Allotment Committees (although this stipulation was subsequently removed in the Local Government Act (1972).

The Allotment Act of 1925 followed, which today is still the pivotal Act and provided two principal provisions. First, that allotments should be considered in every town planning scheme, and Second a regulation that land purchased or appropriated by a local authority for use as allotments (statutory allotments) must not be disposed of or used for other purposes without Ministerial consent, known as section 8 orders.

In Scotland the Community Empowerment Act came in to force on 1 April 2018 and updates and simplifies legislation on allotments. It requires local authorities to maintain waiting lists and take reasonable steps to provide allotments if the waiting lists exceed certain trigger points. It also strengthens the protection for allotments and clarifies the rights of local authorities and plot holders. Provisions allow allotments to be 250 square metres in size or a different size that is to be agreed between the person requesting an allotment and the local authority. 

The National Allotment Society was formed in 1930.

Allotments declined in the 1920s and by 1929 had fallen below 1 million and less than 150,000 acres. In 1931 the Agricultural Land (Utilisation) Act was passed as a temporary measure to provide powers to the Ministry of Agriculture to provide plots. Between 1932 and 1937 even so 2,000 acres of urban allotment land was lost.  

Dig For Victory

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Michael Foot’s solan and ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign (October 1939) with the objective of creating 0.5m new allotments. Pasture land, railway land, spaces in parks, front gardens, disused land on airfields, even bomb sites became allotments. The Ministry of Agriculture produced a series of leaflets with instructions on all aspects of fruit and vegetable cultivation. As the number of plots grew it became more difficult to get hold of adequate quantities of manure.  A partial solution appeared with the introduction of National Growmore, a chemical-based balanced fertiliser 7 (nitrogen) :7 (phosphorus) :7 (potash), which was initially made available by George Monro & Sons.  Potatoes were the most popular crop while Onion Clubs were formed to encourage people to grow the crop, as it had become almost impossible to get hold of them by 1941. By 1944 there was an estimated 1.75m plots.  

Post War Decline

At the end of the war between 1945 and 1947 0.5m allotments disappeared as temporary plots reverted to their original use, and despite the harsh winter of 1947 and rationing continuing to 1954, people gradually started to lose interest.

On the legislation front, The Allotment Act (1950) increased the notice period to quit in that plot holders must be given to 12 months. In the following year (1951) the recently formed National Association of Parish Councils produced a handbook on running allotments for local councils.

For the next two decades the number of plots fell to 532,000. There were some 75,000 plots on railway land in 1950, and British Rail were the largest single allotment operator. However many factors compounded their decline at the rate of 3,000 a year with the Beeching line closures in the 1960s which saw sites simply disappear along with the lines.

By 1999 it was estimated the number of allotments had dropped to 250,000.

Allotments were once again investigated in 1998, this time by the Parliamentary Select Committee on The Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs. Like its predecessor the Thorpe Report, nothing came from this review. It did note that of 51 statutory allotment sites that were closed in the period from May 1997 to May 1998 only two of them were re-housed. A statutory allotment site is one that can be only closed with the consent of the Secretary of State who is responsible for allotments and alternative sites should be pursued.

21st Century and the rise of environment issues, climate awareness, health and wellbeing and value of allotments

Today there are some 300,000 to 350,000 allotments in England and Wales and although this looks like more sites are being created the reality in that many sites are halving the size of some plots to accommodate more from the waiting list and those looking to downsize. There have been some new sites but there has also been site or part site losses. Urban demand has increased, and inner-city demand has exploded as many have moved into flats with no gardens. This land restriction has been coupled with increased awareness in health and wellbeing, fresh food and the environment.

One group that has changed the dynamic and demographic of allotments are women and the balance in many areas is now tipped towards the female plot holders being in the majority. Young mothers have also risen in numbers changing again the age spread across plot holders. These trends are most prevalent in inner city and metropolitan sites.

A cynical view of history would indicate that we are merely on a temporary upslope of the standard cyclical pattern where periods of enthusiasm alternate with periods of relative disinterest. Nevertheless, it seems bizarre, not to say disheartening, to note that in the two year period from April 2007 to March 2009 during one such upturn in demand there were 98 section 8 applications under the 125 Allotment Act to close statutory allotment sites and only 2 were turned down .

There is a view that allotments may take on a greater leisure role in the future, as indicated in the Thorpe Report of 1969. Allotments on the Continent take this approach but the Dutch, for example, have greater land pressures than are experienced in England and Wales. Many live in flats and apartments and have no gardens. This gives people a much greater incentive to make all-round use of their allotments, and importantly, they are prepared to pay for the opportunity to establish their own green paradise. The challenge will be the traditional views of sites versus those that may herald change and a more holistic view of cultivation.

Increasing numbers of allotment sites have formed allotment associations. Part of the reason is to ensure that plot holders are represented on council-run sites. Some associations have gone further and adopted varying degrees of self-management, from simply being responsible for some site maintenance work, all the way through to being fully responsible for the entire site, including the setting of rents under leases. This change is in part due to local authorities not wanting to run sites, the move to outsource non-essential civic services and a general disinterest in the management local authorities of allotments.

Today allotments in many areas are melting pots of diversity in both ethnicity and demographics. There are often the only place where all mix socially with one common interest. This diversity and other changes are together pushing back the old perception that allotments were really day care centres for the old. The gentrification of allotments has quietly begun and although you will not see double glazed chalets where a tired old shed once attempted to stand, you are seeing money being spent and many trends being followed. The largest leek, biggest onion and straightest bean are slowly being replace by new exotic plants and raised beds.

The one thing that we have all learnt in 2020is that the future is going to be quite different. More people will work from home. Physical and mental wellbeing will be especially important, social interaction within communities will increase both physically and virtually, fresh will be important and allotment demand will only wane because it can’t be met. Today many sites have experience huge spikes in waiting list growth and even mainstream media is talking about cultivation and allotments.

What Next

Will allotments still remains as they have for many decades or will they change quite radically? Will the same laws that have lasted for nearly a century continue or will they finally be consolidated and will this herald in change? Will we see a split similar to that of the late 19th century were smallholdings went in a different direction and will community gardens prevail over single occupier allotments? The one thing that is certain is land is becoming scarcer and against this we are moving towards a gardenless or significant reduction in the number of private gardens in urban areas.

Wednesday, 18 November 2020

A Brief History of Allotments, Part 1: up to 1900

Hungerhiil Allotments, Nottingham

In August 1965, a formal government inquiry into allotments was initiated by the then Ministry of Land and Natural resources under the leadership of Professor H. Thorpe. Their report’s 350 pages was published 4 years later and is now often referred to by many as the ‘Thorpe Report’. Today we think of allotments going back centuries to the middle ages and although land was bequeathed to relieve local poverty these were hugely different from what we see today.

The article below draws upon the comprehensive review of the early history of allotment and the statutes that were passed which affected them.

Up to 1850

In the 11th and 12th centuries, England, with a population of one and half to two million, was largely an agrarian society based on feudal principals. In the Open Field system, which was popular in large parts of North Western Europe and had first appeared in England during the Saxon period, a village was surrounded by several large fields that were split into long narrow sections, typically one furlong (220 yards) by one chain (22 yards). 

In Elizabeth I’s reign, manorial commons removed common rights and tenants were compensated by being given specific ‘allotments’ of land which were invariably attached to the tenant’s cottage. During the 17th century, ‘cowgates’ were given to landless individuals and in other instances landowners would permit their labourers to grow crops upon ‘potato patches’.

Since the 17th century these lands were often regarded as a contribution to the labour’s wage . The population rose by 77% between 1750 and 1850, an increase that was partly attributable to: earlier marriage; the attraction of child labour which meant more money for the family; a decrease in the death rate, and the increase in poor relief. Increased population, coupled with ‘enclosure’, led to a significant increase in poverty. A series of Poor Laws were passed to address the problems that were caused by poverty. The first law, back in 1601, had attempted to alleviate vagrancy. Subsequent laws included: the introduction of the workhouse where the poor could be profitably employed; partial relief in the form of supplementary wages; and eventually total relief. 

In the 18th century the enclosure of land by private Acts of Parliament effectively divided areas of open fields and manorial commons into separate parcels, which were ‘allotted’. Between 1760 and 1818 over 5 million acres of land were enclosed by some 3,500 Acts of Parliament. Members of the aristocracy and successful farmers lobbied aggressively to privatise land by moving to a closed field system through Land Enclosure.  Enclosure took two forms: the division of large open fields into privately owned chunks of land; and the division and privatisation of common land and common wastes. This great land grab of ‘enclosure’ removed the peasant cultivator’s rights over large areas of common pasture and arable land. This resulted in three options for those affected; to work for the nearest landowner for wages, move to the growing industrial towns, or depend on poor relief. In 1790 80% of England and Wales’s population lived in the country, and less than 12% of people who worked on the land owned any part of it. By 1831 50% lived in urban areas. Poor Relief, funded by tax levies on parish ratepayers, rose from £700,000 in 1750, to £8m by 1850.

An Act of 1782 enabled guardians of the poor to enclose up to 10 acres of waste land near the poor house, for cultivation by the poor. In 1819 an Act empowered parish wardens to let up to 20 acres of parish land to individuals and this was increased to 50 acres in 1831.

However, there was a surplus of labour with the return of soldiers after the Napoleonic Wars and automation in the form of the threshing machine. These factors, together with bad harvests in 1829 and 1830, led to the Swing Riots of 1830 and 1831 across Southern England, resulting in the burning of hayricks, the destruction of threshing machines plus acts of robbery and burglary. Fears of further social unrest led to the formation of the Labourer’s Friend Society (LFS) by Benjamin Wills, a London surgeon, in 1832. It promoted the acquisition of small plots of land at reasonable rents for use as allotments. It was not until the General Inclosure Act of 1845 that provision of ‘poor’s’ allotments became widespread. The Act empowered the Inclosure Commissioners to specify as a condition on enclosure the appropriation of land for the labouring poor.

The most vociferous opposition to the spread of allotments came from landowners and farmers who often cited that they were unnecessary and a bad use of labour. They were tying a labourer to a specific piece of land and inhibiting the mobility of labour. Some even stated that as allotments could not be given to all it was pointless giving them to any. Allotment size was also an issue as if it was too large, the tenant would cease to be available as a farm labourer. This last point was made to a Select Committee in 1843 saying that no allotment should be of a greater size than a man could cultivate in his leisure moments. The issue of poor relief was also prevalent as allotments were a way of excluding those in procession of an allotment from poor relief.

At Cranfield (Bedfordshire), the standard rules included a requirement that every tenant must attend church regularly, must conduct himself with propriety, and must bring up his family in a decent and orderly manner. The rules also stipulated that anyone convicted of any offence would be deprived of his allotment. They also forbade the allotment holder to cultivate his plot between 6am and 6pm without permission.

Between 1850 and 1900

By 1850 there were estimated to be around 100,000 plots, but demand far outstripped supply and there were long waiting lists despite the fact that rents were high, often greater than that of surrounding farm land. An allotment could produce double the yield that could be obtained from the equivalent area of farm land as it was better prepared and it was more intensively cropped. Despite the high rents, by 1873 it is estimated that there were 243,000 allotments with an average size of ¼ acre, and that one in three agricultural labourers now had a plot.

This period was one of significant change with the movement of labour to the towns and the subsequent rise of the demand for urban plots. There were other changes as urban demand was driven not to address poverty as much as to provide recreational use and a wide range of gardening. In Birmingham small ‘guinea gardens’ (which were small and rented for a guinea) became extremely popular. In Nottingham hosiery workers grew roses as their favourite pastime pursuit. In one year in Southampton what started out as 17 acres rented out at 8 s and 4 d for 10 rods was quickly added to by a further 10 acres and then 18 more.

The rules started to be adopted where the tenant was obliged to cultivate his plot by spade and not by plough, he was not permitted to keep livestock or sublet and annual reletting was dependent on cultivation. Some of these rules form the basis of many tenancy rules today and the division between smallholdings and allotments started to appear.

During the period 1850 to 1870 many of the new allotments were mainly the result of private initiative. In this period the cry for larger areas for farm workers led to the creation of ‘small holdings’.

In 1884 when rural property owners were given the vote changes started to happen quickly. An Allotments Bill was delayed pending a by-election in Splading. An ‘allotments’ candidate was elected defeating a strong Conservative one and immediately the 1887 Allotments Act was passed. This was the first to compel sanitary (local) authorities to provide allotments on demand from four or more local inhabitants and if this could be achieved at a reasonable rent. This was fiercely contested by the authorities in Linconshire but every seat in the 1889 county council elections was fought on the test question of allotments and the allotments party obtained a working majority. Between 1887 and 1893 the acreage devoted to allotments increased from 130 to 1,252.

In 1892 the Small Holdings Act was passed, and allotments and small holdings diverged.

By 1900 more than half the allotments that existed had been provided privately and without public action and still the main focus remained rural not urban.  The fight to establish allotments was fraught with vested interests and common land was lost as it was enclosed and privatised. However, change was happening and the emergence of the urban allotment, divergence of the small holding and the need for local authorities to provide land were major factors which would shape the 20th century allotment.

Tuesday, 17 November 2020

Radio GaGa


View from the allotments over the Mudchute Farm

I remember earlier in the year and the TV slot the allotment myself and Lottie featured in. Being constantly bounced from one day to the next, both before filming and once it was in the can. Ten minutes of fame and exposure then you’re gone.

I was approached to do a live radio interview on allotments. Ten minutes on COVID-19 , mental health and allotments. You must think twice as it’s easy to accept, then what? You rarely have journalists beating down your door, there are no lucrative book deals, and you are definitely not going to be booked on prime TV. Lottie my faithful whippet has already starred on the Apprentice, well she looked beautiful as she was given a pedicure and grooming whilst at her dog hotel.

So you scribble down a few points to help get messages across and then one hour before showtime you get bounced because Peter Suttcliffe has died. Can you do Monday at 1400 instead and you say yes and wonder if anyone will die on Monday morning or another news story will prevail?

Fifteen minutes to go, you sit down, check your phone and wait and wait and decide to have a cup of coffee. You take a quick drink with less than five minutes to go and burst into a small coughing fit.

The phone rings.

You compose yourself. Am I live? Am I on mute? Cough again and hope this will stop and is off air.

The programme is in your ear and they are finishing an interview and you are waiting to hear the segue, the introduction, and the next thing you hear is your name and a question you were not exactly expecting.

You have to think on your feet and in the ensuing minutes you find yourself covering many different areas; waiting lists, the history of your site, the diversity and ethnic mix, the pandemic and covering plots, the security we have attained with our 99 year lease, ACV and statuary status and poisonous plants!

You have finished and they go straight into the music ‘Summer in the City ‘ The Lovin Spoonful, and you can’t help but wonder where that link is in the middle of November.

The coffee is cold, the phone is quiet and then the researcher from BBC Radio London says thanks and that’s it.

For all those who missed it, sorry. For all those that heard it, I wish it had been longer, but the radio conveyer belt was running on, and no doubt the next person was coiled waiting to be released.   

To listen to the interview and skip to 38.39 mins in and the interview finishes 45.50

Friday, 13 November 2020

Voluntary Contributions


Can you imagine a volunteer workforce we could have if every site and every plot holder were to give one hour a week to community initiatives? London alone has some 750 sites and more than 30,000 plots and nationally there are over 300,000 plots spread the length and breadth of the country and in every town, city and community. Not only that but every site has a mix of cultures and backgrounds and experience which is both rich in talent and diverse in its mix.

Today I briefly watched as one of our members was pollarding trees, chopping up branches and bundling them up to remove them. Having worked with me earlier in the week he was beavering away by himself in an area of the plots which has long been neglected and become a tangled web of branches and overgrown.

Another member has established our community allotments in Canary Wharf Crossrail station gardens. They not only did it, but with a small handful of volunteers they help maintain it. They organise seed swaps and plant swaps and this year grew some 400 plants to give away to plot holders.

The reality is we all must balance getting things done to maintain the site and working on our own plots. We have to accept that the vast majority just want to turn up, socialise, enjoy the peace of their plot, work it and go home. There is nothing wrong with that and it is probably unreasonable to expect anything more.

Someone told me of a scheme of community service at another site. All plot holders are charged an extra £3 a year. If they do some community work the money is returned; if not it is taken as their contribution to the community. Obviously a very different approach to pure volunteering and not one I think I would support as a willing worker is worth a handful of reluctant ones.

I look at the site and jobs needing to be done. They do not all need doing tomorrow, but it’s easy to spot those which will take a lot of work and will struggle to get the manpower. We have a community greenhouse that blew down a year ago and needs to be rebuilt but it takes two to fix it and this year it has not been possible. We need to start to build a rainwater harvesting system to collect from the pavilion and store and pump to the tanks to reduce mains supply and reliance. We need to sort out an embankment that is slowly collapsing. We need to pollard more trees and maintain those already in hand and much more. Do we give up? No, we love the site too much and it may take longer to finish a project, but we can do it.

This year we have drawn volunteers from the waiting list. It doesn’t get them higher up the list, but it does get them involved. I wonder what they think of the unwillingness of members to pick up the gauntlet and get involved?

This is not a moan about non volunteers but a praise for those who do volunteer, don’t just talk about it, but roll their sleeves up and get stuck in with no reward other than the satisfaction of doing something for the community.  What is amazing is that the person I mentioned at the beginning  isn’t young and is in fact into his eighties and volunteers to work on the farm some 4 days a week and is busy all day long. If only we had a handful like that, but like most sites the work falls on the willing and able minority, and they just get on with it.

Thursday, 12 November 2020

Raised Beds Finnished


It seems a long time since I started to build my raised beds and although I have been deflected onto other things I have persevered and now they are finished – well almost.

We are fortunate to have had several donations of wooden decking which has had to be removed from the balconies of an estate due to fire risk and these have been used to make the beds. There is more timber now available and it is hoped that others will use this to build their own beds and borders. The last thing we want is to see these go away in a skip or to end up hidden behind an allotment shed for that rainy day project that never seems to happen.

Was it easy – no.

Is it perfect – it is for me.

The hardest part was levelling the space which I thought was level but clearly wasn’t. Building the frames was relatively easy thanks to the length being fairly uniform and the supporting battens coming with them. It just took a lot of screws and timber paint. The tarp was was laid first then cut inside the frames and clot nailed into the frames to provide a lining for the timber and a ground cover for the paths. Existing soil was mixed with used coffee grounds on the base and then covered with a layer of cardboard which was dampened. Then came the fresh soil, compost and manure and I was amazed just how much was needed.

The tarp between the frames was then covered by some reclaimed astro turf to make clean paths.

For the observant you will see I have a flagpole on my plot. It came with the plot and is now in a bed! I grow sweet peas up this and probably will continue to do so. I could raise a flag but I am not into that and probably hang it upside down.

My plot Robin was impressed with the worms i exposed on the initial levelling but is clearly confused by the raised beds and having to eat at the table although he does appreciate that the frames give him the ideal perch to watch over the bed.

Some will say I should not have done this or that or may like the ideas and adapt them, but like many of us, I love to figure it out as I go along. Some say that they should be higher, the paths wider and the frames smaller. I say they work for me.

Next season I now can compare an ordinary plot  flat area which remains as was with these new beds. I can’t wait to get using them and helping others on the site use the timber we have.  

Wednesday, 11 November 2020

Digging For Victory

Today I would like to share my painting of London dockworkers working their plots in 1942 on the Mudchute Allotments in the East End of London. They were bombed at night and were key workers keeping goods following during the day to keep the country stocked. During their spare time the allotments were their sanctuary and put food on the table. The Mudchute had some 350 plots right next to the docks and also housed an Ack Ack battery to help protect the docks.

I have previously written about the allotments during the War , the seed donations from the US and ceremonial handover to our own East End Dockland plot holders and families .The area occupied by the allotments had suffered extensive bomb damage during the first night of the Blitz in September 1940. The cartons of seeds had a huge impact on morale in the East End of London and in what was a routinely blitzed Docklands. 

The seeds helped produce onions, potatoes, beans, marrows, cabbage, beetroot, lettuces, carrots, turnips and the much needed food to help feed the East End and families that continued to work in the docks through the Blitz and the entire war and land the cargo that was vital to the UK.

Below are some photos of the ceremony and of the seeds being sown.



The author is indebted to the research and archive provided by Mick Lemmerman and the work and archive of the Island History Trust which enabled this untold story to be written.