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.