The Allotment as Fertile Ground for Historical Study

By Zoe Farrell  | @zoeffarrell


Allotments in many ways seem like a quaint symbol of the past; reminiscent of that kind elderly neighbour who always shared the fruits of their overabundant crop.  However, allotments have a long history and were brought about in their current form for a very serious purpose. The history of allotments can reveal a lot about governmental responses to economic crises, as well as encapsulating fundamental questions about the treatment of the poor and the issue of land rights.

The history of allotments can be traced back to the Anglo-Saxon principle of common land and the ongoing struggle for maintaining access to this land. When William the Conqueror completed the Domesday Book of 1086, land was scrupulously divided amongst his supporters and subsequent manorialism meant that the common people were increasingly forced to rely on small patches of remaining common land for their sustenance.

Hundreds of years of enclosure (the legal process whereby small landholdings were consolidated into larger private farms) left the concept of common land all but redundant by the time of the Industrial Revolution.  However, enclosure was at odds with many people’s fundamental belief in their right to land. In the mid-seventeenth century, for example, the Diggers movement emerged. The Diggers believed that all men should have the right to dig, and thus grow their own food, believing the earth to be the ‘common storehouse for all.’ In 1649 a group of Diggers, led by Gerrard Winstanley protested enclosure by planting on wasteland in St George’s Hill, Surrey, which ironically now hosts a gated private development of some of the most expensive real estate in the UK.

Protests such as this one were largely unsuccessful and increasing industrialisation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries left many of the poorest destitute. By the first part of the nineteenth century, there was some recognition that the situation for the labouring poor was worsening.  Some parishes and a few enlightened landlords allotted small parcels of land to the poor to help them sustain themselves; this was, however, against a background of many politicians arguing that this was economically and socially inefficient, that it would distort the free market, and potentially lead to over-population. It can be argued that it was fear of uprisings such as the Swing riots around 1830 that helped focus thoughts on making allowances of space for the poor to grow their own crops.

The many Acts of Parliament enacted from 1890 through to the present day regarding allotments have mainly been attempts to enshrine the duty of local authorities to provide a supply of allotments for the benefit of their communities. The peak of the allotment movement coincides with the two World Wars, during which time the need for self-sufficiency was urgent. During World War One, shortage of food supplies led to a push to increase the number of allotments and it was in 1917 that allotment holding in the UK reached a peak of around 1.5 million.

In the 1940s, the notorious ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign encouraged people to grow their own food during  of rationing.  New allotment plots were created across the country, with some plots even emerging in places such as Kensington Gardens and the moat of the Tower of London. Allotment growing during the two World Wars was a political objective shared across the class barriers. Poor and rich alike were growing to fight for their country.

After a steep decline in allotment holding in the 1950s, the 1970s witnessed a small reverse in the rate of decline in popularity as new ideas about self-sustaining lifestyles went hand-in-hand with the highly popular television programme ‘The Good Life’. However, this only masked the long-term downward trend. Demand for plots dropped as easy access to cheap and varied vegetables increased, and the supply of allotments fell as pressure was put on land by developers looking to cash in on prime real estate near city centres.

Since the turn of the 21 st century, however, allotments may have perhaps been witnessing something of a revival. Increasing interest in the impact of global warming as well as concern over the origins of our food and the processes which it goes through, has led to a resurgence in people wishing to grow their own. In 2013 a survey conducted by the National Allotment Society found that there were over 78,000 people on waiting lists for allotments in England alone.

As a proud new allotment owner, vacillating between excitement at the thought of my first crop, and dread at the thought of birds eating all my newly planted onions, I am one of the new generation of young people drawn to this vision of a more sustainable, local, lifestyle.

Whilst the social climate has changed, the urge for self-sufficiency among those who do not own land is still strong. As house prices rise immeasurably and austerity squeezes even those previously less affected by economic worries, the historic notion of the right to land for cultivation seems more relevant than ever, and the idea of the earth as a ‘common storehouse for all’ still resonates strongly today.

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Further Reading:

‘Brief history of allotments: what is an allotment?’, The National Allotment Society, history-of- allotments/, (accessed 08/03/2017)

Frances Stonor Saunders, ‘Of Cabbages and Kings: The History of Allotments by

Caroline Foley – review’, The Guardian, and-kings- the-history-of-allotments- caroline-foley- review, 2 October 2014 (accessed 08/03/2017)

Margaret Willes, ‘Land and freedom: the political history of British allotments’, NewStatesman, freedom-political-history- british-allotments, 6 November 2014 (accessed 08/03/2017)

‘History of Allotments’, Allotment Gardner, basics/history-of-allotments (accessed 08/03/2017)



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