History of Allotments

It seems unlikely at first, but the story of English allotments winds its way through history starting as far back as the 5th century and the coming of the Saxons, gathers apace in Elizabethan times and reaches fervour in the 17th century before pitching up in the 21st century. Along the way there are explanations for why some fields have an unusual shape, the paradox of current day concerns about the removal of field hedges and an explanation for the allotment principle of recycling materials.

Common land

Ancient woods
Allotments came about to compensate for the loss of common land rights. What was common land and how did it arise?

The phrase arises from the common ownership of land established in Saxon times between the 5th and 8th centuries. Although today villages and towns are spread around the country, in the Dark Ages most of the countryside was covered in dense forest. Settlements were of two or three families and a few buildings.

Settlement inhabitants would hack arable land from the surrounding woodland field by field which was then held in common ownership to be worked co-operatively, sharing the expense of oxen to plough a narrow strip of arable land. Evidence of this piecemeal land transformation can still be found around the country in the irregular shape of fields on satellite views. But it was a long and slow process. Even by the time of the Domesday Book in 1086 much of England was still heavily wooded.


Open field strip farming map
An enclosure map
In the 16th century the principle of common land ownership first came under attack. At that time much agricultural existence was based on the rent of a strip of land from the local landowner with each agricultural worker raising a few animals grazing on the common land of the village. But a series of events caused a seismic shift in agricultural practices over the following two centuries and the social structure of England was changed forever.

Although the population were used to and could cope with having alternating good and bad harvests, four consecutive harvests from 1594 to 1597 were disastrous across much of Europe, causing great famine, with food riots throughout England. The price of basic foods rocketed, for example the price of wheat increased by 500% between 1540 and 1640. Two thirds of the population lived on or below the poverty-line and the harvest was the fundamental fact of economic life.

The first half of the 16th century saw a rapid growth in the cloth trade and a great demand for wool. Land owners found it far more profitable to switch from arable to sheep farming. Much less labour was needed to look after sheep.

Enclosure fields
Enclosure fields
Finally, to increase profit even further landowners were eager for more land and began to fence off common land to use for their sheep. Piecemeal enclosure had happened for several centuries but the financial gains to be made saw it accelerate from the 17th century onwards.

Most agricultural labourers were tenants of their cottages and received no compensation for the loss of common land rights. In some cases villagers who in days gone by could only leave their village with the permission of the landowner suddenly were evicted with their family and thrown out onto the highway. Even those who remained on the land found they had lost their means to advancement. It had been relatively rare for a labourer to be landless and the open fields with strips of land for rent gave a him the opportunity to increase the size of his holding by renting more acreage.

It’s at this point that term ‘allotment’ is first heard. Those labourers who owned their cottages received an allotment of land in compensation for the loss of common land rights. But they had to prove their rights to common land by producing documentary evidence, not an easy thing to do, or find themselves treated as tenants.

The formalisation of allotment rights

In the 19th century enclosure gathered apace, being enabled without reference to parliament. Fear of civil unrest and revolt among the common population saw the first of a number of Acts aimed at setting aside land for use as allotments. The first of these were ineffective with less than 0.3% of the land enclosed made available.

Medieval ploughing
Oxen used for ploughing
Mechanisation of farming practices meant even less need for agricultural labourers and the industrial revolution, with its town based industries, meant a shift in population from rural to urban. Naturally former agricultural workers longed to be able to tend to their own patch of land, even if in an urban environment… and certainly the need was there to supplement low wages.

The urban allotment development began to emerge, as evidenced by the guinea gardens (so called because the annual rent was a guinea) brought into use on the outskirts of Birmingham by the second half of the eighteenth century. Gradually Enclosure Acts with conditional field gardens gave way to Allotment Acts. The first was the Allotments and Cottage Gardens Compensation for Crops Act 1887, which obliged Local Authorities to provide allotments if there was a demand. After subsequent additional Acts the current requirement is for a Local Authority to provide on request by at least six resident registered electors or persons liable to pay council tax sufficient allotments to meet demand.

Development from the 20th century

At the beginning of the century there were roughly 250,000 allotments in use. This figure peaked in both the First World War (1.5 million) and Second World War (1.4 million), but by the end of the 1990s with increasing prosperity, interest in other leisure activities and greater demand for building land the number of allotments in use had dropped back down to about 265,000.

But with greater awareness in ‘green’ issues, an increased interest in home cooking and a greater appreciation in fresh organic vegetables there’s now a renewed interest in allotments and the future is bright. There are now about 330,000 allotments in use, with more than 100,000 on the waiting list.

Allotmenteers still generally make do and mend on their plots. Walk through any allotments where there’s some freedom on building sheds and you’ll find a mixture of strange and inventive edifices and a great emphasis on recycling. This tradition is rooted in the origins of allotments… to provide food for the poor.

And the paradox about current day concerns on the removal of field hedges? The Newton Rebellion in 1607 was the last peasantry uprising in England, when women and children as well as their men pulled up hedges and filled in ditches in protest at enclosure. During a pitched battle up to fifty protestors were killed and subsequently the ringleaders were hanged, drawn and quartered for removing hedges. Modern day farming methods requiring ever larger fields have seen many of those enclosure hedges removed since the 1980s. Today a farmer must notify and gain agreement from their Local Council before they can remove a hedge.

1 comment:

  1. gordon1:31 pm

    just sat down and read your blog through and really enjoyed it.


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