During National Allotment Week, a Guardian Online article claimed that allotment waiting lists in Greater London were up to a staggering 40 years. This is partly due to an increase in demand from the swelling Grow Your Own movement, and partly due to the dire shortage of plots nationwide. The waiting list here in Brighton is a cautiously optimistic 2 years, but for the 85 allotments in the city; 2,000 people are standing in line.
Allotments are a terribly British thing, with a rich history of the working man versus the landed gentry,riots, uprisings and angry letters to The Times. Over 400+ years there’s been enough blood and bone meal shed to raise a healthy crop of vegetables in the pursuit of “free land for all”. Allotments lay somewhere between guerrilla gardening and community gardens.
Recently I appeared in an online article about community gardening, a phenomenon that seems intrinsically US-based. Throughout the piece, there’s talk of rents and rights, and more of a sense of citizens maintaining a plot that’s rightfully theirs. On the other hand, in the UK, there is an air of slightly smug Christian charity as unwashed subjects receive their allotments. It wasn’t always this way.
During the ironically named Dark Ages, the Feudal System was in full swing, and the Open Field System reigned. Villagers received around half an acre of free land from the fields surrounding the village, allocated at random during annual public meetings. This was in lieu of wages, and the farmers practiced crop rotation, bartering and seed swapping.
By the Middle Ages, the growth in population and the extra manure from increased animal husbandry led to larger crops, less available land and greedy landowners. After successfully lobbying Parliament in a sustained campaign of wealth and power versus general fairness, the landed gentry managed to close off 5 million+ acres of common land and field between 1700 and 1860.
Statistically, less than 12% of the population owned any of the land that they worked on, and the population rise of 77% resulted in emergency Poor Laws, workhouses and increased starvation. Gerrard Winstanley’s Diggers tried, and failed to wrestle common land back from the aristocracy and despite altruistic murmurs from some clergymen and landowners, poverty and crime was on the rise.
It wasn’t until the Swing Riots of 1830 and 1831 in the South of England that the aristocracy started to take proper notice of the Great Unwashed. A series of bad harvests in the two previous years, returning Napoleonic war soldiers and the newly invented threshing machine meant that starvation was at crisis point – hence the pitchfork waving, general shouting and head kicking.
Enter the General Inclosure Act of 1845 – an about-face of vast proportions, which allowed the landless poor access to at least ¼ of an acre of soil. The Victorians rather liked this in their po-faced, charitable way, and saw it as a means to curb degenerate behaviour through fresh air and God’s double digging. By 1873, there were an estimated 243,000 allotments, meaning one in every three labourers had their own vegetable plot.
The Golden Age of cake sales, flower shows and marrow measuring began…