Land and freedom: the political history of British allotments

“Digging for victory” during the Second World War is well-covered ground but  the precedent was set three decades earlier when the government sleepwalked into a food crisis during WWI.

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Of Cabbages and Kings: the History of Allotments 
Caroline Foley
Frances Lincoln, 224pp, £20

In the introduction to her latest book, Of Cabbages and Kings, Caroline Foley sets out her stall. “The history of allotments touches on wider events and is shaped by forces that may seem unconnected to today’s allotment gardener. It is a story of greed and power, of hunger, protest and the struggle for a fairer society.”

This is a big ask for a relatively short book. The first part deals with “kings”, beginning with the feudal system established by William the Conqueror (Foley concentrates on England; different land tenure pertained in the rest of Britain). She goes on to look at the Black Death, the Peasants’ Revolt and subsequent protests, along with the inexorable spread of the enclosure movement, the process that ended rights such as cultivating arable crops on strips in open fields.

The vast range of subjects and timescale have the author swooping in and out of the centuries and, although she writes very clearly, the result can be bewildering. While considering the agricultural improvers of the 18th century, she introduces the writings of Sir Hugh Plat. His pamphlet on the setting of corn was published in the 1590s. The sense of bewilderment is exacerbated by some of the images, which have been selected for their subject matter rather than with consideration of time and place. Thus a Rowlandson drawing appears alongside a description of the medieval peasant and, most jarringly, a medieval illumination of a traitor being hanged, drawn and quartered is presented next to the penalties for Tudor itinerants. The punishments meted out to 16th-century beggars were harsh but never quite so drastic. This reader sometimes felt like Alice in Wonderland.

In the second part of the book, “cabbages” are introduced with an account of the development of the allotment movement and here the ground is firmer. The term “allotment” first appears in land allocations in the 1790s and one of the early movements for their provision was organised by aristocratic philanthropists such as Sir Thomas Bernard and the memorably named Society for Bettering the Conditions and Increasing the Comforts of the Poor. This philanthropy was nevertheless tempered by a care to try to curb the rising poor rates.

Later, in the 19th century, some of the most vociferous proponents were of humbler backgrounds, such as the pamphleteer William Cobbett and the agricultural worker-turned-MP Joseph Arch. Efforts to get government legislation for the compulsory provision of allotments by local authorities were consistently defeated until the end of the century when, as a result of the extension of the parliamentary franchise, attention had to be paid to rural labourers. Lord Onslow is quoted here as implying in 1886 that the cultivation of allotments could now be considered a leisure activity but the evidence from oral history and from social commentators such as Seebohm Rowntree suggests that, right up to the First World War, many households depended on the food they grew to survive and cases of malnourishment were reported both in the countryside and in towns.

The book comes to life with the account of allotment gardening during the First World War. “Digging for victory” during the Second World War is well-covered ground but, as Foley points out, the precedent was set three decades earlier when the government sleepwalked into a food crisis. It was only during the Christmas period of 1916-17 that Cultivation of Lands Orders were issued through the Defence of the Realm Act and land was acquired for smallholdings, market gardens and allotments, while private households were urged to turn their gardens over to vegetable cultivation. Not only was this described by one commentator as “the most drastic statute of land reform”, but it also augured a revolution as all classes of society, especially in urban areas, turned their hand to allotmenteering.

Although there were to be peaks and troughs in the taking up of plots, with a high point reached in the Second World War, the social particularity of allotment cultivation was at an end. Today, there are long waiting lists for allotments and Foley points out that the legislation concerning their provision might buckle under the pressure for land to be put up for development.

Cabbages and kings are introduced in a poem recited by Tweedledum and Tweedledee in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass. The Walrus also refers to “talk of many things”, and many things are indeed discussed in Foley’s book. She brings up a host of interesting topics but does not have the time to look into them in much depth. This is a shame, for the role that “ordinary” garden history can play is only beginning to be appreciated properly. With honourable exceptions, writers have concentrated on the artistic and botanical aspects of great gardens and this tendency is reflected in academia, where many garden history departments have been amalgamated with those of landscape and design.

One area of ongoing research – in studies carried out by Jeremy Burchardt and Jacqueline Cooper, cited by Foley – is the fascinating period before the introduction of the concept of allotments in the 17th and early 18th centuries. This was a time when many communities had not been enclosed, yet there was recognition in bequests that land should be set aside for the benefit of the poorest, either for them to work, or to rent out, with the income used in their relief.

Another area that is fertile for further digging (horticultural puns come all too easily) is urban allotments. It is clear that allotments were being cultivated, particularly in the poorer parts of London, from the mid-19th century onwards and possibly earlier. As a result of research into local archives, a picture of these is gradually emerging.

Does Foley succeed in showing the connection between allotments and the story of protest and struggle for a fairer society? Although she introduces the 19th-century Chartist movement, she does not mention that it was initially opposed to allotments because it was thought that they represented a distraction from the drive to achieve parliamentary reform. The provision of allotments was undoubtedly the direct result of the iniquities of enclosures – but their connection with the fight for equality remains to be proven. 

Margaret Willes is the author of “The Gardens of the British Working Class” (Yale University Press, £25)

This article appears in the 29 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, British jihadis fighting with Isis