A very brief history of allotments

Roedale Valley Allotments
Photograph by Simon Tobitt
Artichoke, view of Round Hill
Photograph by Simon Tobitt

The beginnings
The notion of the allotment in the UK has its beginnings at the time of increasing industrialisation and population shift to urban environments. This arose both from a desire to enable the urban working classes to feed themselves cheaply, and to keep the ‘idle poor’ from more socially destructive activities (in Victorian parlance “degeneracy”). Both world wars acted to dramatically boost the number of allotment plots. In 1916, The Cultivation of Land Orders Act was passed. This gave local Councils legal obligation and powers to take over waste land and create allotments. By the end of the First World War, there were over one million plots throughout England and Wales, with a London allotment and garden shows (with prizes), and an allotment journal, for the growing numbers of allotmenteers.

‘Dig for Victory’
Winston Churchill’s famous ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign was a national high point for allotmenteering in the UK, with the number of plots rising to 1.5 million. As the British Isles were blockaded and many of its farm labourers were away fighting for King and Country, it was up to those at home to produce the food to feed the nation. When food rationing came to an end the allotment went through a phase of decline and neglect. Lifestyles were more affluent, and more oriented to commercialism and convenience. At the start of the twenty-first century allotment plot numbers were closer to 250,000.

Recent changes
Recently, there has been a reported upsurge in interest: concerns about diet, health and the environment have lead to greater interest in where our food comes from. The ‘make-up’ of the allotmenteer has changed also, with greater diversity in age, gender and ethnic background. Women are the fastest growing group of allotment holders, according to figures from the Allotments Regeneration Initiative. It seems the upsurge in interest is limited by capacity though. Even since the interwar years, there has been a pressure on land used, and consequently a demand to take back allotments for housing and other such developments (in Brighton & Hove for example, there is currently a proposal to build a park-and-ride car park on the allotments at Horsdean, Patcham). The Council’s obligation to provide land remains, which means providing land of a similar quality in a suitable location.

Wale, M. (2004). ‘The history of London allotments, the need for growing food in London and the role of the allotment in London’s future’.
Hughes, C. (23 July 2005) ‘Her Outdoors’.
The Guardian Weekend ‘The History of Allotments’.

Comments about this page

  • Hi Nick. Sorry to hear of the problems you’ve experienced on the village allotments. It is the Parish Council’s responsibility to look after the allotments and their borders. In the past few years they have had the lime trees lopped and others managed but if there is an ongoing problem this does need to be identified and dealt with. I will raise it at the next Parish Council meeting on 27th February or you could come along to the public session at the beginning and describe the situation for yourself. If you would rather I’d raise it then perhaps we could meet at the allotments and you can show me which trees are a problem. Many thanks for putting the posting on the web site.

    By Steve McCarthy (Parish Councillor) (28/05/2012)
  • I think each major city sees constant development as keeping ahead in the ‘global competition game’. I can imagine that in developing countries there is pressure on citizens to not question development for the sake of progress. As you obviously know, it’s very important that groups like the one you’re involved with exist to let local governments know they’re being watched. And that not all citizens agree with their development ideas. In the UK planning laws are so geared towards listening to local opinion, that we have ended up with NIMBY-ism. This in some ways has slowed down the planning process and has contributed to a housing crisis in the UK. Not enough houses being built and therefore stupidly expensive property prices. This is creating a divided nation.

    By Widya (28/05/2012)

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