NOT so very long ago countless allotments across the UK were lying unused and unloved. Back then, developers were keen to buy up empty plots from cash-strapped councils.
Our councils are still making cutbacks but, with many more of us getting the gardening bug, allotment waiting lists are growing. As BBC 2's new hit programme, The Big Allotment Challenge, proves we all seem to have re-discovered the joys, health and cash benefits of growing our own fruit and vegetables.
Here in the Black Country folk have always made maximum use of every scrap of land. Even tiny back yards found space for a few herbs or rhubarb. Those without any outdoor space scoured patches of waste ground and hedgerows for free food like blackberries, nettles, chickweed and other edible plants to supplement their diet. And, if you were lucky to have a yard or garden, you could keep a few fowl or pig and grow some fruit and veg.
Apart from wartime Dig for Victory campaigns, when back gardens, parks, playing fields and even the grounds in Buckingham Palace were turned into allotments, we've not seen such interest in growing our own since the 1970s. Back then, the popular TV series, The Good Life, helped fuel a back-to-the-land, self-sufficiency revival. Today, with austerity measures still biting and food banks a fact of life, it makes real sense to copy our forebears and make the most of available land to grow fresh produce.
Our very British love affair with allotment gardening might be said to go back more than 1,000 years, to Anglo Saxon times. In those days people cleared woodland and other land that was held in common to make fields for growing food for the community. After the Norman Conquest land ownership became more concentrated in the hands of Lords of the Manor and the Church. Increasingly, ordinary folk were excluded from planting the land for their own use. When King Henry VIII seized church and monastic lands during the Reformation, ordinary folk lost out again – as the King gave much of the land to his loyal supporters. And, during his daughter's reign, things got even worse when Queen Elizabeth I enclosed common land, previously used by the poor for keeping animals and raising crops to feed their families.
As compensation, some tenants were granted strips of land attached or near their dwellings. These were called "allotments" - and this may have been the first mention of allotments as we know them in our history. It was a small start, but nowhere near enough to keep the wolf from the door for the majority of the landless poor.
By the 17th and 18th centuries far more land was being enclosed and more people were forced to move from the countryside to seek a living in towns and cities. The nation was starting to move from subsistence level to a more industrial economy. And, with little in the way of a safety net, when the poor fell on even harder times, they could starve for want of land to grow food.
By the 19th century the pace of change had shifted dramatically. General Enclosure Acts in 1836 and 1840 allowed land owners to enclose land without consulting Parliament, as long as they had a majority in favour. Understandably, these measures were unpopular. So, to avoid the risk of civil unrest, a new General Enclosure Act was passed in 1845. This gave a bit more protection to small land owners and to the general public. In addition, land was to be set aside for allotments. The Act required that Commissioners should make provision for the landless poor in the form of "field gardens", limited to a quarter of an acre. This was the real beginning of the allotments we have today.
Originally allotments were set up in rural areas, for those dispossessed by the enclosures and for poor agricultural workers. But, as more people moved from the countryside to seek work in the towns, urban allotments were needed. Hence from 1720 onwards "town gardens" began springing up in urban areas.
At the forefront of this movement was the ever expanding city of Birmingham, with its unique "Guinea Gardens" in Edgbaston. With annual rent costing a guinea (£1 and 1shilling) these "town gardens" differed slightly from allotments in that their boundaries were marked by hedges. Each garden also had a brick-built summerhouse for renters and their families to spend weekends and holidays in this green oasis.
Throughout the second half of the 18th century an allotment movement flourished in Birmingham. Today a small remnant of the groups of detached, rented gardens that once encircled the city still remains. At one time there were more than 2,000 "town gardens", laid out on sites divided by hedges. Mostly they were tenanted by skilled artisan workers who could afford the annual rents varying between 17/6 and 30/-. This was what they paid in 1849 when most of these skilled workers were described as being "engaged in manufactures and shops".
Situated off Westbourne Road, Edgbaston, "Guinea Gardens" are next to Birmingham's Botanical Gardens. Originally they formed part of the estate of Baron Calthorpe, who had developed Edgbaston as a quality suburb. So, there was no shortage of demand for town gardens to rent.
Also, as Lord Calthorpe was a philanthropist and friend of social reformer William Wilberforce, he saw the "Guinea Gardens", in part, as a charitable venture. The leases for the plots included the value of the buildings on each plot, whether wooden or brick summerhouse, plus a wide range of shrubs and trees. Many of the gardens also contained other buildings, such as tool sheds and even privies. The gardens were highly prized and leases would be passed down through several generations of the same family. And, in the days when holidays and travel was reserved for the better off, the summerhouses were a godsend. Fitted with a stove, water supply from nearby Chad Brook and an outside loo, they made idyllic weekend and holiday retreats for the lucky tenants.
The gardens and tenants are thriving still today. With many of the original features still surviving, the site has an English Heritage Grade Two listing in its register of parks and gardens of special historic interest. There also many rare heritage apple trees, some dating back to the 17th century.
As Brum was at the forefront of the town garden movement, other towns and cities followed suit. In 1887, the Allotments and Cottage Gardens Compensation for Crops Act obliged local authorities to provide allotments if there was a demand for them. But, many authorities dug their heels in, failing to comply with the act. In 1907 the Smallholding and Allotment Act imposed responsibilities on parish, urban, district and borough councils to provide allotments. This act was revised in 1908, consolidating previous legislation and removing any anomalies.
Also by this time, the Edwardian establishment had come to view town gardens and allotments as essential tools of imposing a more genteel morality on the working classes. Allotment gardening was considered a good, wholesome and productive use of leisure time for the masses – the aim being to divert them from the demon drink and other vices. To the allotment holders themselves, the plots offered much-needed food, welcome relaxation, tranquillity and fresh air. Before long, they would become vital to the nation's survival - as we'll see next week.
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