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Allotments in the UK: a brief history

Brief history on UK allotments. What’s an allotment? And info on commons, Enclosures and Industrial Revolution, Small Holding and Allotments Acts.

Coventry allotment site

Allotments in the UK go back to Anglo-Saxon times. Growing together is an important part of UK’s history. After threats from enclosures and development, allotments encounter a rise in popularity. A new chance for eco-gardening and permaculture!

What’s an allotment?

An allotment is a leased area of land, used for growing fruit and vegetables. In some cases people grow ornamental plants on their land. Or they keep hens, rabbits or bees. The land itself is often owned by local government.

Commons

The history of allotments began over 1,000 years ago, when the Saxons cleared fields from woodland which would be shared as agricultural fields and grazing lands: the commons. In modern times, an allotment is still traditionally measured in rods, a measurement dating back to these Anglo-Saxon times.

Enclosures and Industrial Revolution

The enclosure movement began during the 16th century. The commons were claimed as private property for private use. In compensation allotments of land were attached to tenant cottages. This is the first mention of allotments.

The so called Enclosure Acts had positive and negative effects on agriculture, economy and communities. For the rural poor, the loss of common land meant they lost their self-sufficiency. Allotments were created for them, and this became official government policy in 1845.
Then came the Industrial revolution. Most allotments created after 1875 were for the benefit of urban labourers. They shoudn’t earn money from their plots, but just use it for growing their own food.

Small Holding and Allotments Acts

Several Acts of Parliament are devoted to allotments and smallholdings. The Small Holding and Allotments Act 1908 is often referred to. The SWCAA calls it one of the very few examples of genuinely benevolent legislation‘.

The act places a duty on local authorities to provide sufficient allotments, according to demand. Despite this, many allotment sites have been demolished in favour of development.
Type ‘Save our allotments’ into your search engine and you’ll find a long list of groups petitioning for support as councils threaten to destroy well-loved land. In other cases, plots have just been abandoned.
About legal opportunitites for allotmenteers: when there’s no uncultivated land left, what can a council do to meet a demand for allotments?

Growing popularity

Allotments really evolved during the First and Second World Wars. Food became scarce. Most of us know the ‘Dig for victory’ campaign, set up during WWII. In 2015 there were 300,000 council-owned allotments in Britain. Tens of thousands are in line for an allotment.

Now and then, there’s a discussion going on about the purpose of allotments: food or fun?

New initiatives in town

Food production and green experiences are coming to towns and villages in various other ways.
Across the country there is a growing network of community gardens, wildlife gardens, city farms and school farms. The positive effect of gardening on mental health is a trending topic. There’s a new awareness of ‘food miles’ and climate change which increases the demand for vegetable growing plots and green spaces.
These developments mean a new chance for eco-gardening and permaculture!

Links

Photos: Coventry allotment site, june 2018

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