Allotmentitis: How Britain Dug for Victory

Nowadays we typically associate allotments with garden hobbyists, but they were born out of a national drive for self-sufficiency.

To mark National Gardening Week (10- 16 April), Jenifer White, National Landscape Adviser at Historic England, introduces the history of allotments and their significance to our historic landscape.

Women_at_work_during_the_First_World_War_Q108033 WIKI
Women at Work during the first world war Q 108033 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums.

The U-boat blockages in the First World War created a food supply crisis, as the UK was still largely dependent on imports.   In February 1917 U-boats sunk 230 ships and the toll rose further.  By June, a shortage of potatoes led to hotels being instructed by the Government to only serve them on Tuesdays.

By the outbreak of the war, the number of allotments was estimated at just over 440,000. As well as councils, railway companies, private landowners and the Church of England also rented out allotments.

Children_on_the_Home_Front_1914-1918_Q31160
Children at work on an allotment in the grounds of their school This is photograph Q 31160 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums.

 

The U-boat blockages triggered the 1917 Cultivation of Lands Order Act , leading toa huge expansion in the number of allotments to 1.5 million.  Allotment fever, often called ‘allotmentitis’, had begun.  At the same time, allotment organisations and their federations rapidly grew too.

That the war-time allotment-holder has ‘rendered magnificent service during the past year is, incontrovertible. In no small measure he has added to the food supply at a time when a grave shortage was imminent. In a few weeks the wretched potato queues were abolished – let us hope for ever – the consumption of bread was markedly reduced, enormous quantities of meat and other foodstuffs were saved, as also were transport and labour, all of which was, and is, of inestimable advantage to the country’ 

GW Butcher (1918) Allotments for All

What is the definition of an allotment?

The role of allotments and local authorities was defined in the 1922 Act, which sets out the size of the parcel of land and its uses.  An allotment garden is described as ‘not exceeding 40 poles (approximately 200 metres) in extent which is wholly or mainly cultivated by the occupier for the production of vegetables or fruit for consumption by himself or his family’.    These local authority allotments are protected by law and any disposal has to be referred to the Secretary of State.

Can allotments be registered?

The purpose and layout of allotments means few meet the criteria of the Register of Parks & Gardens. The register was set up to record and protect ornamental and recreational landscapes, rather than productive landscapes. However, there are a few registered sites and some of the buildings associated with them are listed.

Here are a few examples of registered allotments:

Stoney Road Allotments, Coventry. Grade II* listed

Mr Lander, Stoney Road Allotments, Coventry West Midlands
Mr Lander at Stoney Road Allotments, Coventry. © Historic England Archive AA026281

The Stoney Road Allotments, also known as Park Gardens, are registered for their importance as a group of mid and late 19th century detached urban pleasure gardens. The allotments still have a group of 19th and early 20th century summerhouses.

The list entry explains the historical development of the Stoney Road Allotmnents

Hill Close Gardens, Warwick. Grade II* Listed

Hill_Close_Gardens_plot_22 By RobJN (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

The ‘detached town gardens’ at Warwick are a rare survivor from the Victoria era. Designed to be rented by tradesmen, these small hedged gardens on the edge of Victorian Warwick town provided a retreat for the families away from their busy home, workshop and yard.

You can read more on the list entry. The Hill Close website provides more information on the history of the gardens and how to visit them.

Bagthorpe Gardens, Nottingham. Grade II* listed

Bagthorpe Gardens
Aerial image EPW016317: J.B. Lewis Hosiery Factory and the Bagthorpe Water Works, Nottingham. Bagthorpe Gardens are located in the top right corner of this image. 15th July 1926, Aerofilms Collection via Britain From Above.

Bagthorpe Gardens is another example of detached town gardens. The gardens and bothies were set up in 1842 for the Nottingham lace-makers and framework knitters to help them grow food to supplement their income and to provide a break from the overcrowded city.  Originally there were 60 gardens each one quarter of an acre. More garden plots were added in about 1870.  By the 1930s many of the gardens had been built over and now only some 45% of the original gardens and a few of the bothies survive.

You can read more at the list entry.

Swindon in Bloom '95
An allotment holder at Swindon in Bloom 1995 © Historic England

Get Involved

Historic England is research and recording the story of the Home Front in the First World War.  You can help us and join in here.

The Parks & Gardens UK online database is collating records about gardening in the First Wold War.

The National Allotment Society is the leading national organisation supporting allotment holders across the UK and championing allotment gardening.

Allotments, Roundhay Leeds © Copyright Rich Tea and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.
Roundhay Allotments, Leeds © Rich Tea via Geograph

Featured Image: General view of an allotment in Swindon © Historic England Archive AA061485

Further reading

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