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.
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.
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
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
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.
Bagthorpe Gardens, Nottingham. Grade II* listed
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.
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.
Featured Image: General view of an allotment in Swindon © Historic England Archive AA061485
- Historic England publiation, 2013 Urban Landscapes
- 10 Historic Landscapes and the Women who Created them – Historic England Google Arts & Culture exhibit