Allotments and Community Gardens

by Michael Smith (Veshengro)

The history of allotments dates back to at least 1066, and the feudal system established by William the Conqueror.

In those days of time gone by, the ruling gentry lorded it over their serfs who were allowed to cultivate strips of land in the open manorial fields, alongside meadow and grazing rights but field enclosures in the 1500s removed some of these rights.

A hundred-odd years later, slave-driven workers had been re-classified as peasants. As part of their meager ration, they were permitted to grow foodstuffs next to their tied cottages (known as ‘pottagers‘).

The next wave of enclosures occurred between 1760 and 1818. Open and common land was grabbed on an enormous scale and during that time, 5,000 Acts of Parliament secured seven million acres into private ownership.

A further 17 million acres were simply taken, principally by the landed gentry and yeoman farmers. Peasants were now the ‘laboring poor’ and had, more often than n ot, no access to land on which to grow fresh produce. No wonder they and their children suffered malnutrition left, right and center, and even more so the “laboring poor” in the towns and cities, where there was not even access to green space of any kind available.

Some parish and private ground was rented out to those folk for vegetable production but opposition to the needs of the workers was rife.

Consequently, land allotted for such purposes was few and far between. Where it did exist, strict rules applied. For instance, in some places gardening was prohibited on weekdays between 6am-6pm, and all day Sunday. In other words, it was hardly possible for people to actually work those plots, as in those days Saturdays also was classed as a weekday.

Laws were passed in 1845 to legally secure cheap and accessible allotments. Although the motives were arguably to keep the working classes out of the pub when not slogging away for someone else, this was a momentous change.

Allotments of a practical size for purpose became established and popular, especially in urban areas. In 1919 and 1945, immediately following the two World Wars,well over a million allotments were actively in service.

The radical societal and land-use changes since then have seen much ‘leisure garden’ space lost to development schemes and disuse, but statutory regulations demand that authorities provide these areas for use by the council tax-paying public. Modern sites are havens for people of all races, ages, genders, political persuasions and classes: individuals who seek solace in the company of the soil and what it can produce.

Enthusiasm for allotment gardening comes and goes like most fads and fashions, but is presently, at time of writing in the Fall of 2009, rather up in many places, though not all.

The first thing to do if the prospect takes your fancy is to visit your local council offices, inquire, and - more than likely – put your name on a waiting list. Depending on the mood of the day, an opportunity to get deep down and dirty may come along sooner than you think. So, be prepared for that event to take over a plot at short notice.

In the current climate of local food and food miles many people are looking to growing their own foods and we now see many gardens at houses being converted to fruit and vegetable growing and in some areas – and especially abroad, in the USA and in some places in Europe – also front lawns are being dug up for the growing of produce.

Community gardens in the USA are another aspect of this and while allotments in Britain may have a waiting list in some areas in other areas, on the other hand, there is none and you can even have, if you so wanted, more than one plot, as they go begging.

Allotment gardens and other means of food growing should and must be encouraged if we want to have food security, to some extent at least.

Much more needs to be done and people – for allotment societies and communal gardens - should be given access to derelict land and even – as it has been done in America in some towns and cities – to brown field sites where they can grow food.

We should and must take a leaf out of the book of Havana, Cuba and Cuba as a whole in the way that food security is being worked on in that island. While in Cuba it may be driven by utter necessity as they have great problem bringing in stuff from abroad it would also be good for the likes of us in Britain and the USA to go a similar route of making use of available spaces in towns and cities where to grow food locally.

Paris, in the late nineteenth century, so we understand, was entirely self-sufficient in produce from that grown within the city. Everywhere where the were free spaces there were market gardens and there were people having plots where they grew food for themselves and for sale on the markets. Even during winter the vegetable production did not come to a halt and plants were grown under large glass bells, called cloches.

Nowadays the same could be done by using polyester sheeting in the form of tunnels or in other ways. If it could be done then it can be done today. All we need is the will, the political will.

© 2009