Allotment Tales: Digging up the past.

  • Source: The Scotsman
  • Date: 18 December, 2004
  • Author: Antonia Swinson

In December allotmenteers can only dream, for the ground will be rock hard for weeks. So time, perhaps, for some allotment history.

The first allotments in the UK were discovered in Lands End. They originated from roughly 100BC and they are still used today. Allotment-style peasant strip farming was the norm. However, from 1000AD ? on both sides of the Border ? both the Church and people, who were rewarded by invading Normans, carved up the land. Gradually people were forced into towns.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the rise of the meat eating middle class accelerated enclosures of peasants' common land in lowland Scotland and England, with many Scots moving into northern English industrial towns. As this burgeoning urban population suffered overcrowding, disease and starvation, so social unrest grew and by the mid 19th century, government fear of French-style revolution saw England's first General Enclosures Act in 1845, which empowered Enclosures Commissioners to provide allotments for food cultivation, followed by Scotland's first Allotment Act in 1892. Allotments were therefore invented as a political safety valve, to save the landed establishment from the tumbrils.

Subsequent Allotment Acts attempted to take on foot-dragging councils and though the First World War saw allotments increase, pressure for housing in the 1920s and '30s saw so many disappear, that by the Second World War, "Digging For Victory" meant cultivating public parks. Interestingly, the vintage Home Guard potato, which I grew this year, has an extraordinary high yield, with a wonderful full flavour.

Sadly, from the 1950s to the 1990s, when the organic food movement took off, UK developers won many battles for allotment land. For example, in Edinburgh in 1906, there were 105 allotment sites, while today there are just 26.

Yet allotments remain a poignant reminder of forces that shape our lives today. For just as the UK's long hours culture is causing popular interest in lifestyles epitomised on The Good Life, prompting allotments' revival, so the high prices we pay for our homes ? and the heavy mortgages we slave for ? are directly connected to the reason behind allotments' original creation. For thanks to the land grabs, which relocated our ancestors into towns, so our expensive property market is based on an artificial land supply. In the UK, 99.9 per cent of the population live on just 8 per cent of the UK land mass, while 70 per cent of the land is owned by 0.1 per cent of the population, just 189,000 families. (Source: Who Owns Britain by Kevin Cahill, published by Canongate)

Allotments are our silent storykeepers: telling us where we came from, what we have lost, and how this island escaped revolution.

Wednesday, 24 April, 2019
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