Allotment History -
A Brief History of Allotments in the UK
What is an Allotment?
In the UK, allotments are small parcels of land rented to individuals
usually for the purpose of growing food crops. There is no set standard
size but the most common plot is 10 rods, an ancient measurement equivalent
to 302 square yards or 253 square metres.
Allotment Land Ownership
The land itself is often owned by local government (parish or town
councils) or self managed and owned by the allotment holders through
an association. Some allotments are owned by the Church of England.
The majority of allotment sites are owned by local authorities and
may be termed 'statutory' or 'temporary' where: 'statutory' allotment
land is land of which the freehold or very long lease is vested in
the allotments authority, and which was either originally purchased
for allotments or subsequently appropriated for allotment use. 'Temporary'
allotment land is rented by an allotments authority or owned by the
authority but ultimately destined for some other use.
The designation of a local authority site as 'temporary' or 'statutory'
is particularly important since, under section 8 of the Allotments
Act 1925, a local authority must seek permission from the Secretary
of State before selling or changing the use of a 'statutory' site.
The local authority must satisfy the Secretary of State that adequate
provision has been made for allotment holders who are displaced by
the sale of the site.
Allotment Rental Costs
Rental costs vary tremendously across the country. Some pay as little
as £8.00 pa and others £80.00. Most tend to be in the
region of £20 to £40 per year often with discounts for
the unwaged, retired etc.
The history of allotments can be said to go back over a thousand
years to when the Saxons would clear a field from woodland which would
be held in common. Following the Norman conquest, land ownership became
more concentrated in the hands of the manorial lords, monasteries
and church. The reformation in the 1540s confiscated much of the church
lands but they were transferred via the crown to the lords.
In the late 1500s under Elizabeth I common lands used by the poor
for growing food and keeping animals began to be enclosed dispossessing
the poor. In compensation allotments of land were attached to tenant
cottages. This is the first mention of allotments.
Allotment History 17th to 18th Century
Land was being enclosed and more and more people began to live in
cities and large towns. This move from a subsistence economy to the
more modern industrial system was increasing the numbers of the poor
who, without the benefits of a social security system, could literally
starve for lack of food or the land on which to grow their own food.
Enclosures under the public General Enclosure Acts of 1836, 1840
By the 19th Century the pace of change had increased and the General
Enclosure Acts of 1836 and 1840 made it possible for
landowners to enclose land without reference to parliament as long
as a majority of them (in value and number) agreed to do so.
The General Enclosure Act of 1845 and later amendments attempted
to provide better protection for the interests of small
proprietors and the public. This was enacted in no
small part due to fear of civil unrest and revolt and provided for
land to be set aside for allotment use. The act required that the
Commissioners should make provision for the landless poor in the form
of "field gardens" limited
to a quarter of an acre. This was really the beginning
of allotments as we have today in the UK.
The act failed to actually provide much land for the use of the poor.
Of the 615,000 acres enclosed only around 2,200 acres were actually
to become allotments.
The urban allotment development was beginning to emerge, as evidenced
by the "guinea gardens" brought into use on the outskirts
of Birmingham by the second half of the eighteenth century. These
however gradually disappeared as the outward spread of the city led
to them being closed and the land used for building purposes.
The Allotment Act 1887
Allotments and Cottage Gardens Compensation for Crops Act 1887 obliged
local authorities to provide allotments if there was a demand for
them. The local authorities resisted complying with the act and revision
was required to strengthen the act.
Small Holdings and Allotments Act 1908
The Smallholding and Allotment Act 1907 imposed responsibilities
on parish, urban district and borough councils to provide allotments
and further legislation in 1908 consolidated previous acts and resolved
To the Victorians allotments were a productive use of time keeping
the poor away from the evils of drink and providing wholesome food
for a workforce housed in tenements and high density terraced housing
without gardens to speak of.
The Great War 1914 -1918
During the First World War Germany's blockade caused food shortages
which increased the demand for allotments. One source of land suitable
for allotments but not large enough for general agricultural use was
the land owned by railway companies. These parcels of land were often
allotted to the railway workers and this is the reason that you will
often see allotments by railway lines today.
Following the Great War there was a decrease in demand for allotments
and this, combined with increased demand for building land for housing
reduced the number of allotments.
The Second World War
Once again Britain was blockaded and food shortages the norm. The
pressure was greater than that of the First World War and even public
parks were pressed into use for food production. The famous 'Dig
for Victory' campaign exhorted and educated the public to
produce their own food and save shipping needed for war materials.
Food rationing kept the demand for allotments and home grown foods
high until the end of the war although rationing continued until 1954.
Allotment and home food production is highly productive in terms
of land use and during the war allotments were estimated to contribute
some 1.3 million tonnes from 1.4 million plots. Agricultural production
generally is more efficient in terms of labour but not in terms of
The Allotment Act 1950
The result of demands for more and more building land saw the re-establishment
of the Allotments Advisory Body which in 1949 recommended a scale
of provision of 4 acres per 1,000 head of population. This resulted
in the Allotment Act of 1950.
Decline in Allotment Numbers
Following the peak of 1,400,000 in 1943 there was a sharp decline
in allotment provision to around 500,00 in the 1970s. The decline
continued during the 1970s but at a much slower rate. During the 1970s
there was a huge upsurge in interest in self-sufficiency and home
food production epitomised by the television series The Good Life
which ran from 1975 to 1978.
The rate of decline again increased encouraged by the continuing
increase in land and housing costs, which created an incentive to
hard pressed local authorities to sell allotment land for high prices
to housing developers.
By 1996 there were around 297,000 plots available and, although
definite figures do not appear available, since then
the rate of decline appears to have decreased whilst
at the same time there has again been an upsurge
of interest in growing food crops. Concerns about
genetic modification of foodstuffs, chemical pollution
and contamination of our food and the desire for
the ultimate in freshness has seen empty plots filled
and waiting lists appear for sites that previously
had high vacancy rates.
It is possible that this increase in demand combined with a willingness
to demand provision of allotments as allowed for under statute will
see numbers rise from present levels.