Allotments can be traced right back to the late 1700's, and if that really interests you, which it does me, then I recommend you invest in Jeremy Burchardt's learned work The Allotment Movement In England, 1793-1873 published for the Royal Historical Society by the Boydell Press. But I warn you it does cost rather a lot.
What you immediately learn from Jeremy Burchardt's book is the difference between potato fields and allotments. Now I know that I am meant to confine the whole of this session to London, but I am just giving you a short background to our own allotment history in the capital. What Jeremy Burchardt's book quickly teaches you is to differentiate between the two types of what others might refer to as allotments. They might have looked almost the same but their cost to the working man was very different. The potato field is as it sounds, purely land rented to grow potatoes. Its cost thought was very high. The allotment on which potatoes were also grown, and must not be smaller than a quarter of an acre could be hired for as little as £1.
It would be shaped in a strip, and a whole field could be covered in strips for local labourers. It was the farmer giving something back to his and other workers. He paid all the taxes and general upkeep, although unlike the potato field, which the farmer ploughed, you had to dig your own allotment ? ? nothing much has changed.
The allotment movement began to grow through the industrial revolution for two purposes. The trade unions wanted their workers to be able to feed themselves cheaply, and with escalating unemployment the employers wanted to keep idle hands, as they saw them, busy. The employers also felt that having something extra to do kept their workforce out of the ale houses.
Jumping a century from the eighteen hundreds I discovered the beginnings of the London allotment movement were not easy. In fact they seemed to suffer from much of what we suffer today. Particularly lack of land, which produced long waiting lists.
It is strange that London might well owe its allotment beginnings to America and the cities of Philadelphia and New York.because during the last 20 years of the 1800's they had pioneered using waste land for the locals to grow their own food. And it was an American Joseph Fels, who in November 1907 started the Vacant Land Cultivation Society.
By the way there was a strong horticultural background very close to the centre of London. There were nurseries and smallholdings producing vegetables and flowers for the city dweller reaching right up to Olympia, which by all accounts was very fertile land. At one point in his autobiography William Cobbett, of Rural Rides fame, talks of buying a farm at Barn Elms, next to what is now Putney. But back to Joseph Fels and the Vacant Land Cultivation Society. A brilliant conception to link idle land with idle labour. The London part of the Society's campaign had little success faced with disinterest by officialdom, and downright opposition by landowners. Indeed by the outbreak of the 1914-18 War the London Society's plotholders numbered a mere 140. This was the position after seven years of trying to persuade landowners that idle land, converted into allotments not only gave healthy recreation to the cultivators, provided much needed food for working class families, but also improved the condition and appearance of the land itself. It was thought the War would be over quickly, and it would have no effect on the nation's food supplies.
By 1916 the number of plotholders of the London Society had grown to 800, cultivating 50 acres. But in the first week of November 1916 there was an historic meeting at the Board of Agriculture, between the Vacant Land Cultivation Society and Lord Crawford, the President and Minister of the Crown. The meeting went on for over an hour, and when the members of the London Society finally left they were excited, because they knew that the biggest drama in land reform for many generations was about to take place. And that as a result allotments were about to be provided in a large and unprecedented scale.
Two weeks later the decisions were made public. Can you imagine that ? Two weeks. It would have been leaked to The Sun within an hour if it were to happen today. The legislation was called The Cultivation of Land Orders 1916. It gave the then London County Council powers to take over waste land and create allotments. These steps had been taken because suddenly , because of the war and a blockade at sea there was a shortage of food in our cities.
But , oh dear, the London County Council didn't totally agree with the new legislation The first place they did act was at the Furzedom Estate in Tooting., where literally many hundreds of applicants had been waiting for allotments on waste land that the owners would not loan to them. The LCC did not act and there were angry meetings on the estate, as a result half the vacant land was handed over by Christmas. And the plot holders worked busily digging away through the short Christmas holiday.
Although 650 acres were applied for throughout London, only the rest of the Furzedown Estate land and two acres at Plumstead were taken over by the LCC and loaned to the Society. Even that land at Plumstead was taken back for the use of football pitches !
There was a large amount of public feeling voiced against the LCC, and this was taken up by the media. Especially the then London Evening News. Some of you here might remember that paper. London used to have three evening newspapers The Star, the Standard and the Evening News.
Under all this public pressure boroughs began to break away from the LCC. First to use the powers delegated by the Board of Agriculture was the London Borough of Wandsworth. They had requested the LCC to get them land, but been turned down, so they went straight to the Board of Agriculture, and were given the go ahead, as were several other boroughs.
To show you how acute the food shortage had now become, and how stupid the LCC were, it is worth noting that by 1917 in London people were regularly queuing to buy potatoes. So short was the supply that eating houses and hotels were forbidden to serve them except on Tuesdays and Fridays. It was the now the ever swelling army of allotment gardeners that actually ended the potato crisis ... by growing their own !
At least the terrible Great War had one beneficial effect on the working people, so many of whom had lost their lives, and that was the creation of an allotment movement. Before the War even cities like Bolton had had no allotments at all. Now they were being provided everywhere by councils buying up land. There were now over one million plots throughout England and Wales.
In London just after the First World War an annual show for allotmenteers was introduced by the London Allotments and Gardens Show Society at the New Horticultural. Hall over two days in September with trophies, cups, medals and over £100 in cash prizes as well as a suite of furniture as prizes.
In May 1929 in London the first issue of the National Allotments Journal was published. Also by then local authorities were allowed to purchase or hire land either by agreement or compulsorily., and although there were by then one million plots across Britain, it is interesting to note that in London things could go the other way, as the pressure upon space started to increase. 24 allotment holders in Plaistow, West Ham, were removed so that a road could be built through the site. And 3,000 allotment holders in Willesden were turned off their plots for building houses.
The battles continued right up to the Second World War, when once again it took a War to make the allotment movement strong again, because the nation needed householders to feed themselves. There followed Winston Churchills famous Dig For Victory campaign.
But yet again after the war interest in allotments began to wain, once rationing ended in the 50's. Allotments were certainly not part of the swinging sixties. And from more than a million and a half plots during the war the number recorded across Britain today is 250,000.
In the 90's women plotholders had increased from a mere 3 per cent to 16 per cent and rising. 35 per cent of plotholders are under the age of 50.
Now allotments are literally the flavour of the moment. All the food scares, the tasteless fruit and veg supplied out of season by the supermarkets,the increase in the interest of the health of not only ourselves but our children has all led to this. And as we see by our very presence in the GLA building today the politicians find it a good thing to be on our side.
I wrote a piece recently in the weekend section of The Times about the Acton Gardening Association and how we had at the last count, 17 different nationalities on our 100 plots. Lo and behold a few days later the phone rang and it was some 12 year old researcher from the Jeremy Vine show on Radio 2, who inquired whether I had any ethnic minority person who might be all right for their radio programme. It was the way it was put that I found patronising, however, anything to keep the allotment movement at the forefront. So on went my Barbadian treasurer John Roberts. And excellent he was too.
But don't let us be flattered. Whatever is in fashion, can become out of fashion. We must keep the pressure of awareness and publicity constant.
Let me tell you about what happened to our own association. For as long as anyone could remember, indeed one 90 year old member could remember Italian prisoners of war nearby at the end of the First World War, our plots had been on land owned in East Acton by the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths. Land given to them in the mid-1600's by John Perryn, a blacksmith from Bromyard in Herefordshire, who had come to London, made a great success, and become an alderman of the Goldsmiths.
Today three of our main sites are off Bromyard Avenue, opposite the Perryn block of flats. Suddenly four years ago the Goldsmiths decided to sell a 90 year lease on 25 acres of their land including all our plots. They sold it to the Hogarth Health club in Chiswick, whose owner Colin White had slyly lobbied the local labour candidates so that he was given planning permission to build The Park Club on part of the site. This permission was given, before anyone, least of all us, realised what was going on. The first thing I knew was when a letter arrived from the Hogarth Club giving the association three months notice on all our plots. It shook me. But it was legal.
We were on private land, and there was an agreement signed by the old boys yonks before agreeing to this form of lease. This was because they believe the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths to be honourable, which they used to be. But seemingly not any longer!
I had never been in this position before. I had little knowledge of local government and their ways. Or how to stop what looked likely to happen. After all most of my previous life I had been a sports presenter on television. But at least I was a journalist, and so I set about finding contacts, and learning what to do.
To cut things short, I found a good local lawyer, who also happened to have an allotment at the other end of the borough. And unlike the 100 year old Shepherds Bush Cricket Club, who were also brought down, losing their lovely ground, we were to survive. The cricket club refused to team up with our protests. Ruled by barristers they went their own way. Had a row with the Hogarth owners, and have been evicted.
The lawyer and myself decided to bore the White family into submission. Nearly every Wednesday we went to their boardroom in Chiswick, drank their coffee, ate their biscuits, and talked about anything but development. In the end I had a private meeting with one of the White family in a coffee house in Chiswick. He said he couldn't believbe the two enemies were metting like this. I said that the british had had secret meetings with the IRA, and that was how things are solved secretly. They gave us a new year long lease.
We lost 50 or more plots, but negotiated a Section 106 Planning Gain agreement that the rest of the plots would be protected rent free for 90 years,, and that £50,000 should be paid to Ealing Council for allotment use. That was agreed at an open planning committee meeting almost two years ago. It has yet to be signed. But they have given us new fencing, and seven new plots so we reckon it will happen eventually.
After all this I was invited to give written and personal evidence to Mayor Livingstone's Green and Open Spaces inquiry. In its final report four lines only appeared about allotments.But I continue to fight our cause at the Parks and Open Spaces organisation that came out of it.
So be aware. There are free environmental lawyers about. The Goldsmiths by the way, feeling guilty no doubt, paid our legal fees.
We remain on our guard.
But now we look forward. Allotments in London must change to reflect our new society. We have half plots, many of them requested by women. But we want to instal community gardens in a nearby run down park that serves a tower block estate. It would have a front section for families and young children, just to sit and talk, with flowers around them. The plots would be at the back, and fenced in.
Already we have gone out and supported another of our estates in their own fight to instal a sports facility and refurbish the community hall.
The allotment movement in London must be more outgoing and part of their local community. The days of Arthur in Eastenders are over. Mind you recent episodes of Coronation Street didn't do us much good when people kept on asking if I grew cannabis on my plot.
All of this is why I welcome a cross London borough allotment organisation, because we are so very different to the rest of England.